Censorship in Qatar: How Free is the Media Landscape?

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Summary: Censorship in Qatar

In the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup, Qatar has made global headlines not only as a violator of human rights, but also when it comes to censoring any critical coverage of the tournament.

Unfortunately, the extent of media censorship in Qatar reaches even further. There is barely any freedom of expression: any publication that can be considered a threat to national security or morality is banned. The following topics are heavily censored, both online and offline:

  • Criticism of the Emir and his politics
  • Pornography and sexual content
  • LGBTQI+ content, including gender identity
  • Fake news

In order to avoid censorship, you have to resort to using a VPN. Since using VPNs in Qatar is illegal, it’s recommended to download a VPN before you enter the country. We recommend NordVPN, a trustworthy provider with obfuscated servers in the Middle East.

Want to know more about censorship in Qatar? Read our full article below.

Qatar is hosting the FIFA World Cup 2022 — a move heavily criticized as a blatant attempt to bury reports of its human rights violations. Since 2010, at least 6,500 migrant workers have died while working on infrastructure for the FIFA World Cup. On top of that, local media is restricted from reporting about this tragedy.

Soccer fans can expect heavily censored coverage this coming season, as the country restricts press and media freedom. This article will study censorship in Qatar and provide options for citizens, tourists, and journalists who wish to bypass these restrictions.

What is the State of Censorship in Qatar?

Similar to countries like North Korea and Myanmar, national security is used as a justification for extreme censorship in Qatar.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar

World Cup Qatar iconFrom the 20th of November until the 18th of December, Qatar will be hosting the FIFA World Cup in an attempt to improve its tarnished reputation. This has been heavily criticized, especially in light of harsh working conditions in the country. Reports say that workers are subjected to contract manipulation and excessive working hours.

Migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka lost their lives as part of Qatar’s preparation for the tournament. The country has reportedly built seven stadiums, a new airport, multiple hotels, and a brand-new city just for the World Cup.

To divert attention from this ongoing tragedy, FIFA has pleaded with participating nations to “focus on football” while attending the World Cup. However, criticisms are persistent, especially since local media is prevented from reporting on anything other than soccer-related information.

This means even news reports of the migrant workers’ deaths are restricted by Qatar’s government.

Independent media and press freedom in Qatar

Freedom of the Press iconLegislation in Qatar is used to heavily restrict what can be published by citizens and the media, both online and offline.

In 2020, an addition was made to the Penal Code, authorizing the imprisonment of anyone who broadcasts, publishes, or republishes content that might “harm national interests, stir up public opinion, or infringe on the social system or the public system of the state.”

Internet censorship in Qatar

Online censorship iconAlthough internet use is higher in Qatar than anywhere else in the Middle East, citizens are not always able to enjoy internet freedom. As with print media, any content critical of the government, Islam, or sensitive issues such as minority rights, is banned.

The Qatar General Broadcasting and Television Corporation is in charge of monitoring social media. Authorities use the 2014 Cybercrime Law to impose fines or jail sentences (of up to three years) on anyone who puts state security “at risk” online.

As a result, most journalists, bloggers, and internet users practice a degree of self-censorship in order to avoid being persecuted.

Why Does Qatar Censor the Internet?

According to the Qatari government, internet and media censorship is necessary “to protect national ethics and interests.”

Infographic showing why does Qatar censor the internet

The specifics of these ethics and interests become clear when we take a closer look at Qatar’s stance on several social issues.

  • LBGTQI+ rights: In Qatar, homosexuality is included in the Penal Code. Article 285 bans same-sex sexual activity for both men and women, with a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
  • Extramarital relations: The same piece of legislation, Article 285, also bans extramarital relations, known as zina (sex outside of marriage). Muslims can also be sentenced to flogging or the death penalty for extramarital affairs. The law disproportionately targets women, who can be prosecuted for reporting rape.
  • Reproductive health care: In order to gain access to sexual and reproductive health care, women must first present a marriage license.
  • Male guardianship: Without the permission of a male guardian, women are not allowed to make any major decisions, including marriage, education, work, and travel. Men also have a unilateral right to divorce.
  • Domestic abuse: This kind of behavior is legal. Qatar has no legislation to prosecute abusers and there are no measures in place to protect survivors.

