Qatar's two internet providers have confirmed that the independent news site Doha News has officially been blocked inside Qatar, citing licensing issues.
The website has announced it will reduce the number of articles it produces until the issue is resolved.
The CEOs of Qatar's Vodafone and Ooredoo telecom companies confirmed to Doha News that the site has been blocked on their networks. They said that this was the result of "concerns raised regarding the licensing" of the website.
Doha News has rejected the claim that licensing issues were behind the move and are calling this a "clear act of censorship."
The move has sparked an outcry from rights groups and activists in the region. Rights group Amnesty International pointed to double standards in Qatar's media environment.
"This is an alarming setback for freedom of expression in the country. Deliberately blocking people in Qatar from accessing a legitimate news website would be an outright attack on media freedom," James Lynch, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Global Issues said in a statement emailed to StepFeed.
"As the nation that founded the Al Jazeera media network and which hosts a center dedicated to promoting global media freedom, Qatar should be at the forefront of those championing freedom of the press."
The CEOs of Qatar's telecom industry encouraged Doha News to resolve the issue with the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Economy and Commerce.
"We will be pleased to unblock access once the requirements of the relevant concerned parties have been met," Vodafone CEO Ian Gray, said in a statement to the news site.
The site, one of the only non-government-owned news organizations in Qatar, published a statement on Sunday explaining that it will continue to speak with authorities this week in hopes of resolving the issue.
"We reject the idea that our news website should be blocked over licensing concerns — this is a clear act of censorship, and a fairly unprecedented one in Qatar," wrote Doha News co-founder and Publisher Omar Chatriwala.
He added that the site will be cutting back its production "in the interest of protecting" its staff.
Last week, readers in Qatar noticed they were unable to access the website. Doha News quickly switched to a different website URL, but that was blocked shortly after as well.
The news team began publishing some of its articles on Medium for readers inside Qatar to access. International readers can still access the site and Qatar residents can also use VPN and several other options to access the content.
The Doha News team was initially puzzled by the decision.
The authorities, they said, had not brought up any concerns with the staff.
As one of the country's only independent news outlets, the website has been a go-to source for the latest in-depth news for nearly eight years, with about one million unique monthly readers.
"Our team of professional journalists has always aimed to draw the community together by informing and engaging them, and sparking debate on important issues," the news teams said in an initial statement.