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Sarah Turbin

What being a journalist in the Middle East taught me about how censorship really works

I know exactly how many inches over the knee you have to photoshop a woman's shorts to get a photo on the cover of a magazine in the Persian Gulf. For five years, I wrote in code. A Harley Davidson was never a "hog." Sex and the City became a string of letters, SATC. And when I interviewed Antonio Banderas, I had to explain why his movie about a swashbuckling feline would now be called Cat in Boots. I wrote "hops" or "malt beverage" instead of beer and, in one shining moment, "pitchers of traditional Spanish fruit beverage" instead of sangria.

Between 2008 and 2013, I worked as a journalist in Doha, Qatar. When I first got there, copies of American Cosmo arrived at the newsstands sporting black marker scribbles over bare midriffs. During my five years in the Middle East, the rules changed almost every day, but they were rarely written down. Before my magazine could go to press, it had to go under the red pen of our Qatari owner, a man who controlled not only what my magazine could print but my very ability to enter or leave the country.

When I switched to a magazine printed in the United Arab Emirates but imported into Qatar, the stakes were just as high: If I stepped out of line, my work wouldn't cross the border. Welcome to the mind-bending world of working under censorship.

According to a 2014 report by Freedom House, only 14 percent of the world's population enjoys a free press — meaning that only one in seven people live, as Freedom House put it, "in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures."

According to Reporters Without Borders, there has been a drastic decline in recent years in freedom of information. In the most recent World Press Freedom Index, two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed performed worse than the previous year. Freedom House found that global press freedom declined in 2014 to its lowest point in more than 10 years.

For journalists around the globe, this means the chances of working in a newsroom where there are controls on the press are higher than ever. But the controls aren't always overt. Many are far less visible — and therefore that much more insidious — than the censor covering up the midriffs in Cosmo with his pen. And it's happening everywhere, including North America.


Since I've come back to Canada, what I considered funny anecdotes about my time overseas start to seem like something different. When I tell stories about editing Miss Piggy out of a Q&A with Jason Segel about The Muppets because she's all pink and porky and clearly haram, I'm informed in shocked tones that I was being censored.

What's more, my portfolio, which I thought contained some hard-hitting pieces, evaporates in a puff of censored softness under North American scrutiny. One of the pieces I'm most proud of is about Doha's Pet Souq: an open-air market attached to Souq Waqif, a big tourist destination. There, animals are crammed into cages without food or water, left in the intense desert heat. Baby bunnies are dyed pastel colors to make them more appealing.

Although the final article included scathing views from expat-run animal rights groups, I couldn't publish quotes about how the government has failed to keep promises to clean it up, as that would be criticizing the government. I also couldn't run the conversation I had with a Qatari who said the souq made him ashamed of his country: Rule No. 1 is no one is ever ashamed of Qatar. When I was writing it, it felt bold because I'd said something about it at all. But by North American press standards I may as well have run a government-issued press release.

But as Kim Kierans, vice president of the University of King's College and a former director of its journalism school, explains, just because you can't print certain words doesn't mean you can't tell the story. Kierans has trained journalists in countries such as Cambodia, Thailand, Russia, and the Philippines in addition to teaching Canadian journalists, including me. Her office at King's sports a series of group shots on the steps of the J-school: each year's graduating class of journalists. I can find my group about halfway down the wall. Kieran is the type of teacher who still remembers her students' names even years later, and jokes when I call to ask her about press censorship that she's probably going to say something that will get her into trouble.

"When I was in Russia, the news editors at one of the TV stations I was at said, ‘We never do any political stories.' And I asked, ‘Well why bother having a newscast?' and he said, ‘Because we can effect change from the bottom up. We can do stories about potholes. Or about tiny micro community issues. Then the people will start complaining to their representatives, and change will happen that way. But we will never criticize the government or government council; we'll just let the people tell their stories,'" she says.

"And that was the way that they had to deal with the fact that they couldn't mention Putin's name on TV."


Censorship happens everywhere, in different ways. And as the World Press Freedom Index indicates, it's getting worse. Many journalists are already living in ethically ambiguous spaces, perhaps without even realizing it.

"Freedom is messy. Democracy is messy. And I don't know that we want it messy," says Kierans. "We operate under this drug-induced haze that we are in fact democratic and people really believe it. ... There are compromises being made. Even here in North America, journalists make compromises. There are very few really free journalists."

