Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thank God for a Free Press

Yesterday a horrific fire gutted an extremely popular shopping mall/entertainment complex called the Vilaggio in Doha, Qatar.  The fire which took the lives of 19, to include 13 young children in a day-care center, broke out at approximately 11:00am and was not contained until approximately 2:00pm.  From the beginning of the fire until a press conference (that was delayed for 90 minutes from its announced start time) delivered by the Qatari Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Health, there was no regular, informative updates delivered by any government officials, nor any news-media outlets.  As you may recall, Doha, is the headquarters of the Arab-media giant Al-Jazeera.

rescuers at work on the roof of the mall - photo copyrighted and courtesy of Brian Candy

As I scrambled to find news updates on the situation, only www.dohanews.co and other Qatar-themed internet forums offered any kind of regular news updates.  Even though these updates were simply speculative and rumor based these rumors on the fire and its human toll turned out to be almost entirely true.  Al-Jazeera offered only official statements delivered by the Qatari government which, just like when dealing with similar circumstances in US governments are always cautious, confirmed, and edited for PR impact, stories that do not necessarily inform.

I know Qatar is slowly moving towards those freedoms we Americans take for granted, but it was awful to try to follow a news story depending on rumors, text messages, and internet forums.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to know your 2-year old was in that day-care center and not have access to any information.  I also understand the severe consternation I saw in the internet forums lambasting the Qatari Ministry of Interior for their lack of communication.  When your country has a reputation for not caring for the welfare of expatriate workers, to include blatant and rampant discriminatory practices throughout society, it’s difficult to trust any statements regarding the welfare of those people this fire impacted.  And when the official stated that no Qataris were killed in the fire, it can’t help but make one wonder for what purpose was that statement made.  When one considers the possible impact an event like this may have on Qatar, a country whose image to the rest of the world matters more than any one or several inhabitants… a country whose World Cup bid could be damaged by such an incident, it’s hard not to have nagging doubts as to the veracity of official statements.

I only hope that this burgeoning culture of freedom here continues and even reticent government officials here can see how new media in Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and Internet forums can have beneficial uses in awful circumstances like these.

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