Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been criticised by activists and researchers after appearing to whitewash criticism over the human rights record of Qatar.
The international charity's press release about the Gulf state for its 2018 World Report, entitled "Year Of Crisis Spurred Rights Reforms" contained a significant factual error, and appeared to overlook the group's own research from the previous year into human rights concerns.
Qatar is currently under pressure from other Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia, which accuses the country of funding terrorism and interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbours, has blockaded the country – along with other neighbouring countries – since June last year.
Activist sources have told BuzzFeed News that they believe HRW toned down its language in an attempt to cultivate close relationships with the country's rulers and establish the charity as the standard bearer for human rights advancement in the region. They pointed to the levels of access to Qatar's PM enjoyed by the director of HRW, which they described as "unprecedented".
Lama Fakih, deputy director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, agreed that the pressure on Qatar had resulted in political change, and said that HRW had recently seen movement on "things we've been asking for for years". But Fakih strongly denied the charity was attempting to win over its leaders by putting out positive spin. "We're going to be focussed on continuing to put pressure on the government," she said.
Activists, however, are far from happy. "HRW’s undoing years of advocacy on labour rights issues by several agencies, including HRW itself," a spokesperson for the pressure group migrant-rights.org said.
HRW's original release said: "Qatar... unblocked local access to the Doha News website, the country’s only independent news website, which authorities had ordered Qatar’s two internet service providers, Vodafone and Ooredoo, to block on November 30, 2016."
It was later updated – following, BuzzFeed News understands, complaints to the charity – to say that Doha News had "issued a release saying that it had 'received a response from the government communication office to our request for unblocking the website.'"
It went on: "Individuals within Qatar continue to send screenshots showing conflicting information: some show access denied while others show access available." Doha News is not mentioned in HRW's report.
Fakih told BuzzFeed News that the press release had been based on reports the charity had received from within Qatar, and later been updated: "Our position is certainly not that there are no abuses in Qatar," she said.
People close to the situation have told BuzzFeed News that not only are those locals accessing the website likely to be doing so through the use of virtual private networks [VPNs], but that the issue of whether or not the site is blocked is barely relevant, since the shutdown forced its existing staff out of their jobs.
Victoria Scott, a former editor-at-large of Doha News, described the update as "too little, too late." She said: "Since the Qatari government blocked Doha News without warning more than a year ago, some readers have, very rarely, been able to read the site in Qatar without needing to use a VPN.
"We have never been able to explain why this is – it may be that the government's chosen method of blocking the site does not work all of the time, or that people are using office or hotel internet connections which use VPNs without their knowledge."
Scott said that regardless of the situation, the real censorship had already happened: "Doha News, as it previously existed, is gone. Doha News' previous owners were essentially frozen out by the Qatari government, who knew that their business would suffer if they blocked it.
"Its sale was a victory for them and its unblocking would be an easy PR hit, and it seems strange that HRW would even consider this worthy of a mention in their report – if it had happened, which of course, it hasn't yet."
She went on: "The site's new owners have not yet employed a team of professional journalists... It seems that they will no longer ask difficult questions or report on stories which might cast Qatar's leaders in a bad light."
Fakih told BuzzFeed News that the press release only existed to "summarise the findings" in the report, and that it had to reflect improvements on the part of the government, as well as concerns.
She cited a pledge on the rights of migrant domestic workers as one improvement which, "if implemented properly", could "really make a difference." "We're at a moment of real opportunity," she said.
HRW also failed to mention two key releases about Qatar put out by the charity itself over the last year. The first criticised the country for forcibly returning a prominent Saudi activist to Saudi Arabia. HRW had reported: "He is currently on trial in Saudi Arabia based solely on charges related to his human rights work that could result in a long prison sentence."
The second noted that the rich Gulf state needed to "adopt and enforce adequate restrictions on outdoor work to protect the lives of migrant construction workers who are at risk from working in the country’s intense heat and humidity."
It said Qatari public health officials had "not responded to requests for information about the overall number and causes of deaths of migrant workers since 2012," noting the country has a migrant labour force of nearly two million, with just under half working in the construction sector.
Former HRW workers have criticised the release. Nicholas McGeehan, a former researcher for Qatar at the charity, said: "The release presents a very rosy picture of the rights situation in Qatar. It's part and parcel of strategic advocacy to accentuate positives and craft optimistic messaging, but ultimately what rights groups have to do is present an accurate assessment of any situation.
"Until it can be independently verified that [Doha News] has been unblocked by the Qatari authorities, HRW should not be reporting that it has, and the correction simply creates further ambiguity," he said.
McGeehan described the failure to include HRW's research from 2017 in the release as "not reporting vital context."
Fakih said the issue of workers' rights was dealt with in detail in the report itself: "It's not the case that all the work carried out by HRW would make it into a press release," she said. "We're going to continue working on the issues and not letting up the pressure," she said.
A spokesperson for migrant-rights.org was less convinced. "Even after the ‘reforms’ Qatar still lags behind other [Gulf Cooperation Council] states in varying degrees. The exit permit is still in place. An [no objection certificate] of sorts is still required to change employers. The minimum wage announced is very low. So I am keen to understand what classified information HRW is privy to that it deems responsible to issue such a statement," they said.
"Since 2014 May Qatar has made several big announcements, not quite delivering on the promises, and never in time."