Additionally, Qatar wishes to “protect national interest” at all times. There is a full ban on what is considered fake news,” regardless of whether the information is actually verifiable or not.

For example, reports on the treatment of migrant workers building World Cup stadiums are dubbed as fake news. Foreign journalists have been arrested for reporting on this tragedy.

What Content is Censored by the Qatari Government?

Since the grounds for violating national interests are often vague, the government of Qatar can censor content at will. Generally, the following categories are banned:

Infographic showing what content is censored by the Qatari government

To keep public opinion under control, websites that allow Qatari citizens to access foreign media outlets might be blocked, as well as circumvention tools such as VPN services and proxies.

Criticism of the Emir

Although Qatar is a constitutional monarchy on paper, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is essentially a leader with absolute power, as he has both executive and legislative authority.

Political parties and political groups in Qatar are forbidden. On top of that, the right to unionize is extremely limited. Migrant workers, who make up 90% of the total Qatari population, are not allowed to unionize.

Expressing criticism of the Emir is also prohibited. General criticism of the Arab States of the Persian Gulf is not allowed. Politically sensitive posts on social media are punishable by law. On top of that, citizens have to carefully consider what to include in personal communications, since these are often monitored to surveil personal or family life.

With the 2022 World Cup around the corner, this reality of censorship and surveillance has become clear. In order to work in Qatar, journalists and other media professionals have to download two spyware apps that keep track of their activity.

On top of that, the number of locations where they are permitted to film is very limited. They are not allowed to film and interview people in their own houses, which makes it impossible to show the poor living conditions of the migrant workers.

Moreover, Qatari authorities prohibit the depiction of government institutions, hospitals, religious buildings, and universities. Journalists have no choice but to focus solely on soccer.

Pornography and sex

Online and offline publication of sexual content is not accepted in Qatar’s code of ethics. Restrictions don’t just focus on pornography, either. Any content related to sex is blocked. Dating apps such as Tinder or Happn are not available in Qatar.

On top of this, sharing any information about sexual health and reproduction is also prohibited. This primarily affects women who are required to have a male guardian when visiting a gynecologist or asking to gain access to contraception. They won’t be able to find any information online, either.

Sexual orientation and LGBTQ+ rights

Homosexuality is punishable by law in Qatar. Both online and offline Qatari media outlets are not allowed to publish any content related to sexual orientation or gender identity. According to Human Rights Watch, LGBTQ+ individuals in Qatar are frequently surveilled and arrested based on their online activity and search requests.

Dar Al Sharq, a publishing partner of The New York Times, has repeatedly deleted LGBTQ+ articles and replaced them with blank pages. The international edition of The New York Times, which has existed since 2007, is also censored locally.

Fake news

The legal sentence for publishing fake or false news is five years in prison. Fake news in Qatar includes “false or malicious news or sensational propaganda.” Naturally, what constitutes malicious news or sensational propaganda is up for debate.

For journalists working in Qatar, this means the scope of their work is very limited. If they don’t wish to risk being detained, they’ll have to obey the rules, however vague they may be. In 2021, migrant blogger Malcolm Bidali, better known by his pseudonym Noah, was arrested for writing about the living and working conditions of Qatar migrant workers.

The same thing happened to German sports journalist Florian Bauer, who was arrested and questioned by the police for reporting on the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

How Does Qatar Censor the Internet?

How Qatar censors the internet infographic

According to official reports, roughly 96% of the Qatari population has access to the internet. It’s worth noting, however, that this statistic is very skewed: 90% of people living in Qatar are migrant workers who are not considered official citizens. In reality, internet access is only granted to about 10% of the total population.

Aside from limiting access to the internet, the government also censors information found online.

Internet censorship legislation

Qatar censors the internet via legislation. Since 2014, the Cybercrime Law has prohibited the publication of fake or false news, as well as content that can “harm national security or disrupt public order.” Any restrictions on online content, as well as the practice of self-censorship, result from this legislation.

