Medill in the Middle East | On Media | Chicago Reader

Medill in the Middle East 

A Qatari adaptation of a Northwestern journalism degree

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.

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