By Isabel Ovalle
Students at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) have launched a website addressing building codes and safety standards in the country’s construction sector. The site features articles, statistics and multimedia reports produced after five weeks of work.
“This is a topic that captured international attention when Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup,” says Christina Paschyn, instructor in Northwestern’s Advanced Online Storytelling journalism course. “Through Qatar Under Construction, we hope to raise the bar for local and international reporting on building and fire safety issues. More than that, we hope to shed light on what regulations are working and what desperately needs to be improved in Qatar’s construction industry,” said Paschyn.
Advanced Online Storytelling is a course journalism students take during their junior year before embarking on international residencies. The intensive five-week course aims to prepare them for their journalism or public relations internships at professional organisations such as Amnesty International, Time magazine and The Huffington Post.
Students were divided into teams and their work was overseen by the teacher. “I suggested where they were to start, I recommended what topics were to be approached, but they were in charge of finding the stories,” said the lecturer.
“We found that Qatar has the highest occupational death rate, five for 100,000 workers, while the UK and US are much lower. It’s a hard topic to cover,” she added. “Students were very interested in covering this topic, including Qataris who want to know what can be improved. However, our biggest challenge was getting people to open up to us.”
“Based on the statistics, I believe that this issue is very important. Our research shows Qatar has a very high worker fatality rate compared to the United Kingdom’s 0.6 workers per 100,000,” said Haya Al Mannai, a junior student who is part of Qatar Under Construction’s data and graphics team.Information gathered by the team covers various areas like the causes of fires that took place in 2012. According to data published by the General Directorate of Civil Defence, the cause of 1,088 fires was unclear, while 83 were caused by a short circuit, one was caused by smoking, one by heat and another by a criminal act. Regarding fires at malls, shops and service areas, the number fell from 83 in 2011 to 78 in 2012.
Among other topics addressed is the safety of buildings, which will fast increase in number before 2022. Dona Fernandes, one of the students, reports: “As Qatar prepares for the World Cup, construction is picking up more than ever and investments are continuing to be poured into large projects, such as Lusail City, New Doha International Airport, Msheireb Properties, Barwa Financial District and Energy City Qatar. According to the Qatar Tourism Authority, the country will have built 30,000 new hotel rooms by 2013. In addition, 5,000 more rooms will be built each year for the thousands of tourists who will head to Qatar by 2022.”
For student Tessniem Alhafidh, “being a journalist in Qatar means that it is never easy to obtain information. However, covering a topic such as construction turned out to be quite easy. Of course, the workers we interviewed were not willing to say anything negative about their companies. However, officials at malls and construction sites were open to talking about the negative aspects of safety in Qatar.”
The students found that some companies try to make a difference, and that was highlighted in their stories. “Even though not all of it is negative, there are still major changes Qatar needs to make to ensure construction and worker safety. With Qatar being in the spotlight since winning the World Cup 2022 bid, I believe the country is slowly changing towards being a safer country,” continued Tessniem.
The students’ reports disclose that numerous companies follow regulations while many don’t. “We heard about many deaths and accidents from negligence. The larger, well-known companies seem to follow regulations more frequently because there is more attention on them. Smaller companies sometimes feel as though they can get around regulations to save money and time,” stated the student.
This young journalist feels that though reporting in Qatar is always a challenge, it’s one that her generation accepts: “That’s what we are here for, to push boundaries. Every time we conduct an interview or get chased away from filming some random building downtown, we know somehow we are making a difference”.