Blocking news sites

The internet service provider (ISP) Ooredoo uses a proxy server to block and monitor websites, emails, and chat rooms. These bans are based on internet censorship legislation. According to the IT Ministry, Ooredoo doesn’t receive instructions from the government but simply acts according to the law.

Most vulnerable to being blocked are websites that focus on current affairs. In 2016, the independent Doha News website was blocked after critical reporting on the government. The website was brought back online in 2020, though all previous managers were replaced.

Banning VoIP services

In contrast to places like India and Russia, many international social media services like Facebook and Twitter remain available in Qatar. Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services, however, are not.

This affects communication apps like Skype, FaceTime, and WhatsApp, which are all blocked. Since they use end-to-end encryption, these apps are often seen as a threat to the government. After all, encryption makes it impossible for authorities to exercise control over these means of communication.

Self-censorship

To avoid legal consequences, local media and Qatar TV channels don’t publish anything related to sensitive or illegal topics. The Qatar government denies having any active part in this, though they certainly exercise financial control over many outlets.

How to Bypass Censorship in Qatar

Get around censorship iconHuman rights activists, journalists, and citizens in Qatar are looking for ways to protect their online activity. If you’re located in Qatar and looking for ways to bypass censorship, there are several tools at your disposal.

Whatever you choose, avoid proxy servers. Though they will route your traffic via an external server, your data will not be encrypted. This makes you much more vulnerable to surveillance. On top of that, proxy servers are easy to detect. For this reason, we recommend using a VPN or the Tor browser. Aside from that, we’d advise you to use encrypted email.

1. Bypass censorship with a VPN

Connect to the Dark Web with a VPN iconA virtual private network (VPN) hides your IP address and encrypts your data while you browse the internet. This keeps your personal information and online activity safe from prying eyes. Additionally, a VPN allows you to connect to an external server located elsewhere in the world. With a different IP address, you’ll be able to access content that is blocked in Qatar.

Is VPN legal iconKeep in mind that using a VPN in Qatar is not considered legal by the Qatar government. While it’s possible to access a VPN provider’s website to download a VPN, we recommend installing your VPN before you cross the border.

If you’re already located in Qatar, make sure you use a VPN that has strong obfuscation technology that hides your VPN traffic, such as NordVPN.

2. Use the Tor browser

Tor LogoThe Onion Router (Tor) browser is an online network that functions like a private internet browser. It allows you to communicate privately and browse the web anonymously. When you use Tor, your internet connection is routed via multiple servers and layers of encryption, making it impossible for anyone to trace your data back to you. Your internet service providers won’t be able to see which web pages you visit.

Tor is widely used by journalists to report anonymously and share information on whistleblower forums. However, one disadvantage to the Tor browser is that you can’t use it for desktop or mobile apps. It doesn’t help you unblock WhatsApp, for example. As such, it’s best to use Tor in combination with a VPN.

3. Encrypt your emails

Email icon with security shield icon over itConsidering Qatar’s levels of surveillance and monitoring, it’s important to use a secure email service. If you don’t encrypt your emails, it’s easier for ISPs and government authorities to look over your shoulder.

We recommend ProtonMail for its end-to-end encryption and user-friendliness. It’s free to use (with a 500 MB storage limit), and the company is based in Switzerland, a country known for its strict privacy laws.

Bonus World Cup tip: Bring an extra phone

Ahead of the World Cup, several European privacy watchdogs have warned that the apps Qatari authorities instructed fans to install are suspected of containing spyware. The apps track users extensively and collect information about their online activities.

The Dutch Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens (the data protection authority) recommends fans purchase an extra phone to use while in the country. Even if your usual device is infected with spyware, the second phone will enable you to browse the internet more freely, especially if you use it in combination with a VPN.

If you can’t buy a new phone, you can also choose to wipe all data from your phone completely and reinstall the operating system after you return home. However, this will mean you lose all your apps as well as any files you haven’t uploaded or stored elsewhere.

What is the Best VPN for Qatar?

