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Ministry of Interior headquarters

The cyber attack on Qatar that kicked off the Gulf dispute had been carefully planned and executed over a several-week period, officials have announced.

On May 23, Qatar News Agency (QNA) and its social media sites posted offensive remarks attributed to the Emir, infuriating the country’s neighbors.

But QNA had actually been infiltrated more than a month before the attack, authorities said during a press conference yesterday.

Officials stopped short of naming who it held responsible for the hacking, mostly referring to IP addresses from “siege countries.”

But they did say that the attack “originated in the UAE.”

And Al Jazeera quotes the MOI’s Capt. Othman Salem al-Hamoud as saying the hack “was so professional that it had to have ‘state resources’ behind it.”

Days ago, US intelligence officials also pointed the finger at the UAE, though the country itself has denied any involvement.

What happened

A hacker first gained access to QNA’s website on April 19, officials said.

He then “started increasing his control of the network by deploying more sophisticated malware programs.”

On April 28, he collected addresses, passwords and emails of all employees.

And on May 20, he carried out a final check of “malicious programs, confirming effectiveness in preparation for an attack,” MOI officials said.

The hackers “used innovative methods to hide their identity.”

But “technical evidence” confirmed interactions with people whose IP addresses originated from “siege countries,” they added.

Next steps

When the cyberattack took place, Qatari officials immediately dismissed the posted remarks as false.

But neighboring countries doubted that Qatar had been hacked in the first place and took the statements at face value.

The fallout led to Al Jazeera being blocked in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

And less than two weeks later, those countries, as well as Bahrain and Egypt, announced a boycott against Qatar.

The move was to pressure Qatar to fall into line with GCC politics. But the country has so far refused to do so.

The quartet has since toned down its demands, and it remains unclear what will happen next in terms of the Gulf dispute.

As far the attack, Qatar said it will move ahead with legal measures to prosecute the perpetrators of the crime.

Thoughts?

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The ongoing Gulf dispute has spurred a propaganda war among the region’s newspapers.

In this opinion piece, Doha News Editor-at-Large Victoria Scott discusses how several misleading reports in Qatari media have caused some residents to dismiss other, less glowing stories as “fake” – and why this is bad news for the country’s future.

It is a truly disheartening experience to spend days researching and writing a news story that you know will be branded “fake,” simply because some people don’t like what it says.

Thanks to US President Donald Trump, however, that’s now a depressing reality for many journalists around the world, and particularly so for the Doha News team at the moment.

Doha News

DN

Doha News is Qatar’s only independent source of national journalism, and as such has always stuck out amid a crowd of sycophantic newspapers and online outlets.

Even before the Gulf dispute began, reading a Qatari newspaper was like taking a dose of happy pills.

Effusive press releases printed verbatim and an endless parade of photos of high-ranking officials signing deals and staring meaningfully at plans, new buildings and roads reassured you that everything was running smoothly in Qatar.

Oh, and by the way – McDonald’s has a new menu and a revolutionary new model of vacuum cleaner is out in all department stores for a very reasonable price – so that’s nice.

Propaganda war

But the current Gulf crisis has taken glowing media coverage of Qatar to a whole other level.

To be fair, daily newspapers in boycotting countries are currently full of extraordinary stories. Many of these are either tenuously extrapolated half-truths or utter, baldfaced lies.

Khalid Albaih

For illustrative purposes only.

It is not surprising then that Qatar’s media is doing its part to push the balance in the other direction.

Every day since the crisis began, they have all carried stories that I believe fall into the propaganda category.

The majority lack statistics or facts, and simply seek to paint a reassuring picture.

For example, newspapers recently ran stories saying London is showing solidarity with Qatar because several taxi cabs bore supportive Qatar messages.

The Peninsula

A recent headline in The Peninsula

This reflected a complete misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the way advertising works.

London is clearly not “showing solidarity” – an agency simply took a booking, and payment, for some ads.

Then there was this denial that the blockade had affected the airport in any way (Qatar Airways has still not responded to my request for comparable data for the Eid holiday period last year).

Hamad International Airport

Sanjiban Ghosh/Flickr

Hamad International Airport

And this story about how the construction industry in Qatar has apparently also been entirely unaffected by the blockade. It contains no facts, but is not presented as opinion.

While some would argue that the newspapers’ motives are benign and simply a way of reassuring the public and maintaining public morale, I respectfully disagree.

‘Fake news’

I have noticed that many Doha News readers are starting to dismiss factual stories as fiction, simply because they don’t fit the rosy picture painted by other outlets.

This is dangerous.

A major new study published by the Columbia Journalism Review recently analyzed a worrying trend in the US.

There, right-wing Americans abandoned traditional news sources during the recent presidential election in favor of right-wing publications that only reinforced their own viewpoint.

Donald J. Trump/Facebook

US President Donald Trump

The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that this ended up skewing coverage of the election in all US media. This is because some issues – such as immigration and Hillary Clinton’s emails – got more play than others.

Essentially, fake news stories produced by the right-wing press seeped into the public consciousness and potentially affected the result of the election.

