By Tom Finn
DOHA (Reuters) – An independent English-language news site in Qatar accused the Gulf state of censorship on Thursday, saying two Internet service providers had simultaneously blocked access to it.
“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 spokesman for the Qatari government did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. The two Internet service providers, Vodafone Qatar and state-controlled Ooredoo
Freedom of expression is tightly controlled in Qatar with self-censorship prevalent among national newspapers and other media outlets. The gas-rich state has faced increased international scrutiny over alleged corruption and labor abuse as it prepares to host the 2022 soccer World Cup.
Internet users outside Qatar were still able to access the Doha News, which stirred a debate about the limits of tolerance with an opinion column in August about gay rights in the conservative country.
Rights group Amnesty International said the government appeared to have targeted a “key source of journalism” which fostered “dialogue and discussion about social and political issues that affect people in Qatar”.
Some Qataris on social media said they were upset at the news site being blocked, calling it a setback for the country.
“It’s extremely worrying that @dohanews has been blocked. We always prided our self in being open to voices,” Anood al-Thani, a student, said on Twitter.
Others said Doha News, which has an audience of around one million unique users per month, was “run by foreigners” and had put itself at risk by being unfairly critical in its reporting.
“The site has an unprofessional bias against Qatar and recently became the source of all those foreign media attacks on Qatar, feeding them with everything that offends us,” tweeted Ahmed al-Kuwari, a Qatari engineer.
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 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 organized political opposition.
(Reporting by Tom Finn; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)