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This New York Times journalist had her article censored in Qatar

Written by gaytourism

New York Times journalist Shannon Sims recently covered an art show. The title of the piece was ‘A Fire Killed 32 at a New Orleans Gay Bar. This Artist Didn’t Forget.’ What Sims didn’t expect was to see a blank box where her article should have been in the Qatar edition of The Times.

What happened?

‘One Thursday morning, days after an article I had written for The New York Times’s Arts section had run, I received a message from a contact in Doha, Qatar, alerting me to a haunting image circulating the web. The image showed The Times, opened to the Culture section. But beneath the Culture heading, where my article was supposed to appear, there was instead a large, white, empty box. Most of the page was blank,’ Sims wrote.

‘I stared at the image; I had never seen a newspaper with a big blank box in place of an article. And as my eyes scrolled to the bottom of the big white box, they widened. There, in small type, was a note: “The Opinion piece, ‘A Fire Killed 32 at a New Orleans Gay Bar. This Artist Didn’t Forget,’ by by Shannon Sims, is exceptionally removed from the Doha edition of The New York Times International Edition. It is available on the web at”’

Sims’ reaction

‘The note seemed strange for a variety of reasons. For one, I hadn’t written an opinion piece, but instead a reported article about an art show. There was the accidental use of “by” twice. But, above all, the note stood out because it seemed to suggest that my article had been censored. But by whom? And how? And, most important, why?’

‘The article covered a New Orleans museum show as a whole, but focused on one artist’s contribution: an exhibit exploring an overlooked, dark chapter of the history of the L.G.B.T.Q. community in New Orleans. The artist, Skylar Fein, researched the tragic killing of 32 people at a gay bar in 1973, and he recreated both the feeling of the bar and the limited — and sometimes homophobic — news coverage around it at the time.’

‘The article featured images of Mr. Fein’s exhibit and the artist shot by a local photographer, William Widmer. Though the images may be suggestive (a shirtless man, for example), they are not explicit. In fact, the article was similar in many ways to other Arts pieces that have been published in The Times, and not particularly edgy.’

‘Nevertheless, although the article appeared in print editions of The Times around the world, it was “exceptionally removed” by the printer in Doha, Qatar.’

Censoring issues

According to Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, the president of international for The New York Times Company, The Times partners with local printers around the world for their international edition. While this works ‘perfectly well’ in most markets, Dunbar-Johnson noted there are about three markets with censorship issues — Qatar being one of them.

Dunbar-Johnson pointed to other instances of censorship over the years in places like the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Pakistan. In these instances, either an entire article or certain sections/pictures were ‘blacked out,’ sometimes with permanent marker.

Like in Sims’ case, the issue tends to revolve around ‘sensitive’ content. In Pakistan, however, they will censor articles they believe may put the journalist in life-threatening situations. There have been instances of journalists being killed in the country.

In Thailand, according to Dunbar-Johnson, the printer was threatening not to distribute the paper. Now, subscribers in the country receive The Times a day or more late. In China, The Times website has been blocked for many years. Print editions are shipped to Hong Kong before going to mainland China for censorship. About once a month, The Times isn’t distributed in China at all.

Not the fault of The Times

‘I must stress we never ever self-censor. We never make a decision about what goes into The New York Times based on what any government in the world says,’ Dunbar-Johnson told Sims.

Instead, this censorship is due to local printers following the rules and regulations of their governments.

While the Qatari printers didn’t respond to Sims’ request for comment, it can be implied the censorship was a result of the LGBTI content. In Qatar, homosexuality is still criminalized.


Justin D. Martin, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Doha campus, has never seen any censorship issues on the scale of Qatar’s. In fact, when he picked up this issue of The Times in Qatar, he thought the blank spaces were a printing error.

‘Any reader can see that this is a tactless censorship, especially because The New York Times has that comment at the bottom,’ Martin told Sims. Additionally, the full article is still available on The Times website.

‘It is incredibly dumb of these governments to do this,’ Dunbar-Johnson said, ‘because it just gets people to read the pieces they have taken offense to.’

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