DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Security forces in Qatar detained two Norwegian state broadcaster journalists for more than 30 hours and deleted footage they obtained at a migrant labor camp as they tried to reported on worker issues ahead of the FIFA 2022 World Cup, authorities said Wednesday.
The Qatari government later accused NRK journalists Halvor Ekeland and Lokman Ghorbani of “infringing on personal property and filming without permits” when they both returned to Norway early Wednesday after being arrested. Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store responded by saying their arrest was “unacceptable.”
“Free press is crucial in a working democracy,” Store wrote on Twitter. “It also shows how important this year’s Nobel Peace Prize awarding (to journalists) is. I’m delighted that Halvor Ekeland and Lokman Ghorbani have now been released.”
The arrests, a year before the World Cup, show the ongoing sensitivities of the autocratic government of Qatar, a small, energy-rich country on the Arabian Peninsula. Other journalists have faced similar problems and been detained while reporting in Qatar and ahead of the World Cup.
Ekeland, a sports journalist, and Ghorbani, a photographer, traveled to Qatar as the country marked one year ahead of the World Cup. The two are believed to have been arrested after reporting on the status of migrant workers during a live broadcast.
Journalists told NRK they were not allowed to leave with their devices. The Norwegian Federation of Journalists and the National Football Association have both criticized the arrest of journalists.
“First and foremost, we are delighted and relieved that they are both safe and on their way home,” Thor Gjermund Eriksen, head of Norwegian television, said on NRK’s website.
In a statement to NRK, Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said “they were arrested while performing their duties as journalists.”
The Qatari government said in a statement that both were arrested after receiving a complaint from an unidentified private property owner in the country’s Industrial Park, where the labor camps are located. It says Ekeland applied for a film permit, but authorities did not grant it before he arrived at the location.
Qatar, like other Gulf Arab states, where speech is strictly controlled, requires journalists to have operational and filming rights.
“As in most countries, trespassing is a violation of Qatari law, which crew members were fully aware of prior to entering the property,” the government said. It acknowledged that “the footage they captured while trespassing was deleted by the authorities in accordance with Qatari law.”
When asked about the Qatari government’s comments about the journalists, NRK declined to immediately comment, saying that “our main concern right now is their health.”
Qatar, the country that sticks out like a thumb into the Persian Gulf, is home to the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command. It has faced increasing scrutiny over its treatment of migrant workers in the country since winning the right to host the upcoming tournament.
Writer Jan M. Olsen of the Associated Press in Copenhagen contributed to this report.