Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt and Norway’s embassy in Abu Dhabi took contact with authorities in Qatar after two journalists from Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) were arrested by police in Qatar late Sunday night. They’d spent last week gathering information in connection with the upcoming World Cup, and the Norwegian government is shaken over how officials in Qatar tried to prevent them from doing their work.
“The widespread and increasing pressure on freedom of expression and media freedom in the world is extremely disturbing,” Huitfeldt wrote in a statement to NRK after confirming that its sports journalist Halvor Ekeland and photojournalist Lokman Ghorbani had been released after spending nearly two days in arrest. “We can confirm that the two Norwegian citizens … were arrested while they carried out their assignments at journalists,” Huitfeldt added.
The two journalists had arrived in Qatar on Sunday November 14, and had an appointment the next day to interview a critic of the regime in Qatar, but he was arrested a few hours before the interview, confirmed human rights organization Amnesty International. Ekeland has been covering the controversy over the World Cup in Qatar, where officials have been widely accused of human rights abuses against migrant workers building new stadiums, hotels and other facilities.
NRK reported that Ekeland and Ghorbani covered official events tied to the World Cup (due to kick off a year from now), spoke with officials representatives and several workers about their working conditions. Their assignment was to present “a broad picture of what’s happening in the country,” according to NRK, which insists that was openly communicated with authorities in Qatar.
Officials at NRK became alarmed when neither Ekeland nor Ghorbani contacted NRK’s editorial department before their scheduled departure, as had been agreed. Colleagues at NRK secured confirmation that the two journalists weren’t on board the flight they were supposed to be Sunday night. Their colleagues began to call around to a large network of organizations and other contacts in Qatar, and alerted Norway’s foreign ministry, which eventually confirmed the two had been arrested. Neither NRK nor the Norwegian foreign ministry have been told why the two were detained.
“We are very concerned that two of our employees were arrested and questioned in connection with their journalistic work,” said NRK’s chief executive Thor Gjermund Eriksen. “Press freedom is fundamental for NRK and all independent media. We have not received any clarification from the authorities in Qatar, but it’s difficult to interpret this as anything other than an attack on independent journalism. It’s intolerable that media are hindered from carrying out their work in connection with the world’s largest sports event.”
Foreign Minister Huitfeldt was also disturbed, noting that it’s important for journalists to be able to work without interference from authorities. She wrote that the authorities in Qatar “are well aware of Norway’s position. I took up the human rights situation with Qatar’s foreign minister in a telephone conversation last Monday.”
After intervention and apparent protests from Norwegian authorities, NRK’s journalists were released after two days in arrest, and were on a flight that took off from Qatar just before midnight Tuesday Norwegian time.
“We are very glad and relieved that they’re both okay,” Eriksen said after the flight took off. “I spoke with them … and they were shaken by what they’d been through, but they’d managed to get some food and some sleep. This case has the highest priority for us. We have done all we could to get Ghorbani and Ekeland released and safely back to Norway.”
Norway’s national men’s football team won’t be playing in next year’s World Cup, after failing to qualify in its final group match against the Netherlands last week. The team had already been mounting human rights demonstrations of their own throughout the qualification period, because of all the abuse of migrant workers in Qatar, while Norwegian football fans have urged a boycott of the World Cup over the past year. Norway’s football federation has promised to put pressure on both the international football association FIFA, which awarded the World Cup to Qatar in 2010, and on the host nation to improve human rights after warding off the boycott urged by Norwegian sports fans.