For the first time ever, I’ve seriously considered stopping writing this blog.
Oh no, I hear you gasp, as you drop your toast in shock. What’s happened?
A – Has the expat dream has finally turned sour?
B – Is he worried about the effect live-blogging their childhood is having on his kids?
C – Perhaps there’s – whisper it – “trouble at home” and it would be best to keep a low profile for a bit?
Sadly, gossip-fans, the answer is D – None of the above (today, at least).
No, call me picky but it’s the tedious thoughts of fines, deportation and/or prison that’s weighing on my mind, and it’s all thanks to Qatar’s new Cybercrime Law which was ratified earlier this month.
Once a Luddite…
To be honest, I’d never previously considered myself to be a potential cyber criminal. Like many other goggle-eyed 10-year-old boys, I watched Matthew Broderick come this close to starting WWIII in 1983 with what looked to me like nothing more than a ZX Spectrum and a phone.
Some junior hackers watching WarGames will have seen it as a clarion call; for me it just confirmed what I already knew: I didn’t have the skills, the kit or the nerve to be a cyber criminal. (Thor does, though.)
Even when computers started becoming ubiquitous during my Uni days, you could find me and my armbands flapping about in the technological shallow end.
Keen but clueless as to how to join the technological revolution (people were suddenly typing essays; they may as well have been wearing jetpacks), I asked my housemate for help (he’s now a software architect, so I made the right choice).
He gamely offered to take me to the campus Computer Room (because like cars and student loans, PCs weren’t something that every student had back in 1871) and help me out.
He probably didn’t realise what he was letting himself in for.
My lowest point in his WordPerfect tutorial came when I started repeatedly hit the Return key at the top of my essay. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Leaving a space for when I’ve thought of a title,” I replied, which was when he gently pointed out that I could, if I wanted, go back and add a title in later and the document would magically shift itself down a line to accommodate it.
Oh, the shame…
In short, Lisbeth Salander and I wouldn’t have much to talk about.
Enemies of the state
Except now maybe we would, because under this new law, I might accidentally be guilty of all kinds of crimes just by writing about daily life here.
Because from what I’ve read, the law seems rather loosely worded and open to interpretation. Who exactly is a law designed to clamp down on creating online content that’s deemed harmful to the country’s social values aimed at?
Is it enemies of the state actively looking to foment (a word I’ve been waiting years to use) discord? Or do they mean expats like me, regaling visitors to this parish with my-latest-crazy-traffic-anecdote? (This week: people driving the wrong way round multi-storey car parks!)
I have no idea, but crucially neither does anyone else, yet. Being new, there’s no case law or precedents. So the big question is: do I want to be the one to find out where its boundaries lie?
To which my answer is an unequivocal: hell no, I don’t.
There are residents here who freely unload on social media, and that’s their prerogative. I could do the same, but my actions could potentially have repercussions on Mrs LC, and as it’s her job that keeps us housed, fed, and the kids in school, it seems a pretty high price to pay just to get a few things off my chest.
But the new Law is already having an effect. On social media, and local forums like Doha News, some residents are already saying that they’re going to stop posting comments in case they inadvertently write something that gets them into trouble.
Thus it becomes self-fulfilling, and I’m just as guilty of that as anyone.
Is it safe?
Even before I moved here, I’ve been conscious of what I share publicly. The message I heard time and again was ‘you never know who’s reading’. And whilst all readers to this blog are welcome, some are more welcome than others.
In effect, I’ve been pre-emptively complying with the new law since I got here. So if you’ve ever wondered why I rarely comment on any of the topics that you would find by typing ‘Qatar’ into Google News, now you know.
It’s also why, in more than two years of writing this blog, the total word count dedicated to Mrs LC’s job – the reason we moved here, lest we forget – probably comes to half a paragraph ever, despite the fact that it is the single biggest influence on how we’re doing at any given time.
Not that self-censorship and caution are necessarily always bad things. Take my kids, for example.
I’ve been as careful as I can to blur their identities. I don’t use their real names, identify their school or publish photos of their faces (a habit that’s now gotten so bad that I have to consciously remember to ask them to look at the camera every once in a while).
These deliberate decisions were taken for their protection as much as mine before I ever published a syllable and I think it’s served them – and this blog – well.
* * *
When I told him I was moving here, a former colleague who’d lived in the region gave me some advice which has always stuck with me: “Stay within the lines, and have fun”.
We’ll have to see if I can continue to keep Little City within those lines, assuming I can work out where they are, and that they aren’t too narrow. Until then, maybe I’ll just stick to posting pictures of rainbows and unicorns.
I’m pretty sure it’s still safe to do that…