The tiny emirate was opposed to the war in Iraq, but was bound by its defence agreement with the United States and served as the site of the US military Central Command during the US-British invasion. The media has some freedom, such as that enjoyed by the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, though all criticism of the royal family is banned.
Qatar is one of the countries, along with Morocco and Bahrain, that the US government cites as an example of democratic progress in the Middle East. A new national constitution, which took four years to draft, was approved by referendum in April 2003. It provides for the separation of powers, though the executive branch remains in the hands of the emir and his ministers. Its main innovation is an advisory council (the Majlis al-Shoura), 30 of whose 45 members are elected by direct universal suffrage and the rest appointed by the emir (article 77). The first parliament was due to be elected in 2004.
The constitution does not allow political parties but guarantees freedom of religion, including non-monotheistic ones. The Wahabi branch of Islam is dominant in Qatar, as in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
It also guarantees freedom of expression (article 47) and the media (article 48). The authorities announced in May the setting up of an independent advisory National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of 13 members chaired by a lawyer, Khaled Bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, with the job of gathering the reports and observations of international organisations about human rights in Qatar.
The Arabic-language all-news satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, founded in 1996 by the wealthy and powerful foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani, won worldwide recognition for its exclusive coverage of the war in Afghanistan and its broadcasts of tapes from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. At the start of the second Gulf war, the station’s footage and news was picked up by the world’s media. The British BBC TV signed an agreement with it before the war to exchange news and share equipment.
The attention Al-Jazeera drew before, during and after the war from the US government, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime and Iraq’s post-war provisional Governing Council showed its strategic importance in the Arab world, where it is seen by more than 35 million people.
The US government several times accused it of encouraging anti-American feeling in the region and inciting people to violence against the US and British troops invading Iraq. The Qatari government responded on 23 May to increasingly fierce criticism and pressure for Al-Jazeera to change its approach by saying it was an independent station which had nothing to do with the government. Two days earlier, it had broadcast a tape-recording attributed to one of Bin Laden’s top aides, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Al-Jazeera has an independence and outspokenness that is the envy of other Arab media, but it was still used during the Iraq war as an instrument of Qatari foreign policy. Its reports on the war glossed over the key role of Qatar in the mobilisation and deployment of US and British forces and stressed the support for the US shown by Arab countries such Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan.
The station also rarely tackles domestic issue in Qatar and, like the rest of the local media, censors itself, avoiding mention, for example, that the new constitution does not allow political parties. A 35-year-old Jordanian Palestinian, was named as director-general of the station in October to replace Mohamed Jassem Ali, who was accused of collaborating with President Hussein’s intelligence services. Some predicted the station’s line would become more "moderate" and "professional" but no change was officially announced.
Release of a journalist sentenced to death
Jordanian journalist Firas Majali, who had been condemned to death for espionage, was pardoned on 18 March 2003 by Emir Hamad, ending a year-long diplomatic crisis between the two countries. He was freed immediately after an official visit by King Abdullah of Jordan. "My son has suffered a lot and we hope nobody will have to go through what he has," said his father Nasuh, a former Jordanian information minister.
Majali, who worked for the state-run Qatar TV, was arrested in February 2002 and sentenced to death by the Qatar supreme court on 22 October that year. Al-Jazeera said he was accused of spying for Jordan, but his lawyer said the country was not named. Jordanian newspapers had campaigned for his release and fiercely criticised the Qatari authorities.