Sport Diplomacy and the Prospects for Media Liberalization in Qatar

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Sport mega-events and their attendant human rights violations have in the last decade become a focus of scholars, journalists, and activists, but few have paid much attention to how such events affect media freedom and free expression in the countries that host them. The subject of this article is what effect, if any, Qatar’s extensive investments in sports diplomacy, and especially its hosting the 2022 World Cup, will have on the country’s environment for free expression and journalistic independence. The answer is not much, though the overall trajectory of media freedom in the country is positive. Qatar is an absolute monarchy with a tightly controlled media sector, and the country ranks as unfree on all three of the world’s leading press freedom indices. At the same time, on matters of free expression Qatar is arguably the most liberal member of the six Arab states that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It is home to a leading international television news operation, Al Jazeera; a major international sports broadcaster, BeIN; and an American journalism school, Northwestern University in Qatar. Further, the country’s strategy for human and economic development rests on four industries—sport, art, education, and media—that are all fundamentally expressive enterprises. International attention, much of it negative, resulting from Qatar’s sports diplomacy and the World Cup specifically should push the country toward some liberalization of its media sector, though the current blockade of the country imposed by GCC states Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—which include calls to strip Qatar of the 2022 tournament—makes liberalization more politically sensitive and difficult than it would have been before the blockade began. Nonetheless, in September 2018, the Qatari cabinet approved a new media law, a reform that has been promised since at least 2010.