She's starting to see the similarities between the many countries she's worked in and working in North America.

"I'm ashamed of quite a lot of the journalism that goes on in the United States," she says. "I'm ashamed sometimes of the journalism that goes on in Canada. How we don't question various things, we're prepared to give up freedoms of press, and how we're not challenging things more. Our overreliance on opinion polls, and when we use them we accept the spin of the polling company and don't look at the methodology. What ever happened to getting out of the office, going into communities, and listening to people?"

When I ask her for examples, she's got plenty: "The obsession with 'crime' stories without context or follow-up. Our lack of curiosity when out on a story, testing assumptions, asking why."

For concrete examples, she says to just look at the "horse race" way elections are covered on both sides of the border. "Just look at the blanket coverage of Donald Trump." She also cites Postmedia's endorsement of Stephen Harper in Canada's last federal election. Since its acquisition of the Sun Media chain, the Postmedia Network Canada Corporation is now the largest in the country, controlling many of the daily newspapers in Canada. Days before the federal election in October, papers across the country, including the Ottawa Citizen, the Vancouver Sun, Fort McMurray Today, and more ran full-page, bright yellow ads for the Conservative Party instead of a front page.

In tiny print, right under the masthead, was a caveat that these were "paid political advertisements." Derrick O'Keefe summed it up on Twitter: "Conservatives have full page ads on many of the Postmedia/Sun weekend papers. Or are they editorials? Impossible to tell."

Tony Burman agrees. He served as Al Jazeera English's managing director and spent 35 years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, including a year as managing director of CBC Newsworld. I met him for the first time in 2009, interviewing him when we were both about a year into our Qatar tenures. Now, both back in Canada, our conversation is a little different then it was the first time around.

"I definitely think it's a problem everywhere," Burman says. "I think obviously the problem as one sees it in Canada or the US or Europe is different than [in] the Gulf or the Middle East or Africa, but I think efforts on the part of those in power to control the message and the medium is the universal threat. There's a myth that the media operates in complete freedom with complete independence, but because of corporate and political interests we know that's really not altogether true."

While I was overseas, like many expats, I created an elaborate mythos around my own country. Partially from homesickness, partially from nostalgia, everything about Canada was better when I was gone. When I'd come home for holidays, the weather was a snowy wonderland, not the ice planet Hoth. I'd eagerly await the first time I'd line up for a coffee in Tim Hortons (properly, because Canadians know how to queue), surrounded by that brown color scheme and the smell of wet winter boots and Timbits. And when I was struggling with telling stories I wanted to tell in the ways I wanted to tell them every month, I'd bemoan the freedoms I took for granted working as a journalist in Canada.

So color me surprised when I returned home and started seeing the same systems I'd struggled with in Qatar, now with a fun maple flavor. Article 47 of the Qatar media law prohibits journalists from publishing anything that might cause damage to "the supreme interests of the country" or imply "offense to the public morals" or that undermines the "reputation of a person." What that means in practice, as a 2013 report by Matt Duffy for the Doha Centre for Media Freedom found, is that a reporter writing about disappointing economic numbers or the problem of sex trafficking could be breaking the law.

Soon after my return to Canada, Bill C-51 started making headlines. The bill includes changes to national security, antiterrorism, and privacy law in Canada. This past July, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association initiated a challenge against the bill.

Bill C-51 includes amendments to the criminal code that create a new offense for promoting "terrorism in general" as well as a new concept of "terrorist propaganda." The bill could, for example, be used to allow a judge to order deletion of material from the internet, and open up publications to prosecution for aiding and abetting terrorism by publishing certain kinds of articles or sharing stories about groups that the government lists as organizations participating in "activity that undermines the security of Canada."

Under C-51, this would include groups, often indigenous, now labeled as "anti-petroleum" terrorists and other environmental activists. It could also potentially be applied to journalists who criticize too loudly.

The bill was passed by the Conservatives, and Liberal Justin Trudeau promised to overhaul it as part of his election platform. He's now prime minister, but his changes are still in the works. While Tom Mulcair and the New Democratic Party talked about scrapping the bill entirely, the Liberals are on track to tweak it, promising to make sure it respects the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And those scary laws that could have a reporter arrested and sent to jail for five years (the punishment for promoting "terrorism offences in general")? Still there, but Trudeau has promised to define "terrorist propaganda" more clearly, and to ensure Canadians aren't punished for lawful protests or advocacy.

