KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS — Qatar’s contentious staging of the 2022 World Cup finals has come under renewed attack from two separate quarters.

Firstly the BBC complained that a film crew had been detained and subject to intimidatory treatment while in the country at the invitation of a PR firm acting for the Qatari government then the pressure group NewFIFANow launched a demand for world federation sponsors to act over working conditions for migrant construction workers.

The BBC issue may be viewed with more concern by FIFA and its president Sepp Blatter because of its worldwide outreach.

Work in progress on another World Cup site in Qatar

Back in London the broadcaster reported that a team of its journalists invited formally by Qatar to view upgraded new accommodation for migrant workers were detained by security officers, handcuffed, questioned ‘aggressively’ and imprisoned overnight before being released.

FIFA responded initially to the corporation’s complaint that “any instance relating to an apparent restriction of press freedom is of concern and will be looked into with the seriousness it deserves.”**

German TV too

This follows the recent similar detention of German TV journalists from the ARD channel who were also investigating work and accommodation provision for migrant workers.

A statement on the BBC row from the Qatar government communications office insisted that the journalists had brought trouble on themselves because they  ”decided to do their own site visits and interviews in the days leading up to the planned tour [and] trespassed on private property, which is against the law in Qatar.”

The statement made no attempt to justify or excuse the heavy-handed and intimidatory treatment of the journalists or explain the officer’s statement that the BBC team had been targeted for two days before their detention or make a comment about the return of reportedly confiscated equipment.++

A BBC response rejected all the Qatar allegations. Its own statement said: “We are pleased that the BBC team has been released but we deplore the fact that they were detained in the first place. Their presence in Qatar was no secret and they were engaged in a perfectly proper piece of journalism.

“The Qatari authorities have made a series of conflicting allegations to justify the detention, all of which the team rejects. We are pressing the Qatari authorities for a full explanation and for the return of the confiscated equipment.”

Also in London this morning International workers’ unions joined forces with other pressure groups to demand that FIFA  sponsors “accept their corporate responsibility and challenge human rights abuses at World Cup infrastructure construction sites in Qatar.”

The initiative, co-ordinated by sports compression wear company SKINS, was announced as a press conference at which film of squalid living conditions for migrant workers employed in Qatar under the notorious kafala system was presented and FIFA’s rejection of any responsibility was condemned.

SKINS Chairman, Jaimie Fuller announced that he had personally written to eight FIFA sponsors accusing them individually of effectively “‘contravening their own values and principles” by contributing significant sums of money to FIFA and thereby providing “implicit support” for working practices and conditions in Qatar.

‘Non-official Sponsor’

Fuller, whose company recently declared itself the first “Official Non-Sponsor” of FIFA, travelled recently to Qatar and was smuggled into several workers’ labour camps to see evidence first hand.

Fuller said: “The kafala problem is just the tip of the FIFA iceberg but it graphically shows their negligence and their level of self-denial when it comes to confronting international football’s major issues.

“FIFA refuses to accept any responsibility for the Qatari issue and remains riddled with allegations of corruption, mismanagement and poor decision making – all of which it refuses to confront to the satisfaction of the international community.

“So far, FIFA’s sponsors have restricted themselves to a series of rhetorical statements aimed at defending an indefensible association.”

The event was supported by International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow and Stephen Russell of the UK Trade Union Congress-backed group Playfair Qatar.

Bi-partisan support was confirmed by the attendance of Conservative UK MP Damian Collins, who was Chairman of the #NewFIFANow panel at its inaugural meeting in Brussels in January.

Burrow said: “Qatar is a slave state. The discrimination, the racism, the denial of rights for 1.4 million migrant workers adds up to apartheid and a model of employment that is simply slavery. There is a conspiracy of silence by governments and major sporting and cultural institutions that allow it to continue. The world must not be duped by Qatar’s empty promises of reform.”

** Full FIFA statement:

We are currently seeking clarity from the Qatari authorities of the situation that the BBC has contacted us about. Any instance relating to an apparent restriction of press freedom is of concern to FIFA and will be looked into with the seriousness it deserves.

Speaking generally, FIFA fully respects the freedom of the press and believes the freedom of movement for journalists is of utmost importance.

Editorial independence in the coverage of FIFA events has been, and continues to be guaranteed and this principle is for example enshrined in our media accreditation terms and conditions for the respective competitions.

At the same, the general rules of the respective host countries should be respected by media when it comes to filming and gaining the necessary permissions.

++ Qatar government statement:

Earlier this month the Government of the State of Qatar organized a press tour for reporters from the UK, Europe and the region that was designed to provide a better understanding of the challenges Qatar is facing – and the progress it is making – on the issue of migrant labour.

The Government Communications Office invited a dozen reporters to see – first-hand –some sub-standard labour accommodation as well as some of the newer labour villages. We gave the reporters free rein to interview whomever they chose and to roam unaccompanied in the labour villages. In addition, we arranged a roundtable discussion and one on one interviews with the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Legacy and Delivery and the Director of Workers Welfare at Qatar Foundation.

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 journalists who took part in the press tour were given an opportunity for a comprehensive look at the problems Qatar is facing, and the progress the government and the private sector are making to address those problems. They saw some of the worst labour villages, and some of the best. The BBC was meant to be part of that tour, and would have been if they had not chosen to break Qatari laws.

Once the BBC reporter and his crew were released from detention, we tried to help them get the basic elements for the story they had missed. While the full program could not be duplicated, a separate one-on-one interview with the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare was arranged and they were able to tour a modern labour village.

We hope it is clear from this detailed account that the problems that the BBC reporter and his crew experienced could have been avoided if they had chosen to join the other journalists on the press tour. They would have been able to visit – in broad daylight –the very camps they tried to break into at night.

Reporters from the Associated Press, AFP, The Guardian and Le Monde have filed stories on what they saw and heard in Qatar, and we invite interested readers to review their reports, which are available on-line.

By trespassing on private property and running afoul of Qatari laws, the BBC reporter made himself the story. We sincerely hope that this was not his intention. Moreover, we deeply regret that he was unable to report the real story, which is that the government and the private sector are making significant progress in efforts to improve the lives and the labour conditions of guest workers in Qatar.

Saif Al-Thani

Head of Government Communications Office, The State of Qatar

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