qatarperegrine: (Default)
"If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you're in favor of freedom of speech, that means you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise."

-Noam Chomsky

Although Wikipedia defines "freedom of speech" as "the freedom to speak without censorship and/or limitation," in reality every country puts some limitations on freedom of speech. But what limits are appropriate? How many restrictions can free expression have and still be considered free? If you're drawing a line between countries that let you say pretty much anything and countries that let you only say what the leaders like to hear, where should that line be drawn?

In the United States, which I understand has some of the strongest protections of free speech in the world, it's illegal:
  • to threaten someone's physical safety1 or blackmail them.2
  • to intentionally incite "imminent lawless action" such as a riot.3
  • to publish instructions on how to build a WMD with the intention that it actually be used.4
  • to commit perjury, i.e., lie under oath in court or the equivalent.5
  • to produce, sell or possess child pornography.6
  • to broadcast pornography or obscenities on free-to-air TV or radio (punishable by fine only).7
  • (in some states) to maliciously defame someone's character with information you know to be false.8
Some other forms of speech, like copyright violation and libel & slander sit on the line between criminal offenses and actions that put you at risk of civil lawsuit, but are usually prosecuted in the latter category. Besides those things, you can pretty much say anything you want, including (contrary to popular opinion) shouting fire in a crowded theater,3 burning the US flag,9 calling for racial violence,3 and even advocating the violent overthrow of the US government10 as long as it's not in the form of "hey guys, let's go blow up the Capitol on Thursday."11

Here in Qatar, while the Constitution guarantees "freedom of expression ... according to the conditions and circumstances to be stipulated by the law," the limits to free speech are much more numerous. I don't know what they are, since I have no way to read the Qatari criminal code, except for the Press & Publication Law of 1979, which is bizarrely still in effect though largely unpoliced. For starters, though, it appears to be illegal:
  • to insult people, in public or private.12
  • to swear or make obscene gestures.13
  • to spread rumors, even if you believe they're true.14
  • to access websites deemed offensive to local religion, culture, or political interests (is this a criminal offense, or do they just try to prevent you from doing it?)15
  • to use the Internet to "disturb, irritate or offend."16
  • to blaspheme or insult a prophet of Islam.17
  • to deliver a khutbah (Muslim sermon) that hasn't been vetted by the government."18
  • (if you are not Muslim) to worship publicly, to proselytize, to import or distribute religious literature, or to possess materials that support or promote missionary activity.18
  • to hold a political protest or to form a political party.19
  • "to criticize the person of the Emir of the State of Qatar."20
  • to publish anything that might:
    • "provok[e] the overthrowing of the regime,"
    • harm government interests or the interests of its "friend countries,"
    • harm the currency or economy,
    • incite the committing of crimes,
    • "diffus[e] rancor,"
    • damage anyone's reputation or wealth,
    • or "challenge ... the work of a public official" unless for "protection of the public interest."20
  • to publish "any matter in contradiction to ethics."20
  • to publish, without prior approval, any information about the military, international agreements, criminal investigations, or banking news (!), quotes from the emir, or anything the Minister of Information [an office which no longer exists] tells you not to.20

For me, the line between "free" and "not free" is somewhere between the US and Qatar. For many of our students, the line between "free" and "not free" is somewhere between Qatar and, say, Burma. I think they would probably say (but would like to hear from them in comments!) that it's best to have a country where you can voice your opinion and be critical, but not be insulting to others. I think, on the other hand, that it's dangerous to let the government decide what it thinks is insulting.

So how do you decide how many restrictions are too many? Which of the above restrictions seem like justifiable protections of public well-being, and which seem like they stifle basic human freedoms?

This is not a rhetorical question. :-)

Footnotes here )
qatarperegrine: (Default)
Insulting email, SMS can land you in prison
Web posted at: 1/31/2010 6:53:32

DOHA: Giving vent to your anger through email or SMS can land you in jail, so better exercise restraint and switch off your mobile and laptop immediately if you are upset with someone.

At least two persons, both of them expatriates, have paid a huge price for sending abusive SMS and email to people they were angry with.

Both the cases went to court and while one walked away being fined QR1,000, the other case is still being heard. According to lawyers, it is obviously easy for a recipient of a hate or abusive or defamatory mail or SMS to make a case as the written word is the proof. Qatari laws have incorporated provisions to punish insulting SMS and emails and punishment can be jail up to three years or fine up to QR10,000 or both for insulting someone in public.

Abusive private SMS and emails, on the other hand, can attract jail terms up to three months and or fine up to QR1,000.

