It has taken the Doha Centre for Media Freedom almost two years to pick the successor to its celebrated founder, Robert Menard, of the ‘Reporters Without Borders’ fame, who left Qatar unannounced in mid-2009.
The new man at the helm, though well-qualified for the job, is again not a Qatari. That, despite the fact that there is no dearth of Qatari journalists who are qualified and experienced enough to have been selected for the job.
That, according to observers, would have been more appropriate as the Center’s professed aim is to fight for media freedom in a part of the world (Middle East) which genuinely lacks it.
As an observer of the local media put it: “The media in Europe is free so the journalists there don’t have to, obviously, fight for freedom,”
Jen Keulen, 61, a Dutch, is from a West-based organization, ‘Free Voice’, which is similar to the one Menard belonged to and eventually had differences of opinion with those who mattered here over how the Centre should be run.
Observers say that with Keulen in the saddle, the possibility of a similar situation arising cannot be ruled out unless his mandate is clearly delineated.
Keulen has, though, worked with a prominent Dutch newspaper and had even been based in the Middle East as a correspondent for long years. He was posted in Amman, Beirut and Cairo, among other places.
Defunct for neatly two years, the Centre occasionally shot off press statements on media issues in other parts of the world — conveniently ignoring Qatar and the rest of the GCC — and, strangely, the releases were usually signed by its financial controller in the absence of director-general.
The Centre’s website, still in beta version, and Keulen welcomes the visitor as director-general of the Centre.
A news item posted on the website says the site is being launched today and Keulen is to be introduced to the local media but, surprisingly, no invites have been sent out to the media, at least to this newspaper.
The Doha Centre for Media Freedom has been in the throes of controversy right from its inception.
The only Qatari on its 12-member board is its chairman, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, who also heads the board of Al Jazeera Channel.
The board has all sorts of people, including novelists, writers and politicians as members, some of them pretty controversial. One of them being a former Indian junior minister and UN under-Secretary General for Communications, Shashi Tharoor.
Tharoor, a member of India’s parliament, had to quit Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet following allegations that he had misused his office to get shares in the India Premier League (Cricket) franchise of Cochin.
The Advisory Council of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, similarly, though headed by the Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage H E Dr Hamad Abdulaziz Al Kuwari) has only one Qatari as member. Nasser Al Othman, the highly-respected Qatari scribe is the only national on the 10-member Council of the Centre.
Shockingly, a man who holds an Israeli passport is on the Council and he is a musician, not a journalist. Sixty-nine year old, Daniel Barenboim is basically a pianist and conductor.
It also seems that the re-incarnated Centre has a different mission now which does not include providing shelter to journalists facing threats in their countries.
The Centre, during Menard’s stint, had villas that provided shelter to such scribes.
One of the Centre’s objectives is to make the people in Qatar and the rest of the Middle Eastern region aware of the importance of media freedom.
Critics say the Centre would do better to focus on the governments rather than people to impart the lessons of press freedom since it is they—not the people—who are to blame for stifling the media.
But for a state-sponsored media watchdog doing that should be a tough call, suggest critics