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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Qatari arrest of Swiss TV journalists sparks concern about World Cup press freedom


Two Qataris hold a mock World Cup trophy as their country will host the world's biggest sporting event in 2022. (File photo)

Two Qataris hold a mock World Cup trophy as their country will host the world's biggest sporting event in 2022. (File photo)
The recent arrest in Qatar of a Swiss television crew has sparked concern about freedom of the press when the Gulf state hosts the World Cup, the world’s biggest sporting event, in 2022. The arrests have revived criticism of world soccer body FIFA’s controversial decision to award Qatar the hosting of the tournament.

The arrests are also likely to become an issue in the FIFA presidential election campaign of Mohamed Bin Hammam, the Qatari head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), who is challenging long-standing FIFA president Sepp Blatter in elections scheduled for June 1.

Swiss public broadcaster Radio Television Suisse (RTS) said it would complain to FIFA about the 13-day detention of its reporter, Christophe Cerf, and cameraman, Yvan Thorimbert. The two journalists were arrested on April 1 as they were filming a program about Qatar’s preparations for the World Cup. FIFA has so far declined to comment on the incident.

RTS said in a statement that its journalists “were grounded on Qatari soil for two weeks without receiving a clear explanation of what they were accused of.” RTS said it had been assured by the Qatari diplomatic mission in Geneva prior to the crew’s departure that the journalists would be allowed to film freely during their reporting assignment in the country.

The journalists were handcuffed and interrogated for 10 hours at police stations in Mesaieed and Wakra. A Qatari judge fined them, confiscated their equipment and prevented them from leaving the country. He also refused to issue a receipt for the payment of the fine, RTS said.

The journalists said after their release that they had been filming landscape shots in an area where filming was authorized. They said they had been two kilometres away from a sign saying “No Pictures.”
The two journalists were released as a result of the intervention of the Swiss ambassador in Qatar.

RTS head of sports Massimo Lorenzi charged, “The arbitrary conduct of the Qatari police constitutes a serious violation of press liberty.”

The incident comes at an awkward moment in Mr. Bin Hammam’s campaign to unseat Mr. Blatter, who has headed FIFA for the past 12 years. Mr. Bin Hammam’s commitment to transparency has been called into question by his failure to criticize the dismissal of scores of sportspeople in AFC member Bahrain—including four members of the island’s national soccer team—for their participation in anti-government protests.

Critics charge that Mr. Bin Hammam’s failure to comment on the dismissals as well as the detention of the Swiss journalists contrasts an April 4 entry on his blog in which he says “we need to create an environment where individuals are not reluctant to stand up for what they believe in.”

Beyond issues of political freedom, businessmen are criticizing Qatar’s preparations for the World Cup, involving billions of dollars in infrastructure contracts, as lacking clear direction and scheduling and being bogged down by red tape and bureaucratic haggling. Foreign businessmen and architects charge that the Gulf state’s construction industry as well as its supply and logistics sectors, are unable to cope with mammoth construction projects for stadiums, transportation infrastructure and housing that are on the drawing boards. Contractors fear supply bottlenecks sparked by a potential shortage of building materials and supplies if Qatar waits too long with issuing tenders.

Some contractors hope to get a more detailed insight into Qatar’s plans for World Cup 2022 in May during the Project Qatar 2011 exhibition, the Gulf state’s premier construction technology and building materials exhibition.

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