PtG Article 23.04.2024

Doing journalism in FIFA land

FEATURE: In December 2023, a group of Danish and Norwegian journalists got a chilling insight into how dangerous it can be for people in Qatar and Saudi Arabia to speak to journalists. Andreas Selliaas reports from a trip that highligthed many ethical dilemmas for journalists who want to cover the build-up to the FIFA World Cup in Saudi Arabia in 2034.

''My brother". "I miss you". The messages arrive regularly on WhatsApp. They come from migrant worker Sobuj from Bangladesh. Either as text messages or as small audio messages. He seems lonely and maybe scared. And we are worried about him.

We met Sobuj in the industrial area on the outskirts of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in December 2023, and he showed us around the apartment complex where he lives.

When we wrote the report about him and the standards of living he was offered by the construction company he works for, we had to anonymise him and his colleagues because we did not want to put them in danger.

Many of them also did not want us to put pictures of them in print. They feared reprisals.

Warnings about how to handle sources

Before we went to Saudi Arabia, academics, researchers, Saudis living in exile and Norwegians who had lived there had warned us not to talk politics with those we spoke to there and not to show pictures of them or quote the ones we talked to with full names.

The message was: We could cause them trouble.

Criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman can lead to many years in prison.

We received the same advice before we went to Qatar before the World Cup in 2022. 

Photos and negative publicity of the migrant workers' companies could lead to repatriation or confiscation of wages. I will come back to that.

For Western journalists, there is often a solution if we get into trouble. We can escape. Those we talk to can get entrapped.

One year after and eleven years before

We were in Jeddah as part of a tour of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. We wanted to look at the conditions in Qatar one year after the football World Cup and in Saudi Arabia eleven years before they host the same championship.

Both countries do not value freedom of expression and freedom of the press very much, to put it mildly, and this is also something you feel on your body as a journalist. But most of all, our sources notice it. They are punished for talking to journalists.

We got fresh examples of that during our visit in December 2023. The frightening thing is that journalists are muzzled because sources are held hostage with FIFA's blessing. Literally.

We started our journey in Doha, Qatar.

After being chased by a white car outside the Lusail stadium and forced to leave the area, we once again encountered migrant workers in the desert far outside the capital.

They could tell us that the passports are still being confiscated by the employer, unemployment has increased and wages have decreased since the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

Many of the migrant workers remain in Qatar because they have not been paid their salaries or bonuses and because everything is lost if they go home.

They are prisoners serving open-ended sentences. Many women, who previously may have worked as domestic workers, have now started as sex workers, we were told.

The promises and reports that the migrant workers are getting better because of the soccer World Cup do not hold. The big difference is that now nobody cares.

The tragedy of Abdullah Ibahais

Before we left for Qatar, we contacted Abdullah Ibhais' family and asked if it was possible to visit him in prison. We were not given permission. Contact with journalists had caused him enough suffering, we were told.

Abdullah Ibhais worked in the Supreme Committee as media manager and was punished for wanting to speak out about the fact that the migrant workers were not getting the wages they were entitled to.

Abdullah Ibhais

Abdullah Ibhais worked in Qatar's Supreme Committee as a media manager but is now in prison after meetings with journalists. Photo: Private photo

It all started in August 2019 when thousands of migrant workers went on strike in the Shahiniiyah area of Doha. The Supreme Committee became concerned that some of these workers were working at the World Cup facilities.

The strike was discussed in an internal WhatsApp group in the Supreme Committee, and after he had visited and talked to the striking workers, Ibhais advised the Supreme Committee to sort out the working situation of the migrant workers before they went public and commented on the situation.

After that he was arrested and charged with corruption.

In April 2021, he was sentenced to five years in prison for bribery. The sentence was later reduced to three years.

In a Norwegian documentary series 'The Battle for the Truth' which was released in November 2022, Nick McGeehan of the human rights organisation FairSquare says that the documents presented by the prosecution in the trial against Ibhais suggested that he had been a spy or a kind of Trojan horse for the authorities in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, but without any proof of this being presented.

