* Human Rights Watch urges Qatar not to approve draft
* Says law clashes with claim to be media freedom centre
DOHA Oct 30 Qatar's draft media law came under
fire on Tuesday from Human Rights Watch, which singled out
"loosely worded provisions" penalising criticism of the Gulf
emirate and its neighbours.
The New York-based organisation urged Qatar's Emir Sheikh
Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani not to approve the law as drafted,
calling it "a commitment to censorship".
Qatari officials could not immediately be reached for
Freedom of expression is tightly controlled in the tiny
autocratic Gulf state, with self-censorship prevalent among
national newspapers and other media outlets.
A close U.S. ally that hosts a large U.S. military base,
Qatar has escaped the unrest that has engulfed other parts of
the region. It lacks any organised political opposition.
Qatar finances and hosts the pan-Arab satellite TV network
al-Jazeera, which has closely covered Arab revolts elsewhere.
Although the draft calls for abolishing criminal penalties
for media law violations, it contains some sweeping provisions.
Article 53 prohibits publishing or broadcasting information
that would "throw relations between the state and the Arab and
friendly states into confusion" or "abuse the regime or offend
the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or
higher interests of the state".
Violators would face fines of up to 1 million Qatari riyals
The draft approved by the emir's advisory Shura Council in
June would be the first change to Qatar's media law since 2008,
when the government set up the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.
"Qatar's commitment to freedom of expression is only as good
as its laws, which in this case do not meet the international
standards it professes to support," Joe Stork, deputy Middle
East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"Instead of supporting press freedom, this draft media law
is a commitment to censorship."
The imprisonment of Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb
al-Ajami, who faces charges of "inciting the overthrow of the
ruling regime," provides further evidence of Qatar's double
standard on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
The charge Ajami faces carries the death penalty. In his
poetry, Ajami has praised the revolutions that have swept the
Arab world and has criticised the emir of Qatar. His next court
hearing is scheduled for Nov. 29.
Qatar's penal code provides sentences of five years in
prison for criticising the country's ruler. Both the penal code
and the proposed media law violate international freedom of
speech standards, Human Rights Watch said.
"If Qatar is serious about providing regional leadership on
media freedom it should remove the problematic provisions from
its draft media law and drop all charges against Muhammad Ibn
al-Dheeb al-Ajami that solely relate to his exercise of free
speech," Stork said.
(Reporting by Regan Doherty; Editing by Alistair Lyon)