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Qatar Should Revise Media Law to Allow Criticism, HRW Says

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Oct. 30 (Bloomberg) -- A Qatari draft media law enshrines a double standard on free expression and the emirate’s ruler shouldn’t approve it unless penalties for criticism of Qatar or neighboring states are removed, Human Rights Watch said.

The imprisonment of Qatari poet Muhammad al-Ajami, who faces charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime,” provides further evidence of Qatar’s double standard on freedom of expression, the New York-based rights group said in an e-mailed statement today. Qatari officials have not made clear the basis for the charges against al-Ajami, who has been jailed since November 2011, the group said.

Al-Ajami had praised the wave of popular uprisings in the Arab world, including the one in Tunisia. In a poem called “Tunisian Jasmine,” he wrote “We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive coteries,” and criticized “all Arab governments” as “indiscriminate thieves,” HRW said.

Qatar is the financial backer and home base of Al Jazeera television, which has covered the Arab uprisings and been praised for contributing to the free exchange of information in the Arab world.

Human Rights Watch said the draft law would “force Qatar-based journalists to practice the self-censorship that characterizes the state of journalism” in the Persian Gulf.

‘Drop All Charges’

“If Qatar is serious about providing regional leadership on media freedom it should remove the problematic provisions from its draft media law and drop all charges against Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami that solely relate to his exercise of free speech,” said Joe Stork, the group’s deputy Middle East director.

The Shura Council, Qatar’s legislative body, approved the bill in June, and it now needs approval by Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani.

While the measure would scrap criminal penalties for media law violations, it prohibits the publication or broadcast of information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family,” according to HRW. Violators would face financial penalties of up to 1 million riyals ($275,000), it said.

To contact the reporter on this story:

Donna Abu-Nasr in Dubai at dabunasr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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