Liberal media sells out to Qatar

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani, speaks during a press conference following a summit on the post-Qaddafi Middle East held at the Elysée Palace in Paris — September 1, 2011. (Lionel Bonaventure / Agence France-Presse)

Liberal media sells out to Qatar

Originally published in The Washington Examiner

December 6, 2019

Dr. Charles Jacobs

Recently, several liberal media and educational organizations, including NowThis, Vox, SXSW, and TED Talks, quietly partnered with the Qatari government to produce a debate series aimed at Americans called Doha Debates. The series, featuring panel discussions filmed before a live audience in a slickly appointed studio and promoted online, is funded by the regime-controlled Qatar Foundation.

The debate series is presented as highbrow intellectual engagement with matters of deep concern to westerners, such as the future of capitalism and democracy. But its real mission is to help create a smokescreen that the Qatari government hopes will obscure some of the most anti-progressive domestic and foreign policies in the world. Doha Debates is the latest cunning public relations move by an illiberal regime that has been able to ingratiate itself to Western liberal elites with remarkable ease.

The Doha Debates are showing that for some outlets in today’s journalism business, liberal values are just platitudes served up to a gullible audience. It’s money that talks.

For the right price, NowThis will ignore an egregious human rights record; SXSW will overlook modern-day slavery; and Vox Media will embrace a government whose treatment of laborers, gays, and minorities should relegate it to the darkest corners of the family of nations.

Liberal activists such as MSNBC analyst Anand Giridharadas are taking the trip to Doha, too. Giridharadas has parlayed demagoguery against billionaires into a lucrative career, including, amazingly, in Qatar, where he made an appearance to rail against “the hypocrisy of billionaires.” Qatar is run by a family of billionaires who use their petroriches to control domestic media, host terrorist groups, and bribe foreign officials.

I have spent much of my career fighting modern-day slavery, and I can say, without any doubt, that the Qatari government is one of the biggest obstacles to expunging slavery from the world. Nearly 90% of Qatar’s population consists of foreign workers who are subjected to draconian labor practices that keep them locked inside the country and dependent on their employer. These workers suffer dangerous working conditions for very little pay, when they are paid at all. According to Amnesty International, tens of thousands of mostly South Asian workers are “at the mercy of exploitative bosses and at risk of serious human rights abuses including forced labor.” Forced labor is defined by abolitionists as a form of modern slavery — compelling a person to work under the threat of violence for little or no pay.

In two years, millions will watch as Qatar hosts the FIFA World Cup — an honor credibly alleged to have been purchased through a massive campaign of bribery, graft, and corruption. In preparation for that event, some 2 million migrant laborers are working in appalling conditions to build the infrastructure necessary to host the games. An estimated 4,000 of these workers will die because of dangerous work conditions.

Added to Qatar’s flagrant human rights abuses: The tiny Persian Gulf state was ranked in one study as the second-most dangerous place in the world for gays, between Nigeria and Yemen. Today in Qatar, homosexuality is still punished with one to three years in prison, flogging, or execution. Al Jazeera, owned and funded by the Qatari regime, broadcasts preachers of anti-Semitic hate as regular programming. Leaders of terrorist groups such as Hamas are proudly hosted in luxury accommodations by the Qatari regime.

Vox Media’s values include “quality, respect for all, inclusivity, and risk taking.” SXSW calls itself a “forward-thinking company” that champions causes and people who celebrate “unique, diverse interests and backgrounds.” Group Nine Media, which owns NowThis, Thrillist, and others, promises to provide media that “ignites action” and “inspires optimism.” Its stories, it claims, should “embrace individuality” and “champion inclusion.”

Nowhere do outlets such as Vox mention partnering with a government that enslaves thousands of vulnerable migrant workers. Nor does NowThis admit to collaborating with the persecution of gays. SXSW surely does not list the whitewashing of an awful human rights record as a brand mission statement.

Group Nine Media does refer to itself, however, as a company that encourages people to “be brave” and “be honest.”

So here’s a challenge for participants in the Doha Debates: Be brave about your relationship with Qatar. Be honest about how much money Qatar has paid for your silence on its human rights record.

What were you paid to participate in Doha Debates? What strings were attached, explicit and implicit?

These outlets hold considerable influence, especially among young people. They are more popular than ever in liberal circles. They have a responsibility to do better — both for the world’s slaves and for their Western audiences. It’s time for them to dump Doha. If they do not, their readers should dump them.

Charles Jacobs is the president of the American anti-slavery group He received the Boston Freedom Award for his activism helping to free slaves in Sudan.