It also meant that well-researched, factual stories that could have changed minds were often dismissed as fake.

I suggest that the proliferation of propaganda in Qatar’s newspapers, and the papers’ enduring reluctance to cover any news that could be vaguely regarded as “negative,” is causing a similar shift away from reality in Qatar.

Exchange issues story

Here’s an example.

Late last month, I wrote a story for Doha News about the fact that a number of foreign exchange firms were refusing to exchange Qatari riyals outside of Qatar.

Doha News had been contacted by several readers who’d experienced trouble changing their riyals on their travels in places where it had previously been a straightforward thing to do.

Tweets from the @dohanews Twitter account asking if this was a widespread issue prompted confirmation of similar problems from many more readers in several different countries.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

The team then called a number of banks and exchange firms in both the UK and the US, who confirmed that they had indeed temporarily ceased to buy riyals because of the GCC Crisis.

Finally, I spoke to a currency expert who gave us his analysis of the situation.

The resulting story, which took a week to write and research, laid out the facts Doha News had gathered, and prompted Reuters to make their own enquiries.

And yet, here are just some of the comments underneath the story on the Doha News Facebook page:

“Don’t believe Doha News, they are paid puppets of the UAE.”
“No wonder that Doha News got a ban in Qatar…..You are increasing panic in people.”
“This is not unusual. And does not indicate something is wrong.”

I found myself answering a string of accusatory comments on all our platforms from people who were absolutely determined that our story was incorrect.

That meant asserting that Doha News was not paid by any government; that it had no interest in generating panic; and was simply interested in publishing the truth.

The currency situation was incredibly unusual, and did indicate something was awry.

QNA denial

However, it may not surprise you to read that Qatar’s local papers were not reporting the same story.

Many were initially silent on the subject.

Neha Rashid / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Then, two days later, the Qatar state news agency (QNA) released a statement, shared in all local papers, stating that “reports circulating across different media about the trading and exchange rate of the Qatari riyal were baseless.”

Given all the research I had recently conducted, I knew this to be untrue. But readers of Qatar’s dailies did not.

It’s no surprise then that many readers are struggling to see the wood for the trees.

A dangerous precedent

I lived in Qatar for six years and I still find it fascinating to write about. I have always said that that’s because it has so many untold stories; and sadly, that remains true.

No other national news outlets in Qatar will investigate stories about suffering or injustice, and until Doha News is unblocked in Qatar, it’s tricky for us to do so, too.

Reem Saad / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

What worries me now is that Qatar’s residents will eventually become so desensitized to propaganda that they will accept it without question.

That means that policy changes that affect the lives of many residents may go unquestioned, and injustices may be able to continue without ever being noticed.

I think back to the many important stories Doha News has covered over the past eight years, such as:

Today, many readers would probably dismiss these stories as fake. And that worries me tremendously.

I believe strongly in the importance of a free media in the development of a nation. The ability to question our leaders and query policies makes, in my opinion, for a stronger community and state.

Realizing that not everything in your country is perfect is the first step to fixing the things that aren’t.

And I, for one, don’t think that’s fake news.

You can follow Victoria Scott on Twitter.

Omar Chatriwala/Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

In what is being seen as a breakthrough in the Gulf crisis, a quartet of Arab nations that have been boycotting Qatar has scaled back demands to end the blockade.

Qatar no longer needs to shut down Doha’s Turkish military base, expel problematic residents or close Al Jazeera, among other things.

Instead, it is required to agree to six general “principles” on fighting terrorism and extremism, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the UN said yesterday.

UN

Abdallah al-Mouallimi

It “should be easy for the Qataris to accept” these notions, Abdallah al-Mouallimi said, according to the Associated Press.

“There will be no compromise when it comes to principles,” but implementation is “where we can have discussion and compromise,” he added.

‘Face-saving’ measure

The announcement was made on behalf of four boycotting countries including Saudi, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

It comes amid international pressure to bring an end to a de facto siege that has isolated Qatar from its neighbors for the past seven weeks.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Flags flying high

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Gulf Cooperation Council flags for illustrative purposes only.

Qatar, which earlier this month refused to agree to all 13 initial demands, has not yet officially responded to the scaled-back demands.

But its Ambassador to the UN Alya bint Ahmed Al Thani did dismiss them yesterday as a face-saving measure. The Wall Street Journal quoted her as saying:

“It’s not because they are showing a sign of good faith as much as responding to the heat they received for the unreasonable demands they initially made.”

And Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed Al Thani, director of the government’s communications office, said the principles have yet to be formally sent to Qatar or mediator Kuwait.

The principles

According to Al Jazeera, these are the six new requirements:

  • Commitment to combat extremism and terrorism in all forms and to prevent their financing or providing havens;
  • Suspending all acts of provocation and speeches inciting hatred or violence;
  • Full compliance with the Riyadh Agreement of 2013 and the 2014 follow-up agreement;
  • Adherence to all the outcomes of the Arab Islamic American Summit held in May 2017 in Riyadh;
  • Refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of states and from supporting illegal entities; and
  • Confront all forms of extremism and terrorism as a threat to international peace and security.

Thoughts?