Whether it's in Qatar, Russia, or Canada, this is all about controlling the message. Far more often than shutting down the press, more governments are opening themselves up to journalists in carefully constructed, controlled ways, using reporters as a message-crafting tool. And the sharpest item in that toolkit isn't a red pen, but rather access.

In Qatar, Article 46 of the media law makes it a crime to criticize the Emir of Qatar or attribute any statement to him without the express permission of his office; violators can be fined or spend time in jail. An article in the Toronto Star details how former Prime Minister Stephen Harper muzzled the media by simply not talking to them.

When Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited Ottawa in 2014, Harper allowed just four questions, and only two from Canadian journalists. Harper also ordered security guards to keep journalists from congregating, as long-held tradition had it, outside Cabinet meetings for informal scrums, and roped media into special waiting areas to keep them away from members of parliament.

Across the border, Donald Trump made headlines when he kicked Jorge Ramos, a popular Hispanic journalist, out of a press conference. The Obama administration held fewer press conferences in the president's first term than did his predecessors, although those rates did go up in 2014.

As Freedom House reports, US officials have also gotten less likely to discuss policy issues with journalists under the current administration. And when they do, there are often official "minders" representing the administration sitting in on meetings involving reporters and federal officials.

While this isn't as bad as journalists being fined or jailed, these trends come from a similar place of information control, and make it harder for journalists to do their job of reporting the full story. In 2015 the United States' ranking in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index dropped from 20 in 2010 to 49 — meaning Latvia, El Salvador, Samoa, Burkina Faso, and Namibia all rank higher. Canada is No. 8.

As Al Jazeera America reported, one of the contributing factors in the drop may be danger to journalists from the public and law enforcement during demonstrations and other events. Whatever the reason, keeping press physically away from the story means the story is much harder, if not impossible, to tell. Is this any less censorship than the impulse that made sure I never once printed the word "beer" in a Qatari magazine?

"During my period in Doha, I felt that there was a firewall between the government and Al Jazeera," Burman says. "If anything, I felt there was more attempted intervention or intrusion on the part of the Canadian government on the CBC than there actually was by the Qatari government on Al Jazeera,"

During the Canadian federal election in 2011, the government imposed a five-question daily limit on journalists traveling with the Conservative campaign tour. In the election this past October, the Prime Minister's Office demanded that journalists put their names on a list in order to ask a question at a Harper press conference, which gives the office much more control over who gets to ask a question at all.

Press conferences during the Harper era were often "photo opportunity only": As reported by Vice, this means that security has prevented journalists from asking questions, removed them from events, and even prevented them entering at all. No wonder there was great rejoicing when Justin Trudeau took office, and actually talked to the press.

Immediately after the election, Trudeau took questions from journalists at the National Press Gallery Theatre. Which is weird. Weird enough that CBC journalist Terry Milewski tweeted, "This is odd. There's a prime minister taking questions in the National Press Theatre with a journalist chairing." Harper only used the space seven times — and hadn't set foot in it since 2009, according to FactsCan.

Reporters in Ottawa are cautiously optimistic, but it's a sign of how tightly restricted the press were that having a press conference, receiving updates, or being given access at all is seen as cause for commentary.

And it's happening outside of the political arena as well. The most recent edition of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression's Review reported that 90 percent of federal scientists under the Harper government felt they could not speak freely about their work, and nearly as many feared reprimand for doing so.

There was even a song about it: After Tony Turner, an Environment Canada scientist, got suspended from his job after his anti-Stephen Harper folk song hit YouTube, the song went viral, inspiring "Harperman" sing-alongs across the country. If you look really closely, I'm singing along in the Kingston, Ontario, protest.

They're not alone, as many academics and experts on both sides of the border worry about their funding and potential repercussions should they rock the boat by talking to the media. Evidence 4 Democracy's 2014 report "Can Scientists Speak?" gave four Canadian federal science departments — the Canadian Space Agency, Public Works and Government Services Canada, Industry Canada, and National Resources Canada —failing grades for openness of communication and protection against political interference. And without those expert opinions and facts, journalists' stories can often be read as simple opinion, as opposed to a way for the public to understand important issues.

