News 18 May 2015

Qatar detains BBC journalists over report on migrant workers

• FIFA to investigate BBC allegations

• Campaign targeting FIFA sponsors launched


A BBC news team making a documentary about the condition of migrant workers has been arrested and detained in Qatar, after the makers of a German documentary investigating similar earlier were detained in similar circumstances earlier this month. FIFA has pledged to investigate the situation. “Our arrest was dramatic”, said BBC reporter Mark Lobel. “Eight cars  drove us off the road as we left the centre of Doha. The drivers, translator, cameraman and I were treated like spies and interrogated separately by security officers. Our camera and footage were seized. We were cut off from the outside world, and not allowed to make any calls. We spent two nights in a filthy prison. Intelligence officers showed us a dossier of photos, of us working and socialising in town. We had been tailed from the moment we had arrived. In handcuffs, we were hauled in front of a prosecutor. He accused us of disrespecting Qatar, and threatened to throw us in jail for more nights, to teach us a lesson. Then, just as suddenly as we had been arrested, they let us go.”

The BBC, unlike the German crew arrested earlier this month, had been invited by the Government Communications Office of the State of Qatar in a PR campaign designed to show that the conditions of migrant workers had improved. Qatar is hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and had faced widespread criticism from organisations such as Human Rights Watch for the conditions faced by migrant workers employed to build the stadiums.

The State of Qatar said that the BBC had been arrested for trespassing ahead of its organised tour of labour accommodation and villages. ‘Earlier this month the Government of the State of Qatar organised a press tour for reporters from the UK, Europe and the region that was designed to provide a better understanding of the challenges Qatar is facing – and the progress it is making – on the issue of migrant labour’, read a statement from the Government Communications Office of the State of Qatar. ‘The Government Communications Office invited a dozen reporters to see – first-hand -some sub-standard labour accommodation as well as some of the newer labour villages. We gave the reporters free rein to interview whomever they chose and to roam unaccompanied in the labour villages. In addition, we arranged a roundtable discussion and one on one interviews with the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Legacy and Delivery and the Director of Workers Welfare at Qatar Foundation.’

‘Perhaps anticipating that the Government would not provide this sort of access, the BBC crew decided to do their own site visits and interviews in the days leading up to the planned tour. In doing so, they trespassed on private property, which is against the law in Qatar just as it is in most countries. Security forces were called and the BBC crew was detained.’

‘The journalists who took part in the press tour were given an opportunity for a comprehensive look at the problems Qatar is facing, and the progress the government and the private sector are making to address those problems. They saw some of the worst labour villages, and some of the best. The BBC was meant to be part of that tour, and would have been if they had not chosen to break Qatari laws. Once the BBC reporter and his crew were released from detention, we tried to help them get the basic elements for the story they had missed. While the full program could not be duplicated, a separate one-on-one interview with the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare was arranged and they were able to tour a modern labour village.’

‘We hope it is clear from this detailed account that the problems that the BBC reporter and his crew experienced could have been avoided if they had chosen to join the other journalists on the press tour. They would have been able to visit – in broad daylight –the very camps they tried to break into at night. Reporters from the Associated Press, AFP, The Guardian and Le Monde have filed stories on what they saw and heard in Qatar, and we invite interested readers to review their reports, which are available on-line.’

‘By trespassing on private property and running afoul of Qatari laws, the BBC reporter made himself the story. We sincerely hope that this was not his intention. Moreover, we deeply regret that he was unable to report the real story, which is that the government and the private sector are making significant progress in efforts to improve the lives and the labour conditions of guest workers in Qatar.’

The statement echoes one issued after Florian Bauer, a sports reporter for German public broadcasters ARD and WRD, was arrested and detained at the end of March. The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy of the 2022 FIFA World Cup blamed Bauer for not understanding that ‘filming in specific locations without permission runs the risk of legal repercussions’.

“We are currently seeking clarity from the Qatari authorities of the situation that the BBC has contacted us about”, a FIFA spokesperson told the Sports Integrity Initiative. “Any instance relating to an apparent restriction of press freedom is of concern to FIFA and will be looked into with the seriousness it deserves. Speaking generally, FIFA fully respects the freedom of the press and believes the freedom of movement for journalists is of utmost importance. Editorial independence in the coverage of FIFA events has been, and continues to be guaranteed and this principle is for example enshrined in our media accreditation terms and conditions for the respective competitions. At the same time, the general rules of the respective host countries should be respected by media when it comes to filming and gaining the necessary permissions.”

The International Trade Union Confederation, backed by sportswear brand Skins, today launched a campaign to target FIFA’s sponsors in order to challenge alleged human rights abuses in Qatar. Each FIFA sponsor has also been asked to support the establishment of an independent FIFA reform commission.

In February 2014, the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy of the 2022 FIFA World Cup published new Workers’ Welfare Standards. This was designed to ensure that migrant construction workers employed in connection with the construction of facilities for the Qatar 2022 World Cup were paid every month, and set limited entitlements for workers to terminate their contracts.

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