Janet Key
Janet Key Credit: Courtesy of Northwestern University

In the June 15 Sun-Times, Maudlyne Ihejirkia tells us the Northwestern campus in Doha, Qatar, just graduated its first class. Some three dozen students received degrees in journalism or communications.

In the June 18 New Yorker story “Arab Summer: Will the elections end the Egyptian revolution?” Peter Hessler writes of the staff of a new TV channel founded by the Muslim Brotherhood: “They tend to possess
the wide-ranging and slightly compromised resumes that you find among journalists who have survived in an authoritarian state.”

The New Yorker story made me wonder what the Northwestern students are in for.

As freedom edges across the Middle East, will those compromised veterans Hessler describes be swept away—by younger, more principled journalists such as the ones now being taught their craft by Medill in Qatar? Or should survival skills be as much a part of Medill’s Doha curriculum as journalism’s first principles? Perhaps professionalism is the ultimate survival skill.

Kate Durham, an American who’s managing editor of Egypt Today, says every issue of the monthly English-language magazine (not to mention every page of its impressive website) has to go to the censorship office before it’s published. But the relationship is 33 years old “and we have a very good understanding of what their standards are,” Durham e-mailed me. “It’s pretty much a formality.”

The standards? “Criticism of the ruler, whoever it may be, is almost never tolerated,” Durham wrote. “Articles that go against social norms also raise red flags, for example, nothing that would seem to promote homosexuality. In Egypt, articles seen to promote sectarian tensions are beyond the boundaries.”

And yet, “we don’t avoid sensitive topics—we’ve discussed religious tensions and even homosexuality—but we are very careful in how we cover them. We are meticulous about our facts, neutral wording and in presenting multiple/opposing viewpoints. For example, when we interviewed the director of a documentary on homosexuality in the Middle East, we had a separate sidebar with a local sheikh presenting his views against homosexuality.”

In the U.S., where old-school journalism is under siege from the impromptu and partisan values of the Internet, a lot of journalists would dismiss Durham’s painstaking attention to balance as craven. In Egypt, it keeps the state at bay. “Here, libel is a criminal offense with prison time and hard labor if convicted; truth is not a defense,” Durham told me. “That’s before the revolution; in the months after, there have been several cases of broadcast journalists who have been questioned by military prosecutors and/or lost their jobs because of their coverage.”

Qatar is much quieter than Egypt. Awash in oil money, it consists of about 200,000 Qataris who are on average the wealthiest people on earth, and 1.5 million expats from much poorer parts of Asia who do the grunt work.

“I used to say in Egypt that freedom of the press is a cat and mouse game,” says Janet Key, a Chicagoan who taught journalism at the American University in Cairo from 2001 to 2008, when she started teaching in Doha for Medill. “It is in Qatar as well, in that you don’t know what the boundaries are.”

Because there’s no tradition of press freedom, I wondered how Medill in Qatar inculcates that lofty and, yes, sometimes irritating sense of moral authority that binds journalists to their missions. Key describes a process that I’d call putting the horse before the cart. That is, it sounds healthy. Her students can’t get their minds around freedom of the press, Key explains, but they do understand freedom of information. “Freedom of information says not that we the press, a sacred institution, have these rights, because there’s no history of this in the Middle East. But if you say people have a right to this information because you need it to live your lives . . . You take it from that perspective.

“A lot of what we do is to present things as ‘This is information. You’re entitled to this information to live your lives.’ And it seems to work. My own attitude is you push the envelope, and if you get stopped you get stopped.”

An emirate smaller than Delaware, Qatar is run by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who elbowed his father out of the palace in 1995 and now aspires to turn Qatar into a Switzerland of the Middle East. Hence Medill. Hence the state-owned Al Jazeera news service. Hence the 2022 World Cup, awarded to Qatar after the emir’s son promised five air-conditioned stadiums.

