By Riham El Houshi
"Don't call me back. I will get in touch with you if I find anyone willing to talk." Click.
That was one of several similar conversations I've had with sources here in Qatar. They refuse to speak to me and when I ask for contacts, they brush me off and hurry to warn those around them about the journalist who might call them for information.
The result: in a week of interviews I have two people who have agreed to go on the record- anonymously. Even my official source at the embassy didn't want his name mentioned.
There is an epidemic fear amongst expatriates here that a small misstep will get them fired and deported. And rightly so. According to Arab New Network, 700 Egyptians were sacked in 1998 because of a dispute between Qatar and Egypt.
However, as my partner Rachel, who collects examples of irony, would note; it's ironic that we are facing this problem since our story is about Egyptians that have already been sacked due to Qatarization and/or a dip in the Qatari economy. But no, the same fear persists, defying all logic.
The greater irony is that this issue contradicts a lot of what we are being told over and over again in the lectures of this boot camp, about the liberalization of Qatar and its media.
So much so that when I asked Ahmed Al-Sheikh, AlJazeera Arabic's editor-in-chief, what obstacles they faced in reporting about Qatar, he said that not only are there no obstacles, but there are no stories to report on in this tiny country with the highest per capita income in the world.
But if things are so hunky dory, as both the press-release-plagued newspapers here and the most critical Arab medium are insisting, then how did we, 24 students from Qatar, Egypt, and the U.S. come up with so many Qatar-related stories to write about?
Stories from restrictions on the marriage of women to non-nationals to the Westernization of the educational system and the buying by the state of lands abroad to try and grow crops that can feed the growing population at home. Is it possible that these topics don't crop up in news meetings here, not even in news room gossip?
Another lecture we had was on journalism ethics and was given by Ibrahim AbuSharif from North Western University Qatar. It was a typical talk on the penetration of convergence and the debate on balance and objectivity, using martyr versus dead, genocide versus crime, printing the cartoons of the prophet or refraining from provocations.
But, like many lectures I have received over the past four years, it was given from the standpoint of the American journalist; the one who has paper trails, numbers and official sources at his fingertips, and can objectively decide what to use and what to discard. But how do we, as journalists practicing in the Middle East, make that choice? We have only so many bits of information given on the record, how is it possible for us to present the multi-side story?
I have been told for very long that the problem with Arab journalists lies in their training, in their inability to understand the meaning of balance and objectivity. If there is anything I am learning from this boot camp, it is that the problem is with the societies that these journalists operate in.