Best VPN iconIf you’re looking for a good VPN to use in Qatar, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Make sure your VPN has excellent security features. This includes a built-in kill switch, data leak prevention, and a variety of secure VPN protocols, including OpenVPN and WireGuard.
  • Choose a VPN with a strict zero logs policy. If your VPN doesn’t keep any logs, your data can’t be used against you because it isn’t being stored.
  • Choose a provider with a server network that includes servers in countries close to Qatar. This will optimize your speed. However, keep in mind that other Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have their own censorship practices.
  • Don’t use a free VPN. Though there are some great free VPN providers you can consider if you’re located elsewhere in the world, they are generally unsafe and not anonymous enough for Qatar. This will make it more likely that you’ll be arrested.

NordVPN: The best VPN for Qatar

Screenshot of NordVPN provider website homepage

Based on the criteria above, NordVPN is the best choice for Qatar. NordVPN has over 5,000 servers around the world, including servers in Israel and Turkey, which are close enough to Qatar to give you great speeds. They even offer obfuscated servers in Turkey, which disguise your VPN traffic as regular HTTPS traffic. Since VPNs are illegal in Qatar, using these servers is a must to mask your usage of the VPN.

In terms of security, NordVPN is one of the most reputable providers on the market. They have a strict no-log policy, 256-bit encryption, DNS leak protection, and an automatic kill switch. Should your VPN connection unexpectedly drop, these features will stop your data from leaking through.

Want to use the Tor network, too? NordVPN has a special Onion over VPN feature that gives you access to Tor without having to download the browser separately. If you’re a journalist or blogger, this gives you ultimate protection when going online.

Read our full review of NordVPN for more information, and make use of the 30-day money-back guarantee to try this VPN for free.

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Staying Safe Online in Qatar

Security extra features iconQatar has very limited press freedom, both online and offline. All content needs to be completely in line with the morality laws, social values, and code of ethics that the Qatar government enforces on its citizens. Criticism of the government is not allowed, either.

With the FIFA World Cup just around the corner, the level of censorship has become blatantly clear. Journalists have been arrested while trying to report on human rights abuses resulting from the construction of the soccer stadiums and World Cup infrastructure.

The political rights and labor rights of migrants are also constantly put in question. It’s not just migrant workers who suffer, either. Women and LGBTQ+ individuals are extremely oppressed in Qatar. Additionally, the state has put a full ban on any sexual content, including important information on reproductive health.

Are you visiting Qatar in the near future? Make sure you’re aware of what content is considered illegal and protect yourself online by using a VPN. A VPN connection will encrypt your personal data and prevent Qatari internet service providers from watching over your shoulder. Our number one recommendation is NordVPN, because of its excellent security and obfuscated servers.

Download NordVPN

For more resources on circumventing censorship around the world, read our guides below:

Censorship in Qatar: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have any questions about censorship in Qatar or how to stay safe online? Check out our FAQ below to find some answers.

A variety of content is censored in Qatar, primarily on the basis of protecting national security and controlling public opinion. This includes:

  • Criticism of the Emir and his politics
  • Pornography and sexual content
  • LGBTQI+ content, including gender identity
  • Fake news, including verifiable reporting

The best way around censorship, is by using a VPN.

No, Qatar has very limited freedom of speech. Both online and offline publications have to adhere to strict regulations that are in line with Qatar’s morality laws. Women suffer disproportionately from surveillance, monitoring, and oppressive control.

No, using a VPN is illegal in Qatar. This is why you might run into trouble when accessing a VPN provider’s website to download one. If you have the opportunity, we recommend you download and install a VPN before you enter the country.

When using a VPN, stay cautious about what you post and make sure to use a VPN with great security features, including obfuscation technology that disguises your VPN traffic. Alternatively, you can consider using the Tor browser.

Social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter are not banned in Qatar. However, because of strict regulations in terms of content publication, you can’t just post anything on social media sites. Political criticism is illegal, as well as content that’s considered “immoral,” such as sex and LGBTQI+ issues. Keep in mind that VoIP services such as Skype, are banned in Qatar.

International Censorship & Security Journalist
Lauren Mak is an internal censorship and security-focused journalist with a keen eye for how technology affects society. With a background in International Relations and North American Studies, Lauren brings a unique perspective to the VPNOverview team. Lauren has a passion for helping others understand the importance of privacy, freedom, and internet safety and brings that passion to VPNOverview.