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Can hashtag activism solve the World Cup’s human rights fiasco in Qatar?

Sometimes the problem is too big for social media.


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Internet Culture

Posted on May 23, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 6:32 am CDT


The World Cup is a big deal. It’s stating the obvious, yes, but after the uproar of Russia hosting the Olympics and the death toll rising in Brazil over the building of stadiums for the World Cup, one would assume FIFA would be a bit more thorough on their hunt for the next host. Apparently not. FIFA has chosen the country of Qatar, a country like a thumb from Saudi Arabia jutting into the Persian Gulf, which has a laundry list of violations against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Economically, Qatar has more freedom than Brazil, which also brings into question why FIFA would recruit Brazil in the first place, if they can’t financially support it. Brazil’s argument, aside from being a huge player in the World Cup games, was that they could create more jobs if they were a host country, which was also their justification for hosting the Olympics in Rio.

Yet, with the games beginning June 12, rioting has besieged at least 18 cities, with everyone from police to bus drivers protesting. In addition, eight people have died so far in the construction of stadiums. This is not a good start.

Qatar has a population of 2.02 million, with only 280,000 bring official citizens. Many of its inhabitants are migrant workers from other countries, including India, which reports that at 450 of its workers have died due to labor conditions in the country. With just that number being reported by India, what happens to that number when 8-12 large stadiums are being built? That number will realistically rise dramatically.

How exactly will these deaths be covered by the media? It’s difficult to say, as a Cybercrime Bill was passed that allows for the government to restrict media and control more of what is given to the public. There’s also the issue of journalists being consistently detained for writing articles that speak out against any wrong doings happening in the country. While Brazil has used the global recognition as a platform to express concern for what is happening in their country, will the same be said for Qatar if there’s no one to report on it and Twitter is banned?

And where exactly is FIFA in all of this? They’re backpedaling, to put it lightly.

Now, if you were to check the official FIFA site, you’d see reports of joy in Qatar for being so honored as to host FIFA and the World Cup, but that’s not the reality. While, of course, there’s going to be widespread celebration for being chosen, the reality for the migrant workers is much darker than for the people that will be able to afford to attend games. After celebration commences, as was the case in Brazil, reality sets in—someone needs to build these stadiums and shortly thereafter protests happen, and continue to happen.

Since South Africa in 2010, the countries the organization has chosen have not been the most stable either economically, politically, or both. Yet a visit to FIFA’s site has a tab just for their “Social Responsibility” to remind you that they’re not all bad. And with Sepp Blatter, the FIFA President, admitting that he may have made a mistake in choosing Qatar due to its hot climate, there seems to be no remorse on FIFA’s official site.

Many are calling foul, and claiming the Qatar’s bid was bought by Chairman of the Qatar bid, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani. Who else was in the running? Australia, Korea Republic, USA and Japan, yet Qatar got the bid.

Also, when researching this bid, a big, fat red flag to the committee should have been kafala. Kafala is a Qatari law in which a kafeel, or sponsor, brings a migrant worker in, binding them to their sponsor. It’s been widely recognized as a modern form of slavery by leaving migrant workers at the mercy of their sponsors.

Yet, FIFA is more than willing to pour money into a country that allows forced labor in order to host a set of games, ones that might perpetuate that practice. Although Qatar already has such a massive amount of migrant workers in the country, they’re estimated to need 1.2 million more in order to fulfill FIFA’s needs.

So what’s to be done?

While protests have already begun in Qatar, the buzzword being thrown around is “hashtag activism.” Hashtag activism, to sum it up, is generating awareness for a cause via social media such as Facebook or Twitter, one that would be used to put pressure on both FIFA and Qatar. Although there’s much debate as to whether the medium is worth using or not, it’s still worth looking into in order to raise awareness for what’s happening—and start to hold people accountable. As #BringBackOurGirls worked get people talking about the kidnapping of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram, it’s worth exploring here as well.

Of course, the odds of FIFA reneging on this decision are slim to none. The ideal option would include threatening to pull the games until Qatar abolishes kafala, as well as repealing the Cybercrime Bill and allowing for a freer playing field for its journalists. It’s possible for those reforms to be put in place, but the question is whether it will or not. Building for so many stadiums has to begin as soon as possible and these laws won’t disappear overnight. All we can do is raise awareness.

The World Cup is a wonderful thing to watch, but I’d rather watch for whose winning than think of a death toll every time a goal is scored. 

Photo via alobos life/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 23, 2014, 11:00 am CDT