Five Working Days in Doha, Qatar
I spent five working days in the Qatari capital of Doha teaching a course on writing opinions behalf of the International Center for Journalists. Forty Qataris between journalists and public servants involved in media issues attended in two repeated sessions held at the Qatar News Agency with twenty in either morning or afternoon session.I learned as much about the internal Qatari situation as the participants learned about how to write an opinion article.
Four daily Arabic glossy papers are published daily for the about 200,000 Qatari nationals as well as the Arabic speaking workers that are working in this Gulf emirate. Qatari national radio and TV are part of the state media apparatus along with the news agency. No independent news website exists in Qatar or even outside it. No
Participants were largely women but sat separately from men. All participants were dressed in the traditional Qatari dress. Black dress with few color beads on the sleeves and head cover ( a few with Khimar full cover except for eye) . Men folk all wore white dushdash and the white or red hatta head dress.
My mission was to teach journalists and other interested persons how to write an oped. I wasn’t sure how important this mission was until I discovered early on that the country’s four newspapers are almost a copy of each other, other than Arab and international news, the local news are extremely similar, leaving opinion columns as one area where the newspapers can differentiate from each other.
Those attending the workshop were sometime writers, Qatar News agency staff, PR persons, ministry of interior or foreign affairs staffers who follow up opeds.
Using the interactive methodology of training, I began by a short explanation of how opinions writers must take a strong point of view on one single issue, then I explained to them what the difference is between news and opinions. Participants were then asked to come up with a single idea that they would like to write an opinion about and then try to convince me of its importance.
Wao. My idea seemed to have opened a Pandora’s box of ideas and challenges facing Qataris. From a simple parking problems and high rate of traffic tickets, to children with tobacco (both the cigarette and the chewing kind), crime, problems with foreign housekeepers, schools (many problems here) Qatar TV, overcrowded court system (mostly because only Qatari lawyers are allowed to address the court and they are overloaded), government discrimination in buying star players for one club costing six times the price of a start given to another club. And more. Why does AL Jazzera exaggerate in its presentations of the news? Why do women journalists refuse to appear on Qatar TV? Why does it take years for the government to approve any request by a Qatari to marry someone who is not from the Gulf Countries?
Coming up with ideas was easy, the harder part was to deal with these issues fact- based opinions. In a country that has no clear governmental structure or regular briefings and public information, it was hard to convince the journalists to search for facts that they can hook their opinions on. Regular statistics on many basic issues are not available to journalists. Governmental agencies focus on public relations rather than any release of information or statistics.
Qataris are seemingly very religious. The call to prayer is broadcast on the internal PA system inside the Qatari News Agency. Participants went one day en mass to prayer but other days the call to prayer came and went without the participants moving. In discussions, however, the Islamic point of view was much more evident. In one discussion I had about the use of proverbs and stories to illustrate a point of view, I was asked about my opinion of using Quranic verses. I explained that I would be very hesitant in using verses to support a point of view that is not clear cut. “If you are in favor or lowering traffic fines, you should not use a Quranic verse but if you are talking about the need to save civilian lives you can use the verse that talks about the need to avoid killing women, the aged, children and even a tree. One of the participants a relatively older man raised his hand to make a comment. I think that if you are looking for an example which has no controversy then you should not talk about this issue of killings in times of war because there are different sometimes contradictory fatwas (religious interpretations). Instead you should use the example of Quranic verses that forbid eating pork or drinking alcohol. On these issues there is no controversy.
I was surprised by some of the information that I learned about Qataris and some of the things that they seem to be ignorant of. For example almost all of the 40 Qataris at the training workshop had blackberry smart phones. But none had his or her own blog. Few had twitter accounts, many had facebook accounts but are used for family photos and other social issues. When discussing enviormental issues I asked if anyone had a hybrid car. Not a single participant knew what the electric-gas hybrids were.
Perhaps the funniest story of the workshop was when a participant wanted to discuss how bad the Qatari TV was. I asked a few questions about whether there is any Audio Visual regulatory body. There was none and no privately owned TV or radio station was allowed. I asked if they pay a TV license fee which would give them the power to request changes to their national TV station. They had no idea what a tv license fee. To explain to them the issue, I told them that in Jordan our electric bill includes each month includes a one Jordanian Dinar TV fee. Without making fun of money one participant explained that they pay no electric fees in Qatar and thus they never receive a monthly bill.
The five day workshop International Center for Journalists workshop ended Thursday. Organizers were keen on me evaluating each participant. Since the workshop is paid for by public money, those footing the bill has required that all participants in the workshop are evaluated. They were so worried about these evaluations the director kept on asking me to tell the participants that I am the one making the evaluations and not he.
I spent interesting five days in Doha teaching about editorial writing but at the same timelearning about life in this Gulf emirate.