International television crews in Qatar for the Fifa World Cup could be banned from interviewing people in their own homes as part of sweeping reporting restrictions that could have a “severe chilling effect” on media coverage.
Broadcasters, such as the BBC and ITV, will effectively be barred from filming at accommodation sites, such as those housing migrant workers, under the terms of filming permits issued by the Qatari government.
According to the terms, recording at government buildings, universities, places of worship and hospitals is also prohibited, along with filming at residential properties and private businesses.
The restrictions are within a list of conditions that outlets must agree to when applying for a filming permit from the Qatari authorities to “capture photography and videography of the most popular locations around the country”. They also apply to photographers but do not explicitly refer to print journalists who do not film their interviews.
The rules do not prohibit reports on specific subjects, but restricting where crews can film – “including but not limited to houses, apartment complexes, accommodation sites” – is likely to make it difficult for them to investigate reported abuses, such as the mistreatment of migrant workers, or to conduct interviews on subjects people may be reluctant to discuss in public, such as LGBTQ+ rights.
Last night, Qatar’s supreme committee denied imposing “chilling” restrictions on media freedoms and said “several regional and international media outlets are based in Qatar, and thousands of journalists report from Qatar freely without interference each year.”
It said it had updated an earlier version of its film permit application terms that appeared on its website to relax the rules for broadcasters attending the World Cup, including removing a rule that said they must ‘’acknowledge and agree” they will not produce reports that may be “inappropriate or offensive to the Qatari culture, Islamic principles”.
But while the newer rules say filming is allowed across the state of Qatar, they still appear to impose strict restrictions, including that by applying for a permit, broadcasters agree “not to capture film/photography at excluded locations”. Places where filming is not allowed under the permit are “residential properties, private businesses and industrial zones” or government, educational, health and religious buildings.
The rules also say that broadcasters must “respect the privacy of individuals” and not film them or their properties without their “express prior approval”.
Fifa said it was “working with the supreme committee and relevant organisations in Qatar to ensure the best possible working conditions for media attending the tournament, as well as ensuring that broadcasters continue to report freely without any restrictions”.
A spokesman said it would be “important to clarify that filming on private property in any country remains subject to approval of the owner/operator of the property”. He did not comment on why the terms include an outright ban on filming on private property.
Journalists have previously been detained in Qatar for reporting on issues deemed contentious by the authorities. In 2015, a group of BBC reporters was arrested in Doha and spent two nights in prison while investigating housing conditions for migrant workers. Last November, two Norwegian journalists investigating conditions for migrant labourers working on World Cup venues were arrested and detained for 36 hours as they tried to leave the country.
James Lynch, from FairSquare, a London-based human rights group, said the rules were an “extraordinarily sweeping range of restrictions” that would make it difficult for TV crews to pursue non-football related stories. He said: “It would be incredibly difficult to fully comply with these terms, if even filming near to private or government property violates the terms of a permit.
“This is likely to have a severe chilling effect on free expression. How many organisations will authorise reporting on Qatar’s social issues if to do so puts them at risk of ending up in court?”
The restrictions present an ethical dilemma for broadcasters.
The BBC and ITV’s stringent editorial guidelines promote impartiality and are designed to protect against undue influence, including from governments. BBC guidelines, which apply to all content, say broadcasts should not unnecessarily offend but stress the importance of free expression.
Jemimah Steinfeld, editor-in-chief at Index on Censorship, said the film permit conditions were a “definite cause for concern” and appeared to be “purposely ambiguous” so that broadcasters would “err on the side of caution”.
She said her gut feeling was she felt they should not agree to such terms but said it was “extremely difficult terrain” to navigate. “The question is whether there might be stories that they can still do within the realms of that agreement, and is it more important that they do those stories?” she said. “If the BBC is basically being shoved into a position where all they can cover is the glory of it, then that would be a bad outcome.”
Qatar is an Islamic country with an authoritarian system of government. Swearing, public displays of affection and dressing immodestly are seen as offensive. Homosexual behaviour is illegal. Posting material that appears to insult, slander or is culturally insensitive may also be considered a crime, according to travel advice from the UK government.
In recent months, Qatar appears to have softened its stance on several issues in an attempt to convince visitors that it is safe and tolerant. It is allowing the sale of alcohol at stadiums, for instance, and has said that gay fans will be able to display affection during the World Cup. It has not eased rules restricting freedom of speech, which include a law against spreading “fake news” online.
The BBC did not say if it had agreed to or challenged the film permit rules. A spokeswoman said it had a “proven record of addressing topical issues as part of our coverage. This World Cup will be no different.”
ITV said its news and current affairs team had carried out “extensive reporting of the decision to award the tournament to Qatar and the questions surrounding the host nation’s human rights record and will continue to do so”.
“Our journalism will be robustly independent. ITV’s World Cup tournament coverage will focus on the football, but will not shy away from the controversies off the pitch,” a spokesman said
• This article was amended on 15 October 2022 to include a response from the Qatari authorities received after publication. An earlier version reported on the terms of the filming permit published on the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 website, including that it said media must agree not to produce reports that may be “inappropriate or offensive to the Qatari culture, Islamic principles”. However, the supreme committee told the Observer this document related to the draw stage and had since been revised. The article was amended to reflect this, and to remove reference to the geographical locations covered by the permit as originally seen. That filming permit was deleted from the tournament website shortly after this article was published.