Not the headline one hopes for – Migrant workers, ‘trespassing’, and Qatar’s BBC own goal

A communicator’s job (or part of at the very least) is to generate headlines. Preferably favorable headlines. But even the best of intentions can often come undone.

It’s an understatement to say that Qatar has been under the microscope recently. The country, with a population of just over a million (both nationals and expats) and hundreds of billions of dollars of gas reserves, has often strived to make its mark on the global stage. One such project is the news station Al-Jazeera, which has revolutionized media in the Middle East and beyond.

Qatar’s World Cup bid and subsequent win hasn’t been the success the country may have hoped for however. Ever since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup by FIFA, it has been subject to criticism by international NGOs about a host of issues ranging from the rights of homosexuals to labor rights.

The biggest concern has been the living conditions of low-income workers, specifically those people who are building the infrastructure for the World Cup.

To their credit (or maybe because there’s little other choice afforded to them), the Qatari government has tried to tackle allegations of poor treatment of migrant workers head on. They have announced new legislation to penalize companies who do not pay workers on time and an amendment to the national labor law to facilitate the payment of workers through direct bank deposits.

Qatar has also been keen to promote the new migrant labor villages that the government has built. As part of its media efforts, the country’s Labor Ministry invited global media last week to view this new accomodation and meet the country’s Labor Minister to talk about Qatar’s push to promote labor rights.

However, things didn’t go quite as expected. I’ll quote from the Guardian below.

A four-strong BBC crew had been invited by the prime minister’s office on an official tour designed to show off new accommodation for migrant labourers, but were arrested by the security services while trying to gather additional material. They were interrogated and jailed for two days, before being released without charge.

The visit was part of a public relations drive, partly overseen by London-based agency Portland, in the wake of an international outcry over the slave-like conditions for workers exposed by a Guardian investigation in September 2013.

Rather than the story being the improvements in living conditions for Qatar’s migrant workers, the headline on the BBC (which was carried across the globe) was BBC team arrested, and held for several days.

It went from bad to worse for Qatar when Qatar’s communications chief explained that the BBC team had been arrested for ‘trespassing’. Again, to quote from The Guardian.

The Qatari government’s head of communications, Saif al-Thani, said the BBC crew were arrested after departing from an official tour. He said: “We gave the reporters free rein to interview whomever they chose and to roam unaccompanied in the labour villages.

“Perhaps anticipating that the government would not provide this sort of access, the BBC crew decided to do their own site visits and interviews in the days leading up to the planned tour. In doing so, they trespassed on private property, which is against the law in Qatar just as it is in most countries. Security forces were called and the BBC crew was detained.”

The challenge organizations often face is how to ensure that the same message is conveyed across the entirety of the organization. It’s obvious that in Qatar there were differences of opinion which led to the BBC crew being tailed by the security forces once they’d entered the country and to their arrest while doing their job.

The question now for Qatar is how do they go on from here and get the message right, across all of the country’s government and leadership? The media scrutiny is only going to get even more intense, the closer we get to the 2022 World Cup. I’ll continue to watch this story and how it unfolds in the media.

#HappyDubai and the times when you need a good community manager

If you were working on #HappyDubai would you view this image positively or negatively?

If you were working on #HappyDubai would you view this image and the associated Tweet positively or negatively?

First we had the successful #MyDubai initiative. Now, we have #HappyDubai which was launched last week by Dubai Municipality.

According to an article in Gulf News residents can now share positive experiences regarding municipal services through the Happy Dubai initiative. They can post comments and pictures using the #HappyDubai social media hashtag. The feedback will spread through Twitter (@myhappydubai) and the happydubai.ae website. The feel-good initiative, launched on Tuesday, aims to highlight civic services of the Dubai Municipality and feedback from stakeholders.

“With the Happiness Map, we are aiming to track conversations around #HappyDubai and where they are coming from. In time, it will become an interesting reference point to identify areas in Dubai that are the favourite #HappyDubai places for residents,” the municipality told Gulf News.

“This phase of the campaign allows residents to send us their comments and feedback through the website. Residents can also get in touch with us via other touch points including Dubai Municipality’s social media presence, our 24-hour contact number 800900, e-mail us at info@dm.gov.ae or visit our centres around the emirate.”

