Norway’ foreign ministry called in Qatar’s ambassador to Norway on Wednesday, after two journalists from Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) were arrested while on assignment in Qatar earlier this week. Their alleged offense while covering the run-up to the controversial World Cup in Qatar next year: taking photos on what local officials claimed was private property.
Their arrests in the middle of the night late Sunday have sparked strong reaction and official objections in Norway. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre branded the arrests on Wednesday as “unacceptable,” claiming that coverage of conditions in Qatar and critical journalism “is a part of not only how our democracy should work, but how it should also be elsewhere in the world.”
Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg also called the arrests unacceptable. She noted that officials in Qatar “have themselves asked for the world’s eyes to be directed at them” by asking to host the World Cup. “Then they must tolerate that the world’s eyes come,” Solberg told NRK.
Solberg also said that she expected the Norwegian government to send a clear message to Qatar’s authorities that it’s their duty to offer full freedom of the press. Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stated shortly after the two journalists were finally released from prison and could leave Qatar late Tuesday night, that she’d already done that.
Ambassador called in on the carpet
On Wednesday Huitfeldt also called in Qatar’s ambassador to Norway, who is not resident in Oslo, to demand an explanation for the arrests and seizure of all their technical equipment. NRK’s chief executive Thor Gjermund Eriksen and several others have claimed the arrests were meant to have a “chilling effect on critical journalism,” perhaps discouraging foreign reporters from delving into ongoing cases of human rights abuses and exploitation of migrant labourers in Qatar that also have prompted protests and calls for boycotts of the World Cup that later were rejected by Norwegian officials.
NRK reported on Wednesday that Qatar officials have since claimed that NRK’s two journalists were arrested because they allegedly filmed in a private area without permission. The officials confirmed that the journalists were arrested at their hotel based on a complaint from the owner of the “private area,” which Eriksen said was around the stadium where the World Cup finals will be held.
Eriksen claims the journalists, who returned to Oslo Wednesday morning, had received oral permission to film from “leaders at the site. I can still say that they have acted in the manner that I believe NRK journalists should.” Both also had approved visas to work in Qatar. He further claimed the arrests were an “absurd” reaction: “If it’s a problem to film around the stadium for the finals, we have a much bigger problem trying to cover and bring stories from Qatar.”
NRK’s chief also objected to how the journalists were held for 32 hours without being charged. “We have no formal basis for why they were arrested,” Eriksen said.
The journalists themselves, Halvor Ekeland of NRK’s sports department and photographer Lokman Ghorbani, said at a press conference shortly after their arrival back in Oslo Wednesday that they’d covered a ceremony on Sunday held by local officials to mark that the World Cup would kick off in exactly one year. After that, “we went straight into an interview with the World Cup chief, and had a long conversation with him,” Ekeland said.
He said the two arrived back to their hotel in Qatar around midnight Sunday after a long day and were unloading their equipment when “five or six people approached us, introduced themselves and showed their credentials. They said they were from the police and that we should go with them to the police station.”
There awaited eight hours of questioning, with Ekeland and Ghorbani separated from one another and interrogated each in their own room. Then another person came who said their case “didn’t look good” and he “wanted to put us into custody.” They were then placed in a bare cell with around 10 or 12 others under arrest.
Ekeland said they were never directly threatened and no violence was used against them, but it was nonetheless a “tough” experience. More hours passed, “we laid down and tried to sleep a bit. They came in and wanted us to sign a paper we didn’t understand, but we signed it,” Ekeland said.
Finally they were allowed out of the cell, told “here’s your baggage, there’s the door.” All their equipment, however was gone. “They had taken all our equipment,” Ghorbani said. “Everyone was curious about it, about our assignment, why we were there, what was said, which photos we’d used and so forth.”
Ekeland said they were relieved “to be home again in Norway now, on Norwegian soil. Now we’ll go in to work, have a debriefing and some meetings about what happened and what’s happening down there.” He and Ghorbani said the past few days have been “challenging, but we knew there were many people working for us. We had a feeling it would turn out well.”
Norwegian officials remain upset, including the president of Norway’s football federation (NFF) Terje Svendsen. He said NFF intended to take their objections to the journalists’ arrests to the highest levels within the international football association FIFA, which controversially chose Qatar to host next year’s World Cup back in 2010.
“It’s been said that there’s freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Qatar,” Svendsen told NRK. “What’s happened now shows that hasn’t been implemented at all.” He also intends to contact the European football association (UEFA) in charge of handling questions around the World Cup in Qatar.
Ståle Solbakken, head coach of the Norwegian men’s national football that failed last week to qualify for the World Cup, called the arrests “tragic.” He told newspaper Dagbladet on Wednesday that “it’s painful to read that people aren’t allowed to do their job.”
The president of Norway’s athletics federation, Berit Kjøll called the journalists’ arrests “disturbing and shocking.” She called for an end to major international sports championships being granted to host countries that “don’t respect freedom of the press or freedom of expression.”
Qatar has long been accused of using the World Cup as a form of “sports-washing,” in an attempt to improve its international reputation. “I would never have believed, given this sports-washing project and how the football World Cup depends on media coverage, that they would arrest Norwegian journalists,” said John Peder Egenæs, secretary general of Norway’s chapter of Amnesty International.