Qatari news site says website blocked, blames state censorship

DOHA (Reuters) - An independent English-language news site in Qatar accused the Gulf state of censorship on Thursday, saying two internet service providers had blocked access to its website.

The Doha News, which stirred a debate about the limits of tolerance in the conservative country in August with an opinion column on gay rights in Qatar, said the two internet firms had simultaneously barred access to its website on Wednesday.

“We can only conclude that our website has been deliberately targeted and blocked by Qatar authorities,” the Doha News said in a statement. “We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which appears to be an act of censorship.”

A Qatar government spokesman was not immediately available for comment. One of the two internet service providers is state-controlled Ooredoo. The company declined to comment.

The other is Vodafone Qatar, which ended Ooredoo’s domestic monopoly in 2009. A Vodafone spokeswoman did not respond to telephone calls.

Internet users outside of Qatar were able to access the website.

The gas-rich Gulf state has faced increased media scrutiny over alleged corruption and labour abuse ahead of its hosting of the 2022 soccer World Cup.

Freedom of expression is tightly controlled in Qatar with self-censorship prevalent among national newspapers and other media outlets.

Qatar finances and hosts the pan-Arab satellite TV network al-Jazeera which has won millions of viewers across the Arab world and beyond as well as the government-funded Doha Centre for Media Freedom.

A 2016 survey by Northwestern University, one of six prominent U.S. schools with branches in the country, showed most Qataris support the principle of free speech online. But the same survey also showed that a majority of Qataris want the internet to be more tightly regulated.

A close U.S. ally that hosts a large U.S. military base, Doha has escaped the unrest that has engulfed other parts of the region. It lacks any organised political opposition.

Reporting by Tom Finn; Editing by Richard Lough