Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press in accordance with the law, but the government limited these rights. Self-censorship remained the primary obstacle to free speech and press.
Freedom of Speech: Citizens did not regularly discuss sensitive political and religious issues in public forums, but they discussed these issues in private and on social media. The law prohibits residents from criticizing the amir. Members of the majority foreign population exercised self-censorship on sensitive topics. The law penalizes by up to three years in prison damaging, removing, or performing an action that expresses hate and contempt to the country’s flag, the Gulf Cooperation Council flag, or the flag of any international organization or authority. The use of the national flag without formal permission from authorities, displaying a damaged or discolored flag, or changing the flag by adding photographs, text, or designs to it are also criminalized.
In January the amir approved new provisions in the law that increase penalties for “crimes against internal state security” as the law defines them. Public figures and international organizations criticized the wording of the amendments and associated penalties as interfering with freedom of expression. The new law criminalizes a broad range of speech and publishing activities both on and offline with penalties including up to five years’ imprisonment and a substantial fine. Amnesty International noted that the law signaled “a worrying regression from commitments made two years ago to guarantee the right to freedom of expression,” referring to the government’s 2018 accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Human Rights Watch called the new regulation “a setback for freedom of expression.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law includes restrictive procedures on the establishment of newspapers, their closure, and the confiscation of assets of a publication. The Doha Center for Media Freedom, a government-funded entity known to be vocal on press freedom issues, was closed in 2019 without official explanation.
Members of the ruling family or proprietors who enjoyed close ties to government officials owned all print media. Both private and government-owned television and radio reflected government views, although call-in shows allowed for some citizen criticism of government ministries and policies. While media generally did not criticize authorities or the country’s policies, specific ministries and even individual ministers were regular targets of criticism in print media. The government owned and partially funded the Doha-based al-Jazeera satellite television network, which carried regional, international, and theme-based programming. It also partially funded other media outlets operating in the country. Some observers and former al-Jazeera employees alleged the government influenced the content produced by that news outlet.
In July the al-Arab daily newspaper announced its closure due to financial struggles, leaving only three local Arabic-language newspapers. Local media outlets faced financial difficulty due to COVID-19 countermeasures and consequently underwent massive job cuts, making them depend primarily on the national news agency for content.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Qatar Media Corporation, the Ministry of Culture and Sports, and customs officials censored material. The government reviewed, censored, or banned foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. Journalists and publishers continued to self-censor due to political and economic pressures when reporting on government policies or material deemed denigrating to Islam, the ruling family, and relations with neighboring states.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel and slander, including “insult to dignity.” A journalist may be fined and imprisoned for one year for defamation and reporting of “false news.” The law restricts the publication of information that slanders the amir or heir apparent; defames the Abrahamic faiths or includes blasphemy; harms the national currency or the economic situation; or violates the dignity of persons, the proceedings of investigations, and prosecutions in relation to family status, and punishes violators with up to seven years’ imprisonment.
National Security: The law restricts the publication of information that could defame the state or endanger its safety, incite the overthrow of the regime or harm supreme state interests, report official secret agreements, or prejudice heads of state or disturb relations.
The maximum punishments for violations of the cybercrime law are up to three years in prison and a fine. The law prohibits any online activity that threatens the safety of the state, its general order, and its local or international peace. It also criminalizes the spread of “false news,” forces internet providers to block objectionable content, and bans the publication of personal or family information.
The law requires internet service providers to block objectionable content upon request from judicial authorities. Internet providers also are obligated to maintain long-term electronic records and traffic data, which must be made available on request by the government. The government-controlled internet service provider Ooredoo restricted the expression of views via the internet and censored the internet for political, religious, and pornographic content through a proxy server, which monitored and blocked websites, email, and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) platforms, including Skype and FaceTime. Users who believed authorities had mistakenly censored a site could request that the site be reviewed by the Ministry of Transportation and Communication for suitability; there were no reports that any websites were unblocked based on this procedure. The Supreme Judicial Council’s statistics showed that in 2019 the courts handled 595 cases related to cybercrimes, up from 104 cases in the previous year.
In June security forces summoned and interrogated a number of social media users in response to tweets critical of government entities and officials. During questioning, those called in were sometimes asked to sign pledges not to repeat such posts, upon which they were released. In other cases authorities deactivated Twitter accounts. In April internal security summoned a lawyer for posting a video criticizing policies of the Qatar Central Bank. He was charged with disrupting the public interest.
In April security authorities announced that five social media users were arrested and charged with “igniting societal strife.” Those charged were accused of making defamatory comments against certain tribes in response to the government’s public naming of individuals who violated home quarantine. At year’s end no further information was available on the progress of the investigations.
On December 9, former al-Arab columnist and social media influencer Faisal Muhamad al-Marzoqi announced that he received a final verdict from the Court of Appeal to serve three months in prison and pay a moderate fine for a tweet that he had put out criticizing some public figures. Al-Marzoqi added that the verdict stipulated a confiscation of his Twitter account.
The constitution provides for freedom of expression and scientific research. Instructors at Qatar University noted they sometimes exercised self-censorship. Instructors at foreign-based universities operating in the country, however, reported they generally enjoyed academic freedom. There were occasional government restrictions on cultural events, including bureaucratic barriers that in some cases resulted in the denial of event permits, and some groups organizing cultural events reported they exercised self-censorship. Authorities censored books, films, and internet sites for political, religious, and sexual content and for vulgar and obscene language.
In February the Qatar Foundation canceled a concert featuring the Lebanese band Mashrou Leila (Leila’s Project) hosted by Northwestern University Qatar. The cancellation came as a response to public online backlash against the organizers because of the sexual orientation of the band’s lead singer, who was openly gay.
