Tech & Communications

Doha: Media city?

by  — 12 February 2013

Since its inception Al Jazeera network’s English language television channel has garnered the attention of audiences across the globe for its objective coverage of large news stories, many of them ignored by Western outlets, winning numerous accolades and critical acclaim. However, when it comes to the development of a thriving media business sector within its own borders, Qatar still faces many challenges, argues Shehan Mashood.


United States (US) secretary of state, Hillary Clinton recently said she felt Al Jazeera offered real news, something, which channels in the US were failing at. Indeed, American cable networks have seen the media favour discussion panels over on the ground reporting, with CNN closing its investigative unit last year because it was not profitable. However, Al Jazeera has grown to become one of the most, if not the most influential media outlets in the region, and is looking to expand its reach. It provides the news from the perspective of the developing world, and not simply those that have a bearing on the foreign policies of Washington.

Al Jazeera is no doubt an organisation reflecting the kind of ambition Qatar has shown internationally in recent years. However, inside the nation that is home to the news organisation, some media experts inside the country feel that the same drive and ambition apparent in so many aspects of the country is not matched when it comes to developing the local media.

Everette E. Dennis, dean of Northwestern University in Qatar (NUQ), explains to The Edge that while there is some reference made to the media in Qatar’s 2030 National Vision, it has not been strongly enunciated.
Dennis also feels that there is a lack of cohesion among the various elements of the local media, and if they presented a more unified front they could become a stronger voice in developing a sector that has much potential to contribute to Qatar both socially and as a thriving business sector.

In fact, during a speech at a media industries forum organised by NUQ and largely driven by Dennis in late 2012 he commented passionately on the subject. “Unlike Qatar’s evident and visible commitment to such cluster economies as energy, health and medicine, education, sports, culture, tourism, meetings,” he said, “it is more difficult to see a transparent vision for media industries. It is assumed, however, that the term ‘knowledge-based industries’ does embrace general audience media and specialised media linked to economic sectors and others.”

The media industry must be seen as a genuine economic sector, Dennis explains to The Edge, adding that media development is related to economic development in that media is really a kind of information engine for all enterprises.

In addition to being a source of revenue in itself, it leads to strong synergies and increased business activity. The advertising industry, public relations and various other commercial enterprises, he adds, are what a thriving media sector can bring to Qatar. This is certainly an important component of driving economic growth particularly at the retail level, which drives much of the marketing spend.

Doha Media City?

At the forum, sentiments were expressed regarding the possibility of Qatar setting up a ‘media free zone’ akin to that of Dubai or AbuDhabi to achieve some sort of cohesion in the media sector. Some critisism of the idea centres on that fact that many international news media outlets have regional headquarters in the United Arab Emirates and would be unlikely to open offices in Doha. Dennis says this does not have to be a physical location, but could be a de facto media city. Much like the Qatar Financial Centre allowing organisations not based in their building to be registered with them, and declare their offices under QFC Authority, there is not necessarily a reason for the various media enterprises to be in physical proximity to each other, points out Dennis.

A Qatari media city does not have to be about the news, he furthers. Abu Dhabi for example he says, has a media free zone mandated with developing Arabic content. “It is important to understand what kind of growth in the media sector is possible with an expected population increase from 1.7 million to 4.5 million over a certain period, adds Dennis. “The two most important facets that will shape any media city will be the types of ownership models that are going to attract international partners and then of course the issue of freedom of expression that could not only affect journalistic content but entertainment too.”

Khalid Al Sayed is the editor in chief of The Peninsula, a Qatari daily newspaper, is however at odds with the idea of developing a media free zone in Doha, tellingThe Edge that Qatari companies should be able to reap the benefits of growth. Indeed as the population and the size of the economy grows, so too will the media sector in value, he feels, the ‘media free zone’ is something that needs to be more seriously discussed, and should only happen if Qataris agree to it. “It should be what Qataris are happy to have. What the society wants matters,” he says, adding that what is is of paramount importance is to speed up the new media law, and opining that a free zone is simply an attempt to skip this procedure.

The draft media law

The current media law in Qatar dates back to 1979. There has been much discussion about a draft law that was approved by Qatar’s Shura Council in June of last year but is still pending adoption. Numerous sources have expressed their disapproval of the draft media law, saying that it does not support press freedom in as much as some of the content regarding what constitutes a threat to national security is vague and subjective, for example.

“Qatar’s commitment to freedom of expression is only as good as its law,” commented Joe Stork, deputy director for the US-based Human Rights Watch recently, “which in this case does not meet the international standards it professes to support. Instead of supporting press freedom, this draft media law is a commitment to censorship.”

Jan Keulen is the director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF), an organisation that works towards enhancing media freedoms and promoting quality journalism in Qatar and the region. Keulen explains to The Edge that the objective of a media law for a country like Qatar should be to facilitate the development of media and media freedom. The law should also be viewed in context of the National Vision 2030 he furthers, since Qatar is moving towards a certain type of society that is spelt out in that document.