One year before the World Cup, Ibhais was out of prison awaiting his appeal, and he had agreed to meet a team of journalists from the Norwegian national public broadcaster (NRK) but was arrested before they got that far.

Later, the NRK team was also arrested. There is reason to believe that there is a connection between the two arrests.

Abdullah Ibhais is still in prison and when we asked the family in December 2023 if it was possible to meet him to check how he is doing, the answer was no.

In addition to the arrest ahead of the planned meeting with the journalists at NRK, we learned that he had received stricter prison terms after a meeting with another Norwegian journalist, Håvard Melnæs from Josimar, a few months later.

Ibhais' family did not want journalists or rather meetings with journalists to cause him more trouble.

In a message, his brother told us that he had been given stricter terms of imprisonment ahead of the one-year anniversary of the football World Cup, even though he had contracted a tooth infection and had symptoms of possible liver damage.

The authorities in Qatar wanted as little attention as possible to Abdullah Ibhais. Keeping away journalists was one way of doing this.

Qatar monitored all journalists covering the World Cup

Just prior to the arrest of the NRK journalists, Jan Jensen from the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet met with the head of Qatar's Supreme Committee for the FIFA World Cup 2022, Hassan al Thawadi, and received a dressing-down on his coverage of the Qatar World Cup. He had read everything Jan had written over the last eight years, and it almost gave him a heart attack he told Jan.

Al Thwadai and the rest of the leaders of the Qatar World Cup monitored all journalists covering the World Cup everywhere in the world.

By coincidence, we met one of the guys appointed to monitor me, Jan and other Nordic journalists at the Play the Game conference in Trondheim in February 2024. He admitted to us that they had put us under surveillance.

I discovered the same thing when working on the documentary 'The Battle for the Truth'.

A leaked WhatsApp conversation from the Supreme Committee showed that they were very unhappy about the way Josimar and I had covered the World Cup and that they wanted the Norwegian football president to come to Qatar to tell him that the preparations for the World Cup were on track and that he should tell that to us journalists.

An excerpt from the leaked WhatsApp conversation

Qatar monitored journalists carefully during the run-up to the World Cup 2022. Here is an excerpt from a WhatsApp conversation about Norwegian journalists.

Locked up after meeting with journalist

On our December trip in 2023 we also did not get to meet the two migrant workers Saikou and Jatta from Gambia who both worked as security guards during the World Cup in Qatar.

The two boys moved straight into a shelter after working as security guards for Stark Security during the football World Cup. 

They worked at Stadium 974, the media center and one of the ticket offices. Saikou even got the chance to see Eden Hazard from a distance.

After the final, they were fired and then homeless. And when we were in Doha, they were still sitting in the shelter waiting for their salaries.

They fought an almost impossible battle, partly because Fatima, who runs the shelter, is a member of the Al-Kuwari family, which has three board members in Esisthmar, the holding company that owns Stark Security that Saikou and Jatta worked for during the World Cup.

Fatima had no interest in paying the money Stark Security owes them or having their case covered by journalists visiting Doha. At the same time, the authorities in Qatar dispute that Stark Security even exists.

Before we went to Doha, we had agreed to meet the two boys at a cafe in the Industrial Area, approximately 20 minutes drive from Abu Hamour where the two Gambian migrant workers live in a shelter.

But they were not allowed to go out and meet us by the supervisors at the shelter. The reason was that they had met the Norwegian football president Lise Klaveness a couple of weeks before we got there in a meeting organised by a journalist from the Norwegian football magazine Josimar.

In the past, they had been able to sneak out occasionally, for example to meet former work colleagues or to run errands. Or when they had to appear in court to present their case to the authorities in Qatar.

But now they were completely locked up.

The meeting between Lise Klaveness and Saikou and Jatta was coordinated by Marius Lien from the football magazine Josimar who followed the Norwegian football president for a whole year to document her work as football president in the aftermath of her famous speech at the FIFA Congress in Doha in 2022.

