Qatari security forces detained two Norwegian state television journalists for more than 30 hours and deleted footage they gathered in a migrant labor camp as they tried to cover workers’ issues before the 2022 FIFA World Cup, authorities said on Wednesday.
The Qatari government subsequently accused NRK journalists Halvor Ekeland and Lokman Ghorbani of “trespassing on private property and filming without a permit” as the two returned to Norway early Wednesday after their arrest. Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere responded by declaring their arrest “unacceptable”.
“A free press is crucial in a functioning democracy,” Gahr Stoere wrote on Twitter. “It also shows the importance of this year’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize (to journalists). I am very happy that Halvor Ekeland and Lokman Ghorbani are now released. “
Norwegian news agency NTB later reported that the Qatari ambassador to the country had been summoned to the Oslo Foreign Ministry over the matter.
The arrests, one year before the world cup, show the continued sensitivity felt by the autocratic government of Qatar, a small, energy-rich nation on the Arabian Peninsula. Other journalists faced similar issues and detentions while working in Qatar ahead of the World Cup.
Ekeland, sports journalist, and Ghorbani, photographer, were in Qatar as the country scored a year before the World Cup. The two men were reportedly arrested after reporting on the condition of migrant workers during a live report.
Journalists told NRK that they were not allowed to leave with their equipment. The Norwegian Union of Journalists and the country’s football federation have both criticized the arrest of the journalists.
“It’s pretty good to be back on Norwegian soil,” Ekeland told reporters upon arrival at Oslo airport. “It’s been a tough day, but we knew a lot of people were working for us so it was good.”
“We were detained for 32 hours,” he said.
In a statement to NRK, Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said “they were arrested while carrying out their duties as journalists”.
“Freedom of expression is the pillar of a functioning democracy, and it is also fundamental to being able to respect other human rights,” she said.
The Qatari government said in a statement that the two men were arrested after receiving a complaint from an unidentified private owner in the country’s industrial zone, which houses labor camps. He said Ekeland applied for a film permit, but authorities did not grant it until he visited the site.
Qatar, like other Gulf Arab states where speaking is strictly regulated, requires journalists to have permissions to operate and film.
“As in almost all countries, the trespassing is against Qatari law, of which the crew members were fully aware before entering the property,” the government said. He admitted that “the images they captured during an intrusion were deleted by the authorities in accordance with Qatari law”.
Asked about the Qatari government’s comments on journalists, NRK declined to comment immediately, saying “our main concern now is their well-being.”
Qatar, which rises like an inch in the Persian Gulf, is home to the forward headquarters of the US Army’s Central Command. It has come under increased scrutiny of the treatment of migrant workers in the country since winning the right to host the next tournament.
Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.