Qatar seemed to be moving in two directions this weekend: A blogger and conservative human-rights activist, Sultan al-Khalaifi, was arrested by Qatari security forces and was being kept incommunicado, according to Amnesty International. Meanwhile, the country’s main English-language paper, The Peninsula, published—and felt at liberty to publish—strong and specific criticism of the country’s media in “A crippled fourth estate.”
Further, Al Jazeera, which generally has not pursued criticism of the Qatari government, ran a story about al-Khalaifi’s detention on their English-language site.
Al-Khalaifi was not a particularly active blogger, and Guardian journalist Brian Whitaker suggests that the Qatari national was more likely arrested for his political activities. Still, al-Khalaifi’s final post—from more than a year ago —was a criticism both of book censorship and of what he called Qatar’s secular government.
Qatar has seemed to be of two minds about free speech, hosting the Doha Center for Media Freedom and sponsoring al-Jazeera and Bloomsbury-Qatar Foundation Publishing while restricting local reporters and books available on the local market.
According to a June 2010 report in the primarily expat publication Qatar Living, the Virgin Megastore in Doha opened in 2007 with a large range of Arabic, English, and French books. But the number of available books gradually shrank until the store “had reduced their book section to a tiny corner, displaying essentially promotion books about Qatar, a few travel guides, some selected politicians[‘] biographies and some shelves with publications in Arabic.”
The author was told “‘off the record’ [that] the Virgin Megastore [was] ‘pressured’ to remove [books] from public display, most of its stock and had great restrictions in importing books.”
But UAE commentators Sultan al Qassemi and Mishaal Al Gergawi both tweeted their surprise at The Peninsula’s Saturday report on Qatar’s media, and others expressed the hope that this might indicate the coming of a new era and freer speech in Qatar and perhaps the GCC.