"He [one of the guards at the shelter] said that we were subject to new rules after we went out to meet Maurice [Marius] and that we are no longer allowed to go out except when we have to go to a meeting in the courtroom," Saikou wrote in a text message to us.

Three journalists conducting an interview via WhatsApp

The journalists had to conduct an interview via WhatsApp with two migrant workers who were not allowed to meet them in person. Photo: Tariq Mikkel Khan

We ended up having to talk to them via WhatsApp from our hotel room in the financial district of Doha. The two Gambian boys were sitting in their bunk bed at the shelter because it was one of the few places where the surveillance cameras could not see them.

"They call it a shelter, but we live in a prison," Saikou said to us as we were watching him on the computer screen in our hotel.

According to Saikou and Jatta, they wanted to meet Lise Klaveness because she as one of the few football presidents had become involved in the situation of migrant workers and because they believed that as a trained lawyer she should have good knowledge of the legislation for migrant workers.

During the meeting with Klaveness, she promised to follow up on their situation.

The story of the meeting between Lise Klaveness and the Gambian boys was later covered in a special edition of Josimar. 

However, Norwegian broadcaster TV2 were not allowed into Qatar with cameras to cover Klaveness’ trip and chose to stay home. They did not even get an answer on their application. So much for press freedom.

Invited home to a Jeddah migrant worker

In the industrial area on the outskirts of Jeddah, we meet many migrant workers. Common workers live in one part of the village we went to and their superiors in another part.

Many of those we met have lived there for 10-15 years. We walked around freely, but we didn’t feel free.

We were afraid of causing trouble for those we met, but at the same time, we also wanted to report home about what we saw and heard. It is not often that Western journalists can walk around an area like this with a camera and a tape recorder.

We were interested in seeing how the workers are doing, including those who might become involved in building the facilities that will be used in the football World Cup in 2034, and comparing the conditions to those who built the facilities for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

The village we went to has housed migrant workers for decades and although it is dirty, with rubbish everywhere and scorching hot, we could also find shops, cafes, and a hairdresser.

"The workers here mostly come from Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka," says Shappi.

Shappi (40) is a logistics manager in the construction company he works for, but on the day we met him, he had taken time off to go to the apartment complex where some of the workers he is managing live.

"There are workers from poor and weak states who come here to work," he says.

In Saudi Arabia, there are approximately 40 million people and around a third of these are migrant workers.

Shappi tells us that they don't have time to play cricket or football or do any other leisure activities outside of work.

While we are standing there chatting with Shappi and the other bypassers, we are offered tea and several of the workers ask to take a selfie with us.

Shappi tells us he does not want to take us inside the house to show us the living standards for the workers in his company.

That's when we meet Sobuj from Bangladesh. He takes us inside. He walks quickly through the corridors on the first floor and shows us the way into the room where he lives.

As soon as he enters the door, he quickly takes off the colourful shawl he has around his legs and changes into a pair of freshly laundered trousers and introduces us to one of his roommates who is also from Bangladesh.

There are three bunk beds in the room, but it doesn't look like more than four people are living in the room.

We see poor conditions, both in terms of sanitary conditions, kitchen facilities and the room where they sleep.

It reminds us of what we saw in the migrant camp in Qatar, but one of the differences is that there are fewer people in each room here and that the leisure facilities are slightly better than in the camps we have been to in Qatar.

Human Rights Watch: Worse than Qatar

FIFA and the authorities in Qatar have received a lot of criticism for not having done enough to improve the conditions for migrant workers, and not pushing harder to remove the Kafala system (guardian system) which gives employers all the power over their employees.

The human rights organisation Human Rights Watch tells us that conditions in Saudi Arabia are worse than in Qatar when it comes to workers' rights.

"Although Saudi Arabia has introduced several labour reforms, the reforms are very limited and have in no way removed the Kafala system," says Saudi Arabia expert at Human Rights Watch, Joey Shea.

