Fourteen years ago, after reporting on a very interesting general election in India, I headed to Doha.
I had reported on child labour and abuse, NGOs swindling foreign funds in the name of HIV/AIDS awareness, blood bank scams, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. I worked as journalists are supposed to.
Then I came here and read insipid press releases, and rehashed agency stories for the local newspaper. Every now and then I would manage to write pieces I was proud of, for publications in India. But most of the time I didn’t. Though more recently, I have the freedom to explore issues that don’t make me see myself as a stooge.
In the last week Guardian has published some very strong pieces on Qatar, on its slave labour, its abuse of migrant workers, its stark inequality. You can read that here and here. There were other articles, but those were written without any understanding of Qatar, by armchair journalists, so I won’t share them.
That migrant workers here are abused and ill-treated is no secret. It’s there for all of us to see… and turn away and focus on our fancy cars, our latest smart phones, and the next holiday destination.
Which is fine. C’est la vie. What really draws my ire is when people start denying the situation. When they talk about the environments the workers were escaping in the first place, as if that justified their treatment here in Qatar.
I have seen horrible things here. Child jockeys bitten by camels, grown men pleading for kindness, and oppressed women being physically bullied by their wards. And yes, I’ve seen worse things were I come from; the country which is the main supplier of cheap labour. But there is a vital difference… people don’t stop complaining and speaking up against these issues in India. They have a voice.
Obviously, Qatar doesn’t ‘get’ journalism or free speech. They are used to press releases and people fawning over its wealth. It doesn’t understand that it’s not a journalist’s place or concern to sugarcoat the bitter realities.
You see, they want to be criticised in a manner that doesn’t demonise them, or force them to look within (and squirm). They want to be seen as the super rich benefactor who reaches out to the needy in Indonesia and Pakistan, in Sudan and Palestine. What about the needy on your own soil?
I am here now, finding myself disagreeing with both the critics and those in denial.
I do believe there is hope, and that not everything is black and dreary. Neither do I believe we need to sit back and allow Qatar to work at its own pace to bring about change. This is not a Montessori system, for goodness sake!
Criticism, brutal criticism, brought about a fabulous change some years ago. In 2000 Qatar won the right to host the Asian Games in 2006, and the WTO was scheduled for November 2001. It was under immense pressure to prove it was a worthy host for both, and at that point it wasn’t the plight of labourers, but that of children being starved and used as camel jockeys. It had no choice but to ban the employing of children as jockeys. Not out of the goodness of its heart, but because it made political and business sense to do so.
Likewise, migrant rights will be taken seriously only when Qatar feels the pinch at a political and international level. Not when it ‘realises’ the errors of its ways, as some naive souls (offended and saddened by the criticism) seem to believe.