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World Cup and human rights in Qatar: Where the propaganda effect failed

By Sebastian Hellmeier and Michael Zürn

The World Cup in Qatar was highly controversial. The Gulf state had hoped that its role as host would boost its international image. Now, a survey shows that the propaganda effect of the FIFA World Cup depends to a large extent on the quality of the media landscape. The survey was conducted with almost 16,000 people in eight European countries a few weeks before the World Cup kicked off. Where the awarding and preparation of the World Cup were accompanied by critical reporting, the rulers in Qatar have not achieved their goal of putting the human rights situation in a better light. In particular, the German media landscape, along with that in Sweden, is doing well in that regard.

The emirate of Qatar paid a lot for the World Cup, starting with the awarding in 2010, and the bribes allegedly paid there will not have been small. Michel Platini's vote alone was probably expensive, at least if you include the Emir's subsequent involvement with the Paris Saint-Germain soccer club. However, in comparison with the costs of building the stadium and the infrastructure measures for staging the World Cup, they hardly carry any weight. Never before has a host country invested so much money in hosting a World Cup. According to estimates, the costs for the development of the infrastructure and the stadiums in which the World Cup matches were held totaled 220 billion dollars. The capacity utilization and subsequent use of the new stadiums are questionable. The target of 1.2 million international visitors was missed. By comparison, the cost of the 2006 World Cup in Germany was around 4.3 billion dollars. The current bribery scandal involving former EU Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili shows that large sums of money were also spent on the accompanying PR measures.

Why did the Emir spend so much money? Successfully holding major sporting events can not only serve the internal legitimization of political systems; authoritarian regimes in particular also hope to gain international reputation. This was seen in recent years, for example, with the Winter Olympics in Russia in 2014. Nevertheless, the 1936 Berlin Olympics remain the prime example. According to comparative data from the "Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem)"-project at the University of Gothenburg, Qatar is the second most authoritarian host country of a World Cup - only fascist Italy in 1934 was less democratic. Dictatorial hosts hope for a whitewashing effect. In the case of Qatar, this particularly concerns the country’s human rights situation. The host country of the World Cup has been criticized abroad for its treatment of so-called guest workers. In addition, the government is accused of disregarding the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. However, there could also be an opposite and unintended effect. The intensified reporting on the host country can lead to a politicization of the conditions there. In that case, a major event acts like a magnifying glass, highlighting grievances all the more clearly.

In a study conducted by the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) as part of the Cluster of Excellence "Contestations of the Liberal Script" (SCRIPTS), we investigated the reputational effects of hosting such a major event. Johannes GerschewskiHeiko GieblerSebastian HellmeierEda Keremoglu and Michael Zürn developed questions that were or will be addressed to almost 16,000 people in eight European countries before, during and after the World Cup. The before and after comparison is intended to prove the reputation effects of this World Cup.

The evaluation of the survey before the World Cup already shows how strongly the perception of Qatar differs in Europe. In November, we had asked the participants to rate the human rights situation in Qatar on a scale of 1 ("are not respected at all") to 7 ("are well-respected"). While respondents in Sweden and Germany (and with a gradation also Great Britain) arrive at a dramatically poor assessment of the human rights situation in Qatar, the majority of Romanians actually assess the human rights situation positively. In between are countries such as Italy, Poland, Croatia and Hungary.

Part of these enormous differences can be attributed to the quality and extent of consolidation of democracy in the countries surveyed. This is generally associated with a more or less high regard for human rights, especially respect for the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. For example, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy are in the top 10 to 20 percent of the global index of liberal democracies, according to the latest V-Dem Institute report. The rest of the surveyed countries appear in the following order: Croatia and Romania (top 20 to 30 percent), Poland (top 40 to 50 percent), and Hungary (bottom 40 to 50 percent).

But where does the large difference between Italy and Sweden in their assessment of the human rights situation in Qatar come from, even though both are considered consolidated democracies? And why are people in Romania so lenient toward Qatar, even though their country now has better democracy scores than Poland and Hungary? The different media systems, the relative importance of quality media and the associated quality of public debates serve as explanations here.

Figures from the Bertelsmann Stiftung on media freedom point to this correlation. Germany and Sweden have the most diverse media landscapes, publishing a wide range of different opinions. Both countries are on top of the ranking of all OECD and EU countries (4th and 5th place). Italy (12th) and Great Britain (18th) follow with a distance. In Poland (34th), Croatia (36th) and Romania (38th), the media reflect less diversity of opinion and ownership is more concentrated in the private media landscape. Oligopolies and state interference hinder open discourse in the public sphere. Hungary even ranks second to last (40th) in the wake of autocratization under President Viktor Orbán.

The V-Dem data on the quality of public debates show the correlation even more clearly. To take account of the fact that coverage of Qatar had already increased significantly before the World Cup tournament, we go back to figures from 2019: Sweden and Germany are once again right at the top in reverse order this time (4th and 6th place). Great Britain follows only by some distance (32nd place), which becomes again clearly larger to Italy (41st place). Then come Croatia and Poland (81st and 109th place). And at the very end are Hungary (125th) and Romania (151st), whose ranking has improved considerably in recent years. This ranking matches our survey results to a tee.

This suggests that whitewashing authoritarian regimes can only work where there is a lack of critical media coverage. In the case of Qatar, the World Cup has led to the opposite effect in countries with critical coverage. It shines a spotlight on the human rights situation and makes existing abuses visible. We may, therefore, confidently assume that the enormous overall cost of the World Cup will not pay off, at least in those countries with critical media coverage.