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Guess who threw a party celebrating the free press

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Lia Kvatum

The marble-lined, three-tiered atrium at the United States Institute of Peace was abuzz. It was about 9 the night before the White House correspondents’ dinner in April, and I was at one of the pre-parties taking place around Washington.

There were about a half-dozen bars proffering free booze, and some buffet tables stocked with finger foods. Music thrummed at an earsplitting level from a DJ tower in the middle of the floor: Prince, the Backstreet Boys, an uncensored version of G-Eazy’s No Limit.

The invite-only party was co-hosted by the Washington Diplomat, a monthly newspaper that serves the diplomatic community. The cosponsors were the DC United football team and Long & Foster Real Estate. But it was another cohost that seemed like a particularly odd fit: the Government of Qatar.

The invitation to the party had billed the event as a way to “celebrate the importance of media freedom and integrity, both nationally and internationally”. How, I wondered, did journalists feel about attending a party celebrating press freedom co-hosted by a country where the press, and the populace at large, are not even close to being free?

So I set out to find reporters to talk to. “Are you a journalist?” I asked one young guy in a grey suit leaning against a cocktail table. It turned out he wasn’t a reporter, but I asked him about Qatar and press freedom anyway. He looked at me blankly. “I have no comment about that,” he said, and excused himself, saying he needed to get a drink.

I kept going, watching people’s expressions harden. Their reactions were not surprising, really. No one likes having their motivations challenged.

I approached another guy, who told me he was a realtor. He said he attends events such as these frequently: “I like to practise talking to rich people,” he joked. All kidding aside, though, he said: “I don’t think it should be that way. I certainly wouldn’t want my country to be that way.”

Two people, who identified themselves as Washington Post journalists, said before I could ask a question that they couldn’t talk to me. They then sicked me on a Politico journalist who said: “I’m sure there are more qualified people here to answer that”, before making a break for it.

Anna Gewel, managing editor at the Washington Diplomat, emphasised that these kinds of events do not influence the Diplomat’s journalism. “We’ve really prided ourselves on our strict separation of church and state, so to speak, over the last 25 years and the independence and integrity of our editorial content,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Qatar was not an original cohost, but came on board after the 2018 cohost, Britain, pulled out at the last minute. The Brits cancelled “for various reasons, including Brexit and just logistical difficulties”, explained Gewel. (The British Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.) And so the publication partnered with Qatar instead. When I asked Gewel about the Diplomat’s decision to do so, she replied that the publication recognises there are political connotations to partnering with certain countries. But, she said, they try to work with as many embassies as possible, given that the paper is for the diplomatic community.

Jassim Bin Mansour al-Thani, media attaché for the Qatari Embassy, said this was the first correspondents’ dinner event the country had hosted. “In all instances our co-hosting is dependent on the cause,” he said in an e-mail. As for whether the cause in this case is inconsistent with the Government’s treatment of the media at home, al-Thani said: “Qatar treats media in Qatar and around the world with respect” and “believes firmly in a strong, fair, and independent press”.

He pointed out that the country hosts Al Jazeera, which is renowned for its aggressive reporting, much to the irritation of Qatar’s neighbours. Indeed, shutting down Al Jazeera is among the demands Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have made to end their two-year-old blockade of Qatar.

Inside Qatar, however, Al Jazeera and other local media offer a “very limited” amount of critical reporting, says Sabrina Bennoui, from Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East bureau. Doha News, an online publication, operated freely for seven years, looking at issues in Qatar with a critical lens. But in 2016, the Government blocked the site inside the country.

The Doha Centre for Media Freedom, which was founded more than a decade ago by Qatar’s emir, shuttered abruptly on April 16, ten days before the party in Washington. The country, according to Reporters Without Borders, has a “draconian system of censorship”.

Al-Thani said Doha News was suspended temporarily for failing to “comply with local business registration requirements” and is now operational again. He said that, while the Doha Centre is closed, Qatar continues to “invest heavily in initiatives to protect journalists and promote media freedom”, and legislation to protect media from censorship is “in its final stages”.

Journalists in Qatar have been arrested, including a BBC reporter who was briefly detained in 2015 while reporting on migrant workers. Such workers make up about 95 per cent of the nation’s labour force but have almost no rights in Qatar, according to Human Rights Watch. (Al-Thani said the Government had invited journalists to see worker housing and gave them “free rein to interview whomever they chose”. He said the BBC reporter made site visits on his own and was detained for trespassing on private property.)

Qatar is “not the most oppressive regime in the world”, explains Sarah Repucci, senior director of research and analysis at Freedom House, a pro-democracy independent watchdog group, “but it is very repressive, and that’s not to be taken lightly”. Overall, the group labels the country “not free”.

Almost none of the people I approached at the party knew about Qatar’s treatment of the media. As the night wore on, I spoke to a guy who said he was a World Bank economist. He didn’t think it was that big a deal to be at an event celebrating press freedom thrown by a country that restricts it. But his companion said she found it troubling that authoritarian countries such as Qatar could throw parties celebrating journalism in places such as the United States.

“They’re buying an image. It’s not right,” she said. Then she asked that I not use her name because she is Russian and feared retribution if the Government found out she had spoken this way.

By about 1am, the party was winding down. A promised appearance by Lisa Vanderpump, star of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, had failed to materialise, although two other “housewives”, from the Potomac and New York shows, had dropped by.

Now, bartenders were packing up. The music still thrummed. A few diehards continued to dance, oblivious to a man manoeuvring a mop across the floor.

Lia Kvatum is a freelance writer and researcher based in Washington

Open air: Qatar will be welcoming the world in 2022 as the first Arab nation to host the football World Cup but it still has a way to go on press freedoms (Photograph by Kamran Jebreili/AP)