"It's the ideology. More and more I feel like I'm living in an Orwellian state," says Kierans. "We don't make the news agenda; we follow the news agenda. There was a time when we used to actually make news agendas."

Who sets the news agenda is of particular interest in Canada in recent months. Since Postmedia Network Canada Corp purchased Sun Media's English-language news properties, it's become Canada's largest newsmedia company. And it owns both major dailies in multiple cities. In January, Postmedia merged newsrooms in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa, cutting 90 jobs in the process. Although the separate brands would continue to exist, they would be produced out of the same newsrooms and, in some cases, by the same people.

As more and more newsrooms slash positions, job security is at risk. And it's much harder to stick your neck out when doing so means you might not be able to pay your rent.

"If you have a leadership that caves at every hint of pressure, then realistically you can't expect everybody in the organization to stick their neck out and lose their job, in some sort of futile suicide mission," says Burman.

These are just the latest job cuts to set off a flurry of editorials about the end of Canadian journalism. The 140-year-old Nanaimo Daily News recently shut down, and the Torstar-owned Guelph Mercury, published since 1854, making it one of the oldest newspapers in Ontario, discontinued publication in January.

Even public broadcasters like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are finding their funding slashed. The CBC is Canada's national public broadcaster, and starting in 2012, the government cut its funding by $115 million. While the Liberals have promised to undo these cuts, it's still unclear whether those were merely election promises or facts. The Canadian Media Guild estimates that to try to make up the budget shortfall, the CBC has cut around 2,000 staff jobs in the past six years, 600 jobs just last year. That's around one-quarter of its entire staff.

It's harder to stick your neck out when you're all alone: I know. At both magazines I worked for in Qatar, I was the sole full-time editorial person on staff, writing the majority of the content each month and, for the most part, editing all my own work. There was nowhere the buck could be passed: If I got into trouble, my neck was the only one available for the chopping block.

Heavier workloads and faster deadlines mean less time for in-depth reporting or sober second thought. And there's a reluctance to take risks when you're the only one who may catch mistakes or be held accountable. In an ideal world, journalists would push boundaries, bouncing ideas off fellow reporters and their editors to make sure they were being unbiased or culturally appropriate, or even just to get other perspectives and ideas on whatever it was they were writing about. As newsrooms shrink, this is getting less and less possible, and more and more reporting can come off as polarized or slanted.


Do reporters continuing to write stories about potholes in Cambodia or festivals in Thailand allow for plausible deniability of the very real problems that are left out of the reporting? And does choosing not to report on a protest over a pipeline in Alberta tacitly agree with the government stance? My being in Qatar, and reporting on things like brunches and bar nights, paints a very rosy picture of what life there is really like, and makes it easier for the world and governments to ignore the realities for the majority of the population.

More and more, censorship functions as message crafting, using the media to give legitimacy to whoever is pulling the strings. There's a very fine line between censorship and cultural sensitivity. Take, for example, the uproar after Time Out Dubai posted an online article about "bars to try during Ramadan" in 2012. More than 300 people tweeted in response, some calling the post disrespectful. I remember feeling smug at the time — I knew the rules, and I didn't need the internal memos and meetings to remind me to do everything I could to prevent earning my own #StopTimeOutDubai hashtag.

I didn't want to be disrespectful of a culture that I appreciated in many ways —but more importantly, I didn't want the attention. What should have just been a faux pas could have potentially affected the magazine's licensing. If it happened to me, could it mean losing my job?

"I think it's difficult. I think ultimately one has to do what one can do. An individual journalist cannot kind of change the world," says Burman.

He says change has to start from the top, with strong leadership willing to stand up for the actions of individual journalists and set an ethical example for young journalists to learn from. "I think ultimately people have got to be clear in their own mind. If they're forced to cross a line ... then that's the time to pack up and do something else."

Kierans disagrees. "Everything in a sense is political! Sports is political; arts are political. It's all political. How you frame it is the trick. How you tell the story and how you educate a public to want more of it," she says. "I used to talk a lot about that democracy is essential to a free press, and then I said, ‘Well, how can I teach journalism to people from Vietnam or Cambodia or anywhere that has restrictions on the press?' And then I thought, ‘No, no, no, you give them the tools of storytelling. You teach them about story, and the value of story.' Story can be subversive over time."