Shea says wage theft is taking place, passports are being seized by employers and many work-related deaths are not investigated well enough.

Many of the workers are also in debt after paying large sums to employment agencies to come here, as was the case in Qatar.

Shea also says that not everyone complies with the rules about giving workers three hours off in the middle of the day in the period from June to September, contrary to what Shappi told us.

"There is plenty of evidence that this scheme is not being followed," says Shea.

"In Saudi Arabia, they do not operate with minimum wages either," she says.

FIFA: "Why are you so mean?!"

We have come to Saudi Arabia for the Club World Cup and we have received good help from FIFA to obtain visas and access to bring cameras and cameras into the country.

FIFA should be praised when they deserve it.

But that's pretty much the only help we have received. FIFA, with Gianni Infantino at the helm, is generally quite hostile to journalists, especially those who dare to take a critical look at what is happening in and around FIFA.

We got a good example of that ahead of the FIFA Congress in Kigali, Rwanda in 2023.

Journalists outside stadium

Journalists from the Nordic countries and Germany were locked out of an exhibition tournament organised by FIFA - ostensibly because the stadion was full. Photo: Andreas Selliaas.

There all the journalists from the Nordic countries and Germany were locked out of an exhibition tournament organised by Infantino and Rwandan President Paul Kagame under the pretext that the press stand was full.

Pictures from colleagues on the inside showed that this was not true. To leave us outside was obviously a punishment against journalists from countries which had been the most critical of FIFA and the football World Cup in Qatar.

And it is worth noting that FIFA president Gianni Infantino, at the press conference after the congress in Rwanda, asked the rhetorical question to the press corps in attendance: "Why are you so mean?!"

We experienced the same hostility towards the press from FIFA on our trip to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

FIFA hardly answers questions from journalists

Even though we are standing next to FIFA's media advisors in the press room at the King Abdullah Stadium in Jeddah during the Club World Cup and FIFA President Gianni Infantino is on the other side of the stadium, we are told to send our questions to FIFA by email. That's how it always is. And the answers we get are mostly the same.

Here are the questions we sent to FIFA from the press room in the King Abdullah Stadium:

When it comes to the World Cup in 2022 and the current Club World Cup in Jeddah, we have the following questions. Deadline Sunday at 10 p.m. Publications: Idrettspolitikk.no, Josimar, Ekstra Bladet and Forbes:

  1. What is the legacy of the 2022 World Cup in terms of human rights and labour rights according to FIFA?
  2. When will the subcommittee for HR and social responsibility deliver its report on the legacy of the Qatar World Cup?
  3. How does FIFA's pivot to Saudi Arabia - see 20213 CWC and 2034 WC - square with FIFA's human rights commitments? 
  4. Did a FIFA team visit Qatar in the past year to follow up on labour conditions for migrant workers?
  5. How much does it cost to house FIFA staff and senior officials at the Hilton in Jeddah?
  6. In terms of the organisation of CWC2023 are most staff and logistics local or brought in from abroad?

Here are the answers we got some days later:

  1. On Qatar, we kindly refer you to our previous answers (the last one on 11 October).
  2. In relation to the FIFA World Cup 2034, we refer you to the bidding regulations, which include specific points on human rights: https://digitalhub.fifa.com/m/51aef03d916e5ad/original/FIFA-World-Cup-2030-and-FIFA-World-Cup-2034-Bidding-Regulations.pdf
  3. Regarding associated costs of our tournaments and events, all figures are included in our Annual Report.

Best regards, Aloïs

This arrogant and dismissive attitude is not very different from the way countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia treats journalists.

FIFA makes it worse for us and our sources

"My friend". I get another message from Sobuj. We obviously made an impression on him, even though we weren't there to help him or befriend him.

We were there to report back home on how he and others are doing and to gain more knowledge about migrant workers who may be involved in building the facilities for the World Cup in 2034.

Have we put him in danger? Have we created false hopes?

There are issues we have to live with all the time when we work in these areas. And our experience is that FIFA makes it worse for us and the sources we meet.

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