I've lived in Qatar 5.5 years, and I had no idea there was an actual law against insulting people.

Qatar has certainly advocated a middle road when it comes to freedom of speech -- a balance between freedom and responsibility. The Constitution, for example, assures "freedom of expression ... according to the conditions and circumstances to be stipulated by the law," which I find an interesting approach, since I always thought the point of protecting rights in a Constitution was so they couldn't be eroded by statutory law.

However, unless "insult" is somehow a tragic mistranslation of "threaten with imminent bodily harm," it's hard to imagine how such a law could ever be reconciled with any level of freedom of speech.
qatarperegrine: (piss christ)
Mr. Q over at posted an Al Jazeera story on some local workers not getting paid:

It's cheering to see Al Jazeera pointing out injustices here in Qatar, and not just in neighboring states (even if they do it in an appalling surfer dude accent).

In more chilling news, the Shura Council just called for more stringent punishment for "Qatar-based journalists who write against the ruler, national security, religion and the Constitution," on the grounds that "Qatar’s social and religious values must be preserved at any cost." Very disappointing. The Peninsula almost immediately posted a rebuttal editorial.

I myself think that the Advisory Council should be "stringently punished" for defying the stated emir's desire for press freedom. They're defaming the Qatari Constitution!

Percentage of the world's population who enjoy freedom of the press, according to
Less flippantly, freedom of the press is one of the Western values I have most come to appreciate and cherish through living somewhere where it is still a work in progress. If people can't talk openly about what's going well and poorly, how on earth can they improve their society? If people can't question each other's political and religious views, even in potentially offensive ways, how can any of us learn and grow and think and change our minds?

We take for granted in the U.S. that I can say "Bush is a stupid, idiot hick" or "Obama is a smug, smarmy elitist," and while I'll definitely offend somebody, I won't get prosecuted for it. I can insult your religious views and you can insult mine, and the conversation will no doubt get heated and we'll all hate each other at the end, but nobody will end up in jail.

We don't appreciate that as much as we should.
qatarperegrine: (UNCHR)
Amnesty International just released their 2009 human rights report. Their writeup of Qatar is here.

Their slant is odd to me. The report devotes more room to specific citizenship issues than to worker rights, when workers rights abuses affect many more people much more severely. (And if they want to talk about citizenship, why not mention unfair laws that deny citizenship to children of Qatari mothers and non-Qatari fathers? That seems more egregious than stripping someone of his citizenship for an attempted coup.)

Also their population estimate is off by, like, a factor of two. Bizarre. I love Amnesty International, but shouldn't they do better research than that?
qatarperegrine: (UNCHR)
While I was in Oman this weekend (more on that later), Qatar passed a new sponsorship law! It is Law No. 4 of 2009, ratified on Thursday by the Heir Apparent. It goes into effect immediately.

The new law certainly doesn't go as far as I'd like -- the exit visa system is maintained -- but a number of significant flaws in the old system have been fixed.

The main points, courtesy of the Peninsula (here and here):

  • Sponsors can no longer keep workers' passports!!!

  • Female expats can now sponsor their families to live in Qatar. Likewise, Qatari women married to non-Qatari men can now sponsor their families to live in Qatar.

  • The Peninsula says "Workers are allowed to sponsor their wives and sons up to 25 years of age and unmarried daughters of any age." I'm unclear whether they're saying that the income requirement to sponsor a family has been lifted -- can ANY worker sponsor his family now?

  • There are now alternate procedures to get an exit permit if your sponsor won't give you one, is out of the country, disappears or dies: you can either get someone here to "stand guarantee" for you (what does that mean?) or get a certificate from the courts that you're not wanted for anything.

  • The Ministry of the Interior now has more clearly defined authority to transfer sponsorship, even in some cases against the will of the sponsor.

  • Those of us with residence permits can now stay out of the country for more than 6 months without losing them.

  • Expat workers who leave a job in Qatar can't come back to work in Qatar for another two years, unless the first employer gives them a release. (In effect, this means that workers can't switch jobs simply by leaving the country and coming back again.) That goes up to four years if the first employer terminated them for something serious.

  • There are now clearly defined punishments for things like employing someone else's sponsee, overstaying a visa, etc.
qatarperegrine: (Default)
The spokesman for the Ministry of Labor just announced that, during surprise labor camp inspections, his own company was found to have some labor law minor violations.

On the whole this seems like a very good thing -- they seem to be inspecting their own, and making the results public. (One could still be cynical about this, of course.)