Here’s where it gets more complicated. The beauty of the #MyDubai campaign is that its objective – the public are asked to share their own experiences of Dubai, without a spin and without a filter. #HappyDubai is subjective, and one of the aims of the Happy Dubai campaign is to make Dubai one of top 10 happiest cities in world by 2021. Dubai’s residents are being asked to share their happiness with Dubai Municipality and the city in general. Rather than engaging in a dialogue, they’re being asked to take a specific emotional stance which is a much riskier strategy.

Hussain Nasser Lootah, director-general of Dubai Municipality, said: “Various initiatives and the projects adopted and executed by Dubai Municipality in different fields give the emirate its unique style which makes it ‘stand out’ among the most developed cities in the world.

“The UAE has been ranked 14th in the happiness index set by the Global Initiative of the UN. Our goal is to spread happiness among the population of UAE and by 2021, Dubai would like to be one of the top ten happiest cities.”

The worst thing that can happen is for the campaign to be hijacked. This isn’t new, and even brands such as McDonalds have had to pull campaigns due to consumers not reacting as they’d hoped (a great example is #McDStories).

There’s a lot to love about Dubai and the campaign launched by Dubai Municipality (the microsite is a great feature, especially the #HappyDubai map), but not everyone feels as strongly about #HappyDubai as the people behind the campaign. One “David Brown” tweeted repeatedly about the issue facing labourers in the Emirate with the hashtag #HappyDubai. See the below for one Tweet, including a link to a site about alleged human rights abuses in the GCC and the image Photoshopped with the #HappyDubai logo.

Could it get worse? Well, yes it could do if your community manager misunderstands the point being made and then retweets the original message. The follow-up is even worse (unless I’m missing the irony).

The lesson is simple. Before a campaign is even launched whoever handles social media needs to understand the various viewpoints that may be coming his or her way, both positive and negative (the same is also true of the whole organization). There should be talking points and message tracks in place for any negative sentiment. This is especially true of a campaign such as #HappyDubai which takes a subjective stance on people’s emotions towards a specific issue.

And more than anything else, if you can’t spot a negative comment and you work in social media, you need to find a new industry to work in.

Attacks on Al-Jazeera intensify following the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Al-Jazeera has come under fire for its alleged political ideology in its coverage of Egyptian news (image source: islam.ru)

Who doesn’t know Al-Jazeera? The Doha-based and Qatar-owned news broadcaster became infamous for its airing of messages from Al-Qaeda’s leaders, most notably Osama Bin Laden. The news channel, which was created in 1996 following attempts by the British Broadcasting Corporation to set up their own Arabic channel failed, has always been the target of criticism partly due to its political inclinations and its inability to criticize its owners – the State of Qatar – while running documentaries and publishing news critical of neighbouring Middle East states.

However, Al-Jazeera has been having a particularly rough time of late following recent events in Egypt. partly of its own making but what’s even more interesting is the level of coverage that other media has given to targeting Al-Jazeera following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Government in Egypt.

Ever since the events of the end of June and the start of July in Cairo it’s almost felt as if there’s been a witch-hunt against Al-Jazeera due to its Egyptian coverage. The main accusation? Al-Jazeera’s bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

While I understand the accusation, the fact that many of those making the claims are firstly media publications and secondly state-owned doesn’t sit well with me. I know of few state-owned media who are not guilt of being their master’s voice and hence being guilty of their own allegations against Al-Jazeera. Furthermore, I always find it strange when media attack other media; it’s hard enough being a journalist as it is today without being criticized by fellow colleagues.

I’m going to highlight a couple of articles below, from the Dubai-based and Dubai-owned Gulf News. The first and the most conspicuous news item was a special which was run on the 14th July entitled Al Jazeera loses respect over Egypt coverage. Do read over and share your views with me on this one.

Founded in 1996 and funded by Qatar, Al Jazeera was supported by many Egyptian revolutionaries. Demonstrators in Tahrir Squar chanted for it. Also, Al Jazeera staffers were feeling proud that they contributed to the Egyptian revolution with their work and coverage. They made the network the most popular channel in the country.

However, when the now ousted president Mohammad Mursi pushed through an unpopular consistution last November, many Egyptians found themselves flipping from Al Jazeera to other Egyptian networks. Distrust over its coverage reached unprecedented levels and took it from being the most popular to the most hated channel — its staff were now feeling embarrassed as their reputation was dragged through the mud.

A senior official at Al Jazeera who did not want to be named said that while the network appeared to be a neutral media network it was still a political tool in the hands of the Qatari emir. “He personally visited the studios during the Iraq war to make sure no footage of dead of abducted soldiers was aired. It was clear he was under US pressure,” the official said.