This is scary stuff. And it's much more comfortable to imagine censorship only happening in an Orwellian state. This idea that censorship is only something that happens "over there" devalues the work of journalists both in North America and in other places. There is lots of good work happening all over the globe, and it's hard (in different ways) to do journalism well, no matter where you are.

This is the first time I've really written about Qatar since I left. Self-censorship is a very nasty monkey to get off your back. I have to stop myself from editing this article, cutting out criticisms, inserting caveats or placating phrases.

Will this sentence offend friends still working there? Will that phrase simply reinforce prejudices people already have about that part of the world? Will this other thing be dismissed because it doesn't fit the established narrative? How can I possibly encompass the complexity of that place under word count?

Since my return to Canada, the first questions people ask me after they hear where I've been the past few years is how I managed there. The reasoning may change: How did I manage as a woman? As a white woman? As a "Westerner," with all that entails? But it's taught me that it's far easier for most people to conceptualize places in the world that are less free, less democratic, or just "other" as places of perpetual injustice.

But most of my memories of Doha don't smack of injustice. Instead, they taste like Red Bull and vodka and smell like hot sand and the metallic throb of dubstep in my back molars. My memories of Doha are in 17 languages and often involve funny stories about the many methods I discovered to smuggle bacon into the country.

I didn't have first-world problems in Qatar: I had Victorian first-world problems that involved maids and drivers. Benefiting from an unjust system can be a muzzle that makes it almost impossible for people reading my work to do so with any faith that I'm not biased in some way.

After I tell one of the ugly stories, people sometimes ask me how I could put up with it, why I didn't leave, why I didn't say something. How could I live a lifestyle that I hadn't earned, that had been handed to me because of my skin and my accent and my passport? How could I sit at my desk and attempt to write about oppression or injustice when my coffee was brought to me each morning by a tea boy?

Bilal Randeree, a South African journalist who worked as an editor on the Al Jazeera English website, thinks I'm missing the point.

"It's taking the position to say that we, a certain group of people, are otherwise ethical and face this conundrum of living in a place where there is racism and oppression and having to struggle through it, making a very complex issue very black and white and taking the moral high ground on it," he says.

It used to drive me crazy when I'd meet foreign press flown into Qatar for special events, like film festivals or sporting events or conferences. They'd be carefully escorted from five-star hotels to purpose-built venues, escorted in air-conditioned cars and driven along the Corniche so they could catch a glimpse of the Gulf before being whisked away to yet another elaborate meal.

They'd never see the "real" Qatar, or even really speak with anyone who hadn't been prescreened for them, so it wasn't really surprising when the same phrases about a small country doing extraordinary things would pop up in their reporting. Or they'd lapse into an easy narrative about Middle Eastern excess, which can't be denied when you're getting a massage with diamond dust or wandering around manmade islands.

The only other story I ever saw in the international press was the very ugly side, about human rights abuses, labor violations, and fears about fundamentalism. Neither one of these slants seemed to reflect the reality of Qatar or my own experience.

But the longer I'm back in North America, the longer I'm realizing that perhaps the free press isn't really as free as it seems. And if we assume democracy is supported by a free press, it starts a very scary mental train where I begin to question how free my country actually is. Censorship is, in many ways, becoming the new normal. Censorship isn't always something that is done to us; it is something we do to ourselves, something we internalize, perpetuate, and allow.

Keeping an article from seeing the light of day doesn't make the truth behind it disappear: It just keeps it off our Facebook newsfeeds, out of our newspapers, and off our radars. And what isn't seen can't be changed. If we want a free society, we have to make sure our journalists can analyze, criticize, and provide us with enough varied opinions that we, as a community, can make accurate judgments about what we want our world to be like.

We have to value the press enough to make sure trained journalists have the freedom to report accurately, without fear. This may mean making sure they're not afraid for their jobs. It may mean speaking up when a CEO dictates the news agenda. And it may mean letting reporters write the word "beer."

Jessica Davey-Quantick is working on her master's in cultural studies at Queen's University, and is a graduate of the University of King's College. Previously she was the editor of Qatar Happening and Time Out Doha. Follow her on twitter at @Jess_DQ.


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