In other news, I was listening to "Love the One You're With" the other day and realized that I've always parsed the line "There's a rose in a fisted glove" as "There's a rose in a gloved fist." But it's not a gloved fist, it's a fisted glove. What on earth is a fisted glove? (No ecchi explanations please.) Do you suppose they meant gloved fist and just switched the words to make it rhyme, or is it supposed to mean something else entirely?
qatarperegrine: (Default)
There was a crackdown on single men in public places during the Eid holiday, including the use of police violence to keep Asian workers out of public areas. Eid mubarak, Indian laborers! So much for Ramadan reminding us of the brotherhood of man!

When we moved to Qatar four years ago, a couple malls had family-only days. It irked me, but it seemed not entirely unreasonable for a commercial establishment to set rules about who they let in and keep out. Since the summer, though, the souqs and even the Corniche (a public park!) are also family-only on Fridays, which means that now the Internal Security Force is in the business of enforcing segregation in public areas. That bothers me a lot more.

And now this. Someone (who?) decided to declare the entire Eid holiday family-only, leaving around half a million workers with nowhere to go on their three days off. (Apparently they ended up milling around Grand Hamad Street, the zoo, hypermarkets and local parks.) When workers did did try to get into off-limits areas, police officers used physical force to keep them away.

People are very open about the racist roots of the "family only" policy, which is in practice a "no South Asians" policy. As the security manager at Villaggio Mall put it:

"'It is a matter of the mall's honour. We are not allowing people in from the Industrial Area or those dressed in plastic slippers and wearing shorts. They do not have money to spend in the fashionable shops and if they do have money, they will spend it in Carrefour [Americans: think "WalMart"]. Groups of these people tend to create trouble.' ... Asked why western residents were allowed in, as well as nationals and other Arabs -- a few were spotted entering without hindrance in shorts and slippers -- he said nothing could be done about single Qataris being allowed in. As for westerners, he said: 'Westerners are good and will spend money.'"

Opinions expressed in the media are mixed. One local politician said that there is "absolutely no discrimination" against Asians, and that workers "should go to areas which have been set aside for them" because they "can embarrass families and women." Another politician called for "bachelor-only days" so that workers could also use public areas separately, an idea that the Indian ambassador embraced. Some even disagreed outright, saying "It is not human and is a sort of discrimination. Just because people are living far away from their families doesn’t mean that we have the right to separate them from society." A Qatari blogger I follow was even more vocal in opposition, while denying that Qataris are exempt.

The silver lining here is that the newspapers are reporting this at all. Never before have I seen a Qatari newspaper broach the issue of police violence against laborers, though I know of other cases where it was used. I'm trying to remind myself that it's good this is being discussed -- but mostly I'm just incensed.
qatarperegrine: (Default)
According to today's Pensinsula headline -- Housewives quiver as blue-collar workforce pitches tents in al Wakra -- local women are reporting they are unable to leave the house because there are poor people out there. Oh noes!

In all seriousness, the burgeoning migrant labor population is a big issue. Yesterday's Peninsula rather astonishingly reported that Qatar had 18% population growth in the first half of this year, which would represent an influx of nearly a quarter million workers in the course of six months. How do you accommodate a quarter million new people? Either you cram even more of them into already-crowded labor camps, or you expand worker accomodations into other areas, like the unlucky one in Al Wakra. Or both.

Then, of course, there's the question of what to do with your million-plus migrant laborers during their day off. It turns out that after you ban them from the normal gathering places, other, less reputable gathering places spring up.

Relatedly, CMU is holding a small conference on issues of migrant labor, so I'll be spending part of my week at that. On Tuesday, our undergraduate research project will be presenting some preliminary findings from our survey of low-paid laborers. Exciting times!
qatarperegrine: (Default)
A new sponsorship law has been kicking around for some months. Apparently, this week the Advisory Council sent the draft back to committee for some changes.

The draft would allow residents to bring their relatives into the country, which currently is only possible for high-paid residents; the Advisory Council says they should only be allowed to bring a few relatives (spouses and children). The draft would let workers keep their own passports; the Advisory Council is "apprehensi[ve]."

It's nice to at least hear what's on the table.
qatarperegrine: (Default)
Police officers physically barred workers from entering souqs and the Corniche on Friday, citing that it was "family day." Normally Doha maintains the polite fiction that "family day" at a mall means that no single men are allowed, but one policeman interviewed was more forthright: "Every Friday we come here to stop the labourers accessing this area. No Nepalese are allowed." An editorial by a white dude confirmed that single white men magically count as families.

