Swiss journalist says Qatar arrest reports exaggerated

April 25, 2011

One of the two Swiss television journalists who were briefly detained in Qatar on April 1 for filming without permission said international media had blown their case out of proportion.

The original report about the two journalists said the duo was arrested in Qatar and interrogated for several hours, then fined and prevented from leaving the country until the Swiss embassy in Kuwait intervened.

However, the report generated outcries from international media and activists about Qatar’s lack of press freedom, heavy censorship and the inability to host the World Cup in 2022.

“I’m a bit surprised by all the stories circulating in the media. There are some newspaper titles saying things like ‘Handcuffed and detained in Qatar for 13 days’. That’s not exactly what happened,” Christopher Cerf, from the Swiss TV channel RTS, told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF).

“Yes, we have been handcuffed, but only for about two hours. The rest of the time, we were stuck in Qatar, because we were waiting to get our equipment back,” he said in the interview posted on the DCMF website.

Dramatic reporting

According to the Doha-based journalists’ rights watchdog, the story sounded more dramatic in most media reports than the reality, with headlines like “Two Swiss journalists barred from leaving Qatar” and “13 days without freedom”.

Neither of the protagonists of the story, however, ever claimed to have been detained for 13 days.

“We were detained for some hours on the first day, but the rest of the time we could move freely,” a “slightly amused” Cerf said one week after his return to Switzerland.

According to the account posted by the Doha media centre, the two Swiss journalists arrived at Doha airport, checked in their filming equipment at the customs and got a regular tourist visa at the immigration counter.

“We never tried to hide that we were coming to work for TV. It would have been impossible anyway. We showed all our TV equipment to the customs officers and told them we were from the Swiss Television,” Cerf was quoted as saying.

Before their trip, Qatari diplomats in Switzerland reportedly told the two journalists that they did not need to worry about filming in Qatar.

“They had told us: ‘Qatar is a free country, you can shoot anything unless there is an explicit interdiction’. They said the only thing we should be careful with is taking pictures of women,” Cerf said.

“We came to Qatar for a feature about the football scene, so we followed some teams and went to the stadiums. And then, on our last day, we thought we should get some additional shots of the countryside. So we decided to go south of Doha, the capital, because people had told us that this is where we would find beautiful dunes.”

At a bridge near Mesaieed, the two journalists were stopped by a police patrol in the early afternoon. However, when they could not present a written permit that allows them to film, Cerf and his cameraman Yves Thorimbert were taken to the police station in Al Wakra.

According to the report, the atmosphere was relaxed in the beginning, but became tense due to difficult communication.

“We were both handcuffed and they wouldn’t even let us go to the toilet without a police officer following us”, Cerf said. “Then, they took us to Doha and presented us to a judge and made us pay a fine of 1,500 Qatari Riyal, (Dh1,513) but we didn’t even know what exactly we were accused of.”

Around midnight, the two journalists were free to return to their hotel. Their passports had not been confiscated, but their TV equipment had been, so they were told to come back on Monday to recover their belongings.

“It all happened on April 1st, so when I contacted the colleagues back home saying that we’d been arrested by the police, they thought I had come up with a good joke for April Fool’s day,” Cerf said.

But when the duo headed back to the police station, they were told that things had not been sorted and that they needed to check later.

“On Monday, they told us to come back on Wednesday, and on Wednesday, they told us to go to the Ministry of Interior… and so forth. We were always told that things would be sorted within two days, but eventually it took two weeks,” Cerf said.

Even though there was no ban on the journalists’ travel, the pair preferred to wait until they took their equipment back.

In the meantime, seeking to understand what happened, the two journalists went back to the area where they were arrested to see if they missed a sign or an indication forbidding taking pictures or filming.

“The only sign is a couple of kilometres away, near the oil and gas plants.” Cerf said.

The sensitive nature of Mesaieed’s petrochemical industry is likely to have triggered the police’s reaction.

“It’s a bit as if you were on the road doing 120km/h where you’re allowed to, and they stop you and say, ‘Here it’s OK to be at 120, but 2km further along the limit decreases to 80 and we’re not sure that you’re going to slow down, so we’ll arrest you’,” Cerf said with a smile, according to the DCMF report.

The two journalists left Qatar on April 14.

Back in Switzerland, Cerf was stunned by the snowball effect the story of his “detention” has had.

Qatar adventure

But while some journalists rushed to question Qatar’s ability to host the World Cup, Cerf focused on the more anecdotal aspects of his Qatar adventure: “The people we met at the police and the ministry were very polite. They always offered tea and even apologised for making us lose so much time. But we were definitely confronted with a bureaucracy that is much slower than what we are used to in Switzerland.”

His colleagues at RTS network were relieved to have him back, even though he did not fit the picture of a recently released detainee: “Some people here expect me to come out of Qatari prison cell – but I came back with a tan. Luckily, our hotel has a swimming pool.”

His feature on the World Cup preparations is scheduled to be broadcast by Swiss Television in two weeks, so Cerf is now busy in the edit suite.

“The experience I’ve had is not going to make me change the subject. It’s still about the World Cup and what we have seen from the preparations, was actually rather positive,” he said.

Cerf who has reported from the World Cups in Germany and South Africa said that there is one thing he thinks only Qatar can boast.

“In other countries I missed a lot of matches because I constantly had to travel from one city to another. But Qatar is so small that it could finally be possible to see every match.”

His visit to Qatar is unlikely to have been his last.

“I’d quite like to come back for the World Cup in 2022. Next time, I’ll get a written filming permit,” he said.



About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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