“In a special meeting in 2009 attended by some media seniors in Doha, the Emir said that Egypt’s regional role must be ended forever,” said another official. “When the Muslim Brotherhood announced it would field deputy chairman Khairat Al Shater as a candidate in the elections, the news team slotted it as the second story in the news bulletin, but then upon special request from the Emir’s palace, it was bumped up to the first news story.”

A producer claimed that when people started complaining and accusing Al Jazeera of favouring Islamists in Egypt, the station started to exclude any outspoken political analysts and opponents of the Brotherhood from appearing on its screen. On the other hand, he said, video reports that propped up Mursi and the Brotherhood’s image were welcomed by management in Doha. Anchors who used to interrupt the Muslim Brotherhood’s opponents in live interviews were judged as excellent.

The perceived bias prompted many leading journalists and TV anchors to leave the network. Aktham Suliaman, the German-based correspondent who left the station recently, told the German magazine Der Spiegel: “Before the beginning of the Arab Spring, we were a voice for change — a platform for critics and political activists throughout the region. Now, Al Jazeera has become a propaganda broadcaster.”

Another Beirut-based correspondent said that “Al Jazeera takes a clear position in every country from which it reports — not based on journalistic priorities but rather on the interests of the Foreign Ministry of Qatar. In order to maintain my integrity as a reporter, I had to quit.”

Other interesting articles from Gulf News include Al Jazeera staff resign after biased Egypt coverage, Al Jazeera’s role raises questions, and media bias infuriates Egyptian moderates which I am quoting from below.

Al Jazeera’s Egypt channel (Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr) is blatant in its support for the Brotherhood giving no platform whatsoever to the other side. Egyptian authorities attempted to remove it from air, but failed to do so because Al Jazeera allegedly hijacked broadcast vehicles from Egyptian State TV, now protected by the crowds in Rabaa Adawiya.

Local reporters were so incensed they demanded the ejection of Al Jazeera’s senior editor in Egypt from a press conference. Some 22 of Al Jazeera’s employees resigned asserting pro-Islamist bias at the top. On Friday, I was shocked to see someone I recognised on the stage in Rabaa Adawiya, engaged in whipping up the crowds.

There was the host of Al Jazeera’s programme Bela Hodod (Without Frontiers) Ahmad Mansour advising on how to manipulate media coverage and insisting that pictures of June 30 massive anti-Mursi protest had been photoshopped.

June 30’s aftermath has not only thrust the Arab world’s most populated country into uncertainty, it has eroded media credibility and prompted the crossing of a thin red line between honest reporting and political/ideological propaganda. Journalism requires an ethical revolution before Al Jazeera, CNN and others can ever be trusted again.

What I find ironic is the lack of coherency of the argument as it relates to allies. An example in point would be Bahrain. The island’s press is markedly pro-government, and yet there’s no media bias criticism from those who have pointed their finger at Al-Jazeera. If you’re going to adopt an argument at least be consistent in its use. Otherwise, why should we the public trust any of you?

Where does self-censorship begin in the Gulf?

Has much changed in the Gulf? Looking back over the last 12 months, the headlines have rightly been dominated by news of events in Egypt and Syria. On the sidelines, Iran, Israel and Palestine have filled the column inches. In comparison, the Gulf seems to have changed little.

Most of us know to think before we speak. We understand that certain issues may be difficult to discuss during certain occasions. And then there’s self-censorship, the concept of altering the spoken and written word, picture, or other published material out of concern about the consequences.

Having talked to people I admire from the art world, publishing and the online communities there is a concern and fear that the boundaries of expression are shifting. The region’s powers that be are not just watching and listening, but they are also taking action. The number of persons questioned and detained for stating their views or thoughts publicly seems to have increased, and the media coverage surrounding these events has certainly gone up several notches.

So where does that leave those writers, publishers, artists and the like who live in the Gulf? We’ve always had soft censorship in the region’s media, the concept of avoiding sensitive topics to not upset advertisers, the authorities/media owners.

However, today’s conservative wave (it may be even called a tsunami if the levels of monitoring and action pick up pace) following the Arab Spring has come up against an awakening of expression brought about by social media tools. Who will win out?

The question in my mind today is where are the red lines? What should be spoken about and when should one stay silent? And can one censor the web today without unplugging oneself from the internet?

Has there been an increase in self-censorship across the Gulf?