Links from Peaceful Muslimah, who is charitable enough to see these articles as a good sign, in that the media is at least broaching the topic.
qatarperegrine: (Default)
Qatar's Labor Law, as we all know, does not apply to domestic workers (maids, nannies, drivers, etc.). This is because servants are not traditionally viewed as laborers at all, but rather as "part of the family", which is actually completely accurate if the family in question involves singing mice and coaches made out of pumpkins. To date there are, in fact, no real laws governing what people can and can't do to their domestic help, besides the obvious ones of, you know, not murdering and raping them and stuff -- and, let's face it, Qatar doesn't have a great track record of enforcing those laws.

(I shouldn't be so cynical: not all families mistreat their servants. The real problem is that they can, and there are absolutely no consequences when they do.)

Yesterday Al Arab newspaper published a draft of the brand-spanking-new draft law that will inshallah cover domestic workers in the near future. I can't read it because it's in Arabic and not online, but The Peninsula says it puts forth such novel ideas as that maids should be paid every month and provided with health care when sick. Groundbreaking stuff! The Gulf Times adds that sponsors have to pay for the domestics' visas, and for airfare every other year for the domestics to visit home. Don't get too carried away there, Labor Ministry!

There was I expecting that, like, working hours would be limited to 16 per day, or something. Silly Marjorie.
qatarperegrine: (Default)
A woman was just sentenced to death in Qatar for murdering her maid last year. I don't remember if I reported on the death at the time, but it was a gruesome one: one of the maid's fingernails had been removed, and then she was beaten to death with a hot iron.

I do not support the death penalty under any circumstances, but I have to confess that a small part of me is glad to see the Qatari courts taking maid abuse seriously for a change.
qatarperegrine: (Default)
In Qatar, the 80% of the population who are not Qatari are here on the whim of our employers. Our employers sponsor our stay in the country, and thus we can neither change jobs nor leave the country without their permission. Lately there has been much discussion of reforming this system, in order to disregard internationally acknowledged human rights standards a little less flagrantly.

Yesterday, the vice-chair of the chamber of commerce spoke out against the inevitable reforms. He maintains that giving workers the right to change jobs will result in "chaos" for the state of Qatar.

He also rejects the idea of allowing people to leave the country without their employer's permission. As the newspaper put it, "with the electronic system now in place, one can get an exit permit within 30 seconds, so what’s all this fuss about, Al Emadi told The Peninsula."

What is all the fuss, indeed.

"Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."
-Article 13, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

"Everyone has the right to ... free choice of employment...."
-Article 23, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
qatarperegrine: (Default)
I spent part of yesterday evening reading Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia, a publication of Human Rights Watch. So far I've only read the section on women workers, which was extremely depressing. Also, every single word of it could have been written about Qatar.

Another interesting issue I've heard discussed recently is the responsibility of the workers' home countries to ensure their rights. Clearly, the governments of Nepal, India and Sri Lanka (for example) must know that their citizens are frequently exploited when they come here. Some countries have responded; for example, after some high-profile abuse cases a few years ago, Indonesia banned its female citizens from taking housemaid jobs in the Gulf. However, most countries fail address the problems, possibly because they feel so dependent on the income their expat citizens make. A HRW publication on Sri Lankan workers discusses this in detail:
Labor migration is extremely lucrative for Sri Lanka. In 2006, Sri Lanka’s mobile labor force brought in US$2.33 billion in remittances—more than 9 percent of the gross domestic product and US$526 million more than the country received in foreign aid and foreign direct investment combined. Remittances are now a greater source of revenue than tea exports, Sri Lanka's second most important commodity export (after apparel). Labor migration relieves unemployment in Sri Lanka and serves as a crucial source of foreign exchange for the island.

Because remittances are critical to the Sri Lankan government's strategy for poverty reduction and lowering its trade deficit, the government actively pursues a policy of foreign employment promotion. Despite recent reforms, described below, these policies often lack a human element, treating migrant women as an export commodity marketed to wealthy, oil-producing countries where demand is high, yet falling short on human rights protections. Migrants' rights groups in Sri Lanka have referred to the Sri Lankan government's approach to its migrant workers as the "commodity supply approach," characterized by the formula "select, train, pack, insure, and export," with the imperative to protect workers noticeably absent.

The ironic thing is that the governments of these countries have a lot more power than they exercise, since the Gulf economies are so entirely dependent on their laborers.

