Do Qatari journalists enjoy absolute or limited freedom? What are the criteria that determine the relation between freedom and responsibility in the work of journalists? These questions, among others, were high on the agenda at a seminar organised by the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) in collaboration with the Qatar Debate on January 24 at Doha’s Grand Heritage hotel.
Panelist speakers featured eminent writers and journalists like Ahmed Sleiti, Alwatan newspaper editor-in-chief, columnist Mohamed Bin Fahed Al-Kahtani and journalist Mozah Al Malki. The three speakers are renowned for their writings which centre around the concerns of Qataris, tackled a host of burning issues and tried to come up with solutions for them. The debate was moderate by DCMF's Abdulaziz Al Aziz Al Ishaq.
The forum was attended by a large number of journalists, writers and activists in the field of media freedom. It was a good opportunity for media people in Qatar to come together to discuss issues like the existing level of freedom, Censorship and the limits of journalists' freedom were covered, as well their responsibility toward society and which comes first in their work: freedom or responsibility.
Al Kahtani: Editors-in-chief behind censorship in newspapers
Journalist and writer Mohamed Bin Fahed Al- Kahtani argues that censorship is practiced in Qatari newspapers' content and that editors-in-chief are the first to blame for it. He thinks that one reason to explain this practice is that editors-in-chief are legally responsible for what they publish.
"Often there are many constraints in the print and publication law that are stipulated in articles which are too general and vague, leading editor-in-chief to impose restrictions because he is legally responsible for what is published in the newspaper...there is censorship in the newspapers and sometimes an article is run in a newspaper and censored in another" he said.
Al Kahtani called for an end to censorship on the newspapers and allowing writers to take matters to court if their articles are not published.
Sleiti: Writer's freedom is limited by moral and social considerations
Ahmed Sleiti, Alwatan newspaper editor-in-chief, contends that a writer's freedom must be limited by social and moral rules, chief among which are social beliefs, adding that the writer bears a social and moral responsibly that must be taken into account in writing and publication.
Sleiti said that the common conception of freedom is quite equivocal because of the contradiction between the dominant values and beliefs in Arab and Islamic societies and the international appeal of human rights which is seen by many as a reference for freedom of media and freedom of expression. He also underscored the need to set rules for freedom, rules that are intimately related to the beliefs of society.
"Usually when people talk about freedom and responsibility they refer to the international appeal of human rights which in some parts of it is influenced by the atheist philosophy of existentialism....this type of freedom which allows blasphemy and same sex marriage is in contradiction with our beliefs. We do not accept blasphemy on religious grounds. To me, freedom should have moral and social limitations which the writer must take into account," Sleiti said.
He also thinks that these moral and social rules are sometimes more important than legal rules because they bear directly on the stability of society and how its values are fostered. " We must preserve moral and social values which are more important to me than legal rules given that what is at stake could affect the stability and values of society."
Al Malki: There is no contradiction between freedom and responsibility
Journalist Mozah Al Maliki pointed out that freedom is a prerequisite for the writer's creativity and that without it he will just echo what is said by others. When a writer is subjected to oppression and censorship he will not only worry about his article not to be published but will also fear the trouble it could get him into and, thus, won't come up with any creative writing.
Mozah said there is no contradiction between freedom and responsibility, stressing that "freedom is a prerequisite for creativity and responsibility channels and orients it."
Rachidi: We need a media law
Hassan Rachidi, DCMF media advisor, called for the need to write a draft law that will organise media work and help legislators know the needs of those working in the profession.
Rachidi raised the question: "which is most preferable? To wait for legislation to be passed or we take matters in our hands and develop a draft law which will help the lawmaker understand the needs of media workers."