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, but this right is restricted by law, including the General Assembly and Demonstration Law and the Associations and Private Institutions Law. Noncitizens are exempt from the constitutional protections on freedom of assembly. Organizers of public meetings must meet a number of restrictions and conditions and obtain approval from the Ministry of Interior to acquire a permit.
The constitution provides for the right to form groups, defined by the law as professional associations and private institutions, but the government significantly limited this right. In October the amir passed a new law amending articles in the Professional Association and Private Institutions law to facilitate registration, allowed meetings within an association’s mandate without requiring prior government notification and several other provisions aimed at increasing the ability of associations to operate and cooperate with likeminded organizations domestically and abroad. Despite the amendments, some stakeholders complained the changes were insufficient and multiple obstacles remained to freedom of speech, assembly, and association under local law.
Noncitizens are exempt from the constitutional protections on freedom of association. There were no reports of attempts to organize politically. There were no organized political parties, and authorities prohibited politically oriented associations. The government prohibits professional associations and private institutions from engaging in political matters or affiliating internationally. Civil society organizations must obtain approval from the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs, which may deny their establishment if it deems them a threat to the public interest. In 2019 the ministry approved the establishment of seven new associations, bringing the total number to 21 associations working under the ministry’s umbrella.
Informal organizations, such as community support groups and activity clubs, operated without registration, but they may not engage in activities deemed political.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not fully respect these rights.
In-country Movement: Restrictions on in-country movement for citizens concerned sensitive military, oil, and industrial installations. Although there was less emphasis on setting and enforcing “family-only” times at entertainment areas in Doha, several local malls and markets continued to restrict access to certain areas to foreign workers on weekends and those dressed “immodestly.”
As part of the government’s COVID-19 countermeasures, approximately 20 square miles of the Industrial Zone, home to thousands of migrant workers, was completely locked down for two months from March to May. Human rights groups expressed concerns regarding the well-being of workers who were banned from leaving the area, including individuals showing no symptoms of COVID-19, despite reports of limited availability of food and supplies.
Foreign Travel: The government prevented the travel of its citizens only when they were involved in pending court cases. Despite partial exit permit reform, domestic workers were required to obtain permission from employers to exit the country. In 2018 authorities abolished exit permit requirements for 95 percent of the workforce in the private sector, with some exceptions including domestic workers and government employees. Employers may request exit permits for the remaining 5 percent of their workforce not covered by the 2018 law but must provide an explanation to the government justifying why an employee should retain an exit permit restriction. In January the government extended the categories of individuals not required to receive exit permit permission to include government employees and domestic workers. The government retained the right to request that up to 5 percent of private-sector employees and 5 percent of expatriate public-sector employees obtain permits prior to departure. The Ministry of Interior, however, asked domestic workers to notify employers 72 hours before departure from the country. According to the Ministry of Interior, the Exit Permit Grievances Committee received 1,053 complaints from workers who were denied exit permits by their employers. The committee approved 1,039, rejected 10, and archived the remainder.
The law prohibits employers from withholding workers’ passports and penalizes employers who do so, but noncitizen community leaders and officials from labor-exporting countries stated that passport confiscation remained a widespread problem with insufficient enforcement of penalties. The Ministry of Interior fined only six individuals in 11 passport-confiscation cases during the year.
Citizenship: The law allows for the revocation of citizenship. According to statistics of the Ministry of Interior, there were 10 cases of citizenship revocations in 2019. The ministry did not clarify the reason for the revocations.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to assist refugees in other countries.
Access to Asylum: In 2018 the government passed legislation to grant political asylum status to asylum seekers, although there were no reports or official announcements confirming that anyone had received asylum through this legislation, and there were examples annually that violated the spirit of the law. The law stipulates the creation of a specialized committee within the Ministry of Interior to handle requests from asylum seekers. Once granted political asylum, the individual and his or her family are entitled to a range of free services provided by the government, including travel documents, jobs, monthly allowances, medical and educational services, and housing. Previously the government accepted such individuals as “guests” on a temporary basis. The government legally classified the small number of persons granted residence on humanitarian grounds as visitors.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition office in Doha reported approximately 60,000 Syrians were living in Doha, of whom approximately 20,000 came to Doha after the start of the civil war and had been granted repeated extensions to their residency status to allow them to remain in the country. The government provided housing and education to these de facto refugees.
Citizenship derives solely from the father, and women cannot transmit citizenship to their noncitizen spouse or children. A woman must obtain permission from authorities before marrying a foreign national but does not lose citizenship upon such a marriage. Generally the government did not approve marriage requests between Qatari women and stateless men.
The law allows long-term residents to apply for citizenship after living in the country for 25 consecutive years, but the government rarely approved citizenship applications, which were by law capped at 50 per year. Restrictions and inconsistent application of the law prevented stateless persons from acquiring citizenship. Permanent residents have the right to own property, open businesses without local partners, and receive free education and health services.
According to official statistics provided by the Ministry of Interior, there were 2,461 Bidoon–stateless Arabs residing in the country–although population statistics remained the same since 2018. Official documents do not recognize the term Bidoon but rather “individuals with temporary Qatari identification documents.” Bidoon are a stateless minority in the Gulf states, born in the country, whose families were not included as citizens at the time of the country’s independence or shortly thereafter. The Bidoon, who are afforded residency with the sponsorship of a Qatari resident, were able to register for public services such as education and health care. Bidoon, however, are unable to own property in the country and cannot travel without a visa to other Gulf Cooperation Council countries.