Edit: Relatedly, India and Qatar just modified their bilateral labor agreement to provide more protections for workers. Yay!
qatarperegrine: (niqab)
Housemaids are probably the most frequently victimized members of Qatari society; since they're not covered by Qatari labor law, they have virtually no rights and no recourse to the court system. Statistics don't exist, but anecdotal evidence suggests that housemaid abuse is insidious. For example, maids are routinely imprisoned in the houses in which they work, to the extent that many people don't even think of this as imprisonment. In other cases, though, the abuse is shockingly violent. [More info here; thanks, anonymous contributor.]

What I'd never considered, though, was the case of Qataris living abroad. The ACLU has just accused the United States of violating human rights conventions because diplomatic immunity allows foreign diplomats in the U.S. to abuse their housemaids with impunity. One of the six housemaids they are representing works for a Qatari diplomat.

The ACLU's summary of abuses reflects the situation here in Qatar, too:
The abuses suffered by the petitioners while employed by diplomats include extreme wage and hour violations with no vacation, free time or holidays; virtual imprisonment in the homes of their employers with no ability to communicate with the outside world; passport deprivation; physical and emotional abuse; and invasion of privacy.
(Thanks to Nigel over on QatarLiving for the heads-up.)

My final news story of the day is one that has been getting press in the U.S.: a Saudi woman who was gang-raped while meeting with a male friend has been sentenced to 200 lashes for meeting with a man in the first place, and then for talking to the media about the rape case. ... I guess Qatar's human rights situation could be worse. Sigh.
qatarperegrine: (UNCHR)
  • Qatar is poised to pass a law banning human trafficking.

  • The National Human Rights Committee has responded to the Minister of the Interior's earlier claim that he can deport people at will. The NHRC contends that this right resides with the emir, not with the minister. It also argues that it is discriminatory not to give Qatari citizenship to children with Qatari mothers and non-Qatari fathers. Go NHRC!

  • The same article mentions at the bottom that the long-anticipated reforms of the sponsorship law will include provisions for changing workers' sponsor. This is an important change. Currently, there is no good way for non-Qataris to change jobs. Our visas are tied to our employers, and unless a worker's employer is willing to transfer him or her to another sponsor, the worker cannot change jobs. This means that if the sponsor abandons a worker or grossly fails to meet their contractual obligations (as happens so often), the worker is stuck. It sounds like the reforms might offer a way out to abandoned workers.
And, speaking of abandoned workers, a friend of mine has started a blog to give voice to some of those workers, as well as to report on his efforts to help other abandoned workers. The blog is and it's well worth a read.
qatarperegrine: (UNCHR)
Today's Peninsula reports some cheery news about human rights for expat workers in Qatar:
Additionally, the National Human Rights Commission is asking the juvenile detention facility to stop surveilling the kids' rooms. (As an aside, why are kids age 7-12 in a reformatory in the first place? That seems a little young!)
qatarperegrine: (UNCHR)
The good
According to yesterday's Peninsula, the National Human Rights Committee is moving towards autonomy; government representatives on the committee will no longer have voting rights.

The bad
Last weekend, my friend and I met again with Gokul, who ran a safehouse for abandoned workers until it was raided by the Criminal Investigation Division in August. Fifty-four of the 58 men living there -- who had been abandoned by their sponsors and were thus in legal limbo -- were shipped off to the deportation center, which is effectively a debtor's prison where people are kept until they can raise the funds for a plane ticket home. That's right, Qatar doesn't actually deport people; it just imprisons them until they can deport themselves. Nice.

Gokul, the Nepalese embassy and some churches have raised money for 22 of the workers to fly back to Nepal, but as of last weekend, another 32 were still in the deportation center.

The ugly
On Tuesday, my friend got an e-mail from Gokul saying that one of the remaining 32 workers in the deportation center had died. He doesn't know how or why. But somewhere in Nepal is a family that sent its son off to a wealthy country to earn some money, and instead he was cheated and imprisoned and now is dead.
qatarperegrine: (ramadan)
  • The National Human Rights Committee is expecting a change in the sponsorship system. This was discussed publicly a few months ago, but I never heard anything after one prominent minister dissed the plan, so I'm very pleased to hear it's still on track.

  • The Industrial Area in Doha is apparently a "hotbed of crime": "[C]rimes which are flourishing there are alcohol consumption, and adultery. Murder and rapes also take place." I'm glad we have our priorities straight. Alcohol consumption! Adultery!! And, oh yeah, some murder and rape and stuff.

  • My friend Qatar Cat, who recently moved to Dubai, was just escorted out of a mall by police officers after absentmindedly drinking out of a drinking fountain during daylight hours. Public eating and drinking during Ramadan is banned here in Qatar, too, though I've never heard of anyone getting in trouble for failing to fast.
qatarperegrine: (Default)


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