The marble-lined, three-tiered atrium at the United States Institute of Peace was abuzz. It was about 9 the night before the White House correspondents' dinner in April, and I was at one of the pre-parties taking place around D.C. There were about a half-dozen bars proffering free booze, and some buffet tables stocked with finger foods. Music thrummed at an earsplitting level from a DJ tower in the middle of the floor: Prince, the Backstreet Boys, an uncensored version of G-Eazy's "No Limit."
The invite-only party was co-hosted by the Washington Diplomat, a monthly newspaper that serves the diplomatic community. The co-sponsors were the D.C. United soccer team and Long & Foster Real Estate. But it was another co-host that seemed like a particularly odd fit: the government of Qatar. The invitation to the party had billed the event as a way to “celebrate the importance of media freedom and integrity, both nationally and internationally”; how, I wondered, did journalists feel about attending a party celebrating press freedom co-hosted by a country where the press, and the populace at large, is not even close to being free?
So I set out to find reporters to talk to. “Are you a journalist?” I asked one young guy in a gray suit leaning against a cocktail table. It turned out he wasn’t a reporter, but I asked him about Qatar and press freedom anyway. He looked at me blankly. “I have no comment about that,” he said, and excused himself, saying he needed to get a drink.
I kept going, watching people’s expressions harden. Their reactions weren’t surprising, really. No one likes having their motivations challenged.
I approached another guy, who told me he was a Realtor. He said he attends events like these frequently: “I like to practice talking to rich people,” he joked. All kidding aside, though, he said, “I don’t think it should be that way. I certainly wouldn’t want my country to be that way.”
Two people, who identified themselves as Washington Post journalists, said before I could ask a question that they couldn’t talk to me. They then sicced me on a Politico journalist who said, “I’m sure there are more qualified people here to answer that,” before making a break for it.
Anna Gawel, managing editor at the Washington Diplomat, emphasized that these kinds of events do not influence the Diplomat’s journalism. “We’ve really prided ourselves on our strict separation of church and state so to speak over the last 25 years and the independence and integrity of our editorial content,” she wrote in an email.
Qatar was not an original co-host, but came on board after the 2018 co-host, the United Kingdom, pulled out at the last minute. The Brits canceled “for various reasons, including Brexit and just logistical difficulties,” explained Gawel. (The British Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.) And so the publication partnered with Qatar instead. When I asked Gawel about the Diplomat’s decision to do so, she replied that the publication recognizes there are political connotations to partnering with certain countries. But, she said, they try to work with as many embassies as possible, given that the paper is for the diplomatic community.
Jassim Bin Mansour al-Thani, media attache for the Qatari Embassy, said this was the first correspondents’ dinner event the country had hosted. “In all instances our co-hosting is dependent on the cause,” he said in an email. As for whether the cause in this case is inconsistent with the government’s treatment of the press at home, al-Thani said: “Qatar treats media in Qatar and around the world with respect” and “believes firmly in a strong, fair, and independent press.” He pointed out that the country hosts Al Jazeera, which is renowned for its aggressive reporting, much to the irritation of Qatar’s neighbors. Indeed, shutting down Al Jazeera is among the demands Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have made to end their two-year-old blockade of Qatar.
Inside Qatar, however, Al Jazeera and other local media offer a “very limited” amount of critical reporting, says Sabrina Bennoui, from Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East bureau. Doha News, an online publication, operated freely for seven years, looking at issues in Qatar with a critical lens. But in 2016, the government blocked the site inside the country. The Doha Centre for Media Freedom, which was founded more than a decade ago by Qatar’s emir, shuttered abruptly on April 16, 10 days before the party in D.C. The country, according to Reporters Without Borders, has a “draconian system of censorship.”
Al-Thani said Doha News was suspended temporarily for failing to “comply with local business registration requirements” and is now operational again. He said that, while the Doha Centre is closed, Qatar continues to “invest heavily in initiatives to protect journalists and promote media freedom,” and legislation to protect media from censorship is “in its final stages.”
Journalists in Qatar have been arrested, including a BBC reporter who was briefly detained in 2015 while reporting on migrant workers. Such workers make up about 95 percent of the nation’s labor force but have almost no rights in Qatar, according to Human Rights Watch. (Al-Thani said the government had invited journalists to see worker housing and gave them “free rein to interview whomever they chose.” He said the BBC reporter made site visits on his own and was detained for trespassing on private property.)
Qatar is “not the most oppressive regime in the world,” explains Sarah Repucci, senior director of research and analysis at Freedom House, a pro-democracy independent watchdog group, “but it is very repressive, and that’s not to be taken lightly.” Overall, the group labels the country “not free.”
Almost none of the people I approached at the party knew about Qatar’s treatment of the media. As the night wore on, I spoke to a guy who said he was a World Bank economist. He didn’t think it was that big a deal to be at an event celebrating press freedom thrown by a country that restricts it. But his companion said she found it troubling that authoritarian countries like Qatar could throw parties celebrating journalism in places like the United States. “They’re buying an image. It’s not right,” she said. Then she asked that I not use her name because she is Russian and feared retribution if the government found out she had spoken this way.
By about 1 a.m., the party was winding down. A promised appearance by Lisa Vanderpump, star of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” had failed to materialize, though two other “housewives,” from the Potomac and New York shows, had dropped by. Now, bartenders were packing up. The music still thrummed. A few die-hards continued to dance, oblivious to a man maneuvering a mop across the floor.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mispelled the name of Anna Gawel, managing editor at the Washington Diplomat. This version has been updated.