Yet Al Thani will never be mistaken for the Swiss Federal Council. Qatar’s minister of culture says a new media law expected to be enacted later this summer will set a new standard for openness in the Middle East. But the online Doha News—free enough, at least, to question a proposed law recodifying the limits of press freedom—points out that under it, journalists would continue to be unable to criticize the royal family or matters of “higher interest” to the state. The biggest reform would be “the elimination of prison sentences for journalists during the course of their work, although possible fines of up to 1 million QAR [about $277,000] would likely still discourage many from being overly critical of sources of power in the country.”

“The only survival skills I’ve taught,” Key tells me, in an extended conversation conducted by phone and e-mail, “I’ve taught in Cairo when the American University was located directly on Tahrir Square.” In 2005, protesters seeking to bring down the Mubarak regime filled the square. “The skills were simply precautions on how to deal with a crowd that could at any moment turn into a mob,” Key goes on, “how to deal with police and military (obvious pointers, like not arguing with someone who has a weapon in hand), how to deal/not deal with tear gas, etc. More safety tips than anything else.”

Key’s most important lesson to her students might have been taught by example. Though her university drew up an evacuation plan in the event Cairo blew up, Key says she told the provost she has no intention of leaving. “If anything happens that people have to evacuate, to me that’s a story,” Key explains. “I can’t very well tell my students that it’s a story and then turn around and leave when the story hits.”

Egypt Today

Key teaches enterprise reporting, a boot-camp-type course that hardens neophytes. In Evanston, Key explains, Medill sends its young students into the streets of Rogers Park and other gritty Chicago neighborhoods to find stories “to get them out of their comfort zone.” In Doha “there aren’t any streets to walk. It’s too hot. Distances are too great. Everybody drives.” But there’s Musherib, Doha’s oldest neighborhood, home to immigrants from Pakistan and Nepal and the Philippines who come to do the jobs the Qataris don’t want to do. That’s where the students go, and sure enough, many ask, “Why are we here? This isn’t nice. We could do reporting somewhere else that we’re more used to.”

Most of the students are female. Key tells me, “Many of these girls—and you refer to our students as girls because referring to them as women in that culture implies carnal knowledge—they’ve never walked on the street, they’ve never gone up to a person they didn’t know to ask a question, particularly men. And because these laborers have come to Qatar without their families, the population in Musherib is overwhelmingly male. In the end it’s empowering for them because they’ve never done it before and they never thought they could.”

Then why did they want to be journalists?

Actually, says Key, a lot want careers in public relations. As for the others, “They want to write,” she says. “They may be sheltered and innocent, but they want to do something about the world. As a Bangladeshi student told me, “I want to tell the stories of my people.”

Musherib is a mandatory prerequisite to a mandatory semester in which students study abroad, working as a journalist in London or New York or Washington. In the process they breathe the air journalists get to breathe in the free world, and find out what it tastes like.

Shabina Khatri, who has a master’s in journalism from Medill in Evanston, runs Doha News with her husband. She’s also an adjunct professor at Medill Qatar, and she e-mailed me to say each class arrives more ambitious than the one before. “It is a pleasure to see especially the Qatari students get worked up about how difficult it is to do good journalism here,” Khatri told me. Thirteen children recently died in a mall fire in Doha, and the government obeyed its first instinct, which was to say nothing. “This is where Doha News stepped in,” Khatri told me, “providing minute-by-minute updates as the story unfolded, relying on our (at the time) 10,000 Twitter followers and several thousand Facebook fans, as well as some well-placed sources. We’ve received international attention for our coverage during and after the fire, which to us demonstrates how hungry the audience in Qatar is for good journalism.”

I asked Durham what became of Key’s best students in Egypt. “They graduated, came to work for Egypt Today or our sister publications, then moved on to international media like Reuters, AP and the LA Times,” Durham replied. “Several of them have since moved back to local media to help start up English-language print or online dailies.”

Are they the future of journalism in the Middle East? Well, they might be.

“If state media ever loosens up,” Durham says, “these are the people who can help reform the system.”