“It’s a country which has one of the most influential media companies in the world within its borders, a country which has one of the most prestigious journalism schools in Doha. It is a country that has the DCMF, a centre for advocacy and of capacity building and of reflection about the role of media. It is a country which is developing one of the best broadband systems in the world,” says Keulen. But compare this to the draft law, and there is a certain disconnect he adds, “I am not very happy with [the] law. I don’t think it’s up to the circumstances, I think Qatar deserves a more modern law.”

“Almost all media laws have problems,” furthers Dennis. “The more you try to define freedom as said by others, the less freedom you have.” In a rapidly transforming society the lines of what people feel comfortable adopting are changing so quickly that it can be difficult to settle on a law that suits everybody. The clashing forces of modernity and tradition within locals, the extreme openness westerners are accustomed to, and the conservative nature of culture and tradition prevalent in Qatar are also at odds. “So it’s not going to be the media you would have in the United States,” adds Dennis. “but it’s not the media law you would find in North Korea either. It must cater to Qatar’s needs.”

The pull from different forces in society is something Al Sayed agrees with, saying the country is in a learning curve. But as a Qatari editor, he feels that the draft law if adopted will be a welcome change from the old one of the late 1970s. “As a newspaper I should know what my boundaries and limits are,” explains Al Sayed, adding that the draft law was discussed with the editors-in-chief of local newspapers. “We were able to put in our comments,” he explains, “I feel they considered our points.”

This can been seen as a progressive move on the part of the government, as will the change of some of the penalties for transgressing from a criminal to a civil jurisdiction, explains Dennis, adding that this means a person might be fined rather than being sent to prison.

“In some ways it is good that people can’t be jailed,” agrees Shabina Khatri who co-founded the popular online news website DohaNews with her husband, and fellow journalist Omar Chatriwala. “But they also impose such steep fines on journalists that they might as well be jailed. Because if you can’t pay, you will be detained.”

New media outlets such as DohaNews which has become a popular news resource in Qatar has an eclectic mix of original, curated and crowd sourced stories that are becoming a growing format of information consumption.

Indeed, it is organisations like this, looking to develop online content pose some interesting challenges both to the proposed draft law, and content creators. Keulen thinks that technological developments will make the law obsolete even before it is passed. Putting online news outlets in the same category as newspapers subjects it to a lot of rules and exceptions, furthers Khatri. “I think this would have a chilling effect on free speech,” she says. “I really don’t know what the future will hold in terms of online content because it is really hard to regulate. The Internet is borderless.”

A viable business model

Serious restrictions on media freedom have the potential to stunt conceivable growth in the sector, but argubaly the biggest challenge facing media organisations in developing a successful business model in Qatar and other parts of the Arab world is a lack of knowledge about different kinds of media as marketing tools, as well as accurate measuring metrics such as circulation auditing.

Most media pundits here would agree that marketing mindsets seem far behind the developed world, where ‘old’ media such as newspapers and radio dominate advertising spend. This ignorance of what media is and how it can benefit firms has a direct affect on growth in the media sector overall. Advertising is driven for the most part by sale numbers, not branding nor against content. Advertisers do consider media as a vehicle that it can place content against but rather always opt for traditional mass communication, and shy away from niche publications or even newer modes of communications such as digital media. Print media is highly competitive when it comes to advertising, and newspaper is still seen as king. While online advertising is likely to grow in Qatar considering its usage, traditional media finds itself in a small and over saturated market, a sentiment with which Al Sayed agrees. 

According to a Commercial Bank report on the media sector in Qatar, newspapers benefited from the majority of advertising spending at 78.5 percent in 2011, and expect a minimal decrease in the coming few years. Globally however there is a significant shift towards digital advertising, a trend not yet reflected in the local media market.

This makes it more challenging for new media outlets such as DohaNews, which came to the fore during the tragic Villaggio fire that killed 19 people. “When the fire happened it just seemed like Qatar was lacking something like this,” says Khatri, and that is when they realised they were satisfying a demand in the market for the immediate sharing of information. Since then, both Khatri and Chatriwala have been working on DohaNews full time, and trying to figure out how to make it a sustainable business, which has not been easy she admits. The website, like others, faces the same challenges many media organisations around the world do right now, monetising content. Advertising is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind, “it is very lucrative, and we are trying to figure out how to navigate that field,” says Khatri. She does however admit that advertising alone cannot sustain them, so they are looking at innovative ways to develop multiple revenue streams. The goal she says is not to become a huge organisation, but to provide a public service.

Towards the future

If Qatar wishes to develop into the type of society outlined in its national vision, it will need more than anything a free and independent media system that is able to discuss openly the challenges it will face. “The concept of freedom of expression is easily subscribed to,” says Dennis, “but the daily application isn’t. Governments don’t like to be criticised, private interests don’t like to be criticised. They like to control the flow of information about them, so any time you have an independent media system the players lose control and that is the reality a modern society, it isn’t a bad thing. And it doesn’t have to be threatening but people need to know how to master such an approach, and it can be done.”

A UNESCO report on the impact of press freedom shows a direct correlation between the freedom of press and the gross domestic product of a nation. In its report however, it sights Qatar as an outlier, obviously bolstered by its hydrocarbon wealth contributing to GDP. However if the nation is looking towards the ideal of a knowledge based economy and the creation of a thriving private sector, what it will need is an independent media that can be backbone of a well informed society and become a thriving private sector business.

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