The Anti-Oliver: NPR Sandpapers FIFA and Qatar Human Rights Abuses

Fresh off John Oliver’s expose Sunday of the corruption behind FIFA’s awarding Qatar the 2022 World Cup and the virtual enslavement of migrant workers to build the complex of stadiums and amenities – which led to the deaths of thousands – NPR weighed in with a puff piece on its Monday “Morning Edition” program.

On his show “Last Week Tonight” (Sunday, November 21), Oliver made no bones about stating that FIFA officials were paid off to award the tournament to Qatar. Now here’s NPR reporter Aya Batrawy, interviewed by Morning Edition host Leila Fadel (Monday, November 22), answering the question “How did Qatar end up being the host of the World Cup in the first place?”:

“Well, Qatar is a very small but very wealthy country….And it’s really used that money to project its power and itself onto the global stage.”

She goes on to mention the migrant workers this way:

“They have spent $200 billion over the last decade on infrastructure, most of it for the games….So for this small country where 10 times as many foreigners live there than actual citizens, it’s a very big moment. And most of those foreigners are there to really build this infrastructure, migrant workers. So it’s a chance to showcase Qatar, a chance for people to look at Qatar and to look at it differently in a way that doesn’t have to do with Mideast politics….”

Fadel presses Batrawy: “[T]here’s a lot of concern about the human rights situation for migrant workers…” although she immediately follows it with “If you could just talk about where all the criticisms are coming from….”

As if “where” (or who?) the criticisms “are coming from” is the issue, and not the substance of the “criticism.”

Batrawy answers:

“You’re absolutely right. Migrant workers have built this infrastructure that you see in Qatar today. And they’ve worked in really harsh, difficult conditions in extreme heat.”

That’s about as close as she’ll come to admitting that something’s amiss. Absent, of course, is any mention of the thousands of migrant workers who perished (see, for example, Human Rights Watch).

Fadel: Yeah.

Batrawy: “So this is a country where migrant workers for many years didn’t really have rights. They were tied to their employers. They couldn’t switch jobs or quit or even leave the country without permission from their employer.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, except it’s conveniently put in the past tense, followed up with:

“A lot of that has been dismantled over the years….But there still remain a lot of challenges with being paid on time and severance and, of course, just the extreme harsh conditions that they work in.”

Of course. But most of these human rights abuses have been “dismantled.” And it’s not that workers are living in squalid conditions and many of them are not paid at all, living in full-time debt peonage – it’s just a problem of late payments and “severance.”

Fadel: “Right.” (This is intelligent conversation on NPR.)

Batrawy again raises another issue, to her credit: “But there are wider concerns about human rights in Qatar.” (Ya’think?!) “[V]ery limited political freedoms and speech. Homosexuality is criminalized.”

You can probably guess what comes next:

“But Qataris are saying, look. We are welcoming everybody without discrimination. But there are concerns around that, of course. And that’s something people have raised.”

What we have here is a failure to communicate…in any coherent way, what John Oliver had no trouble saying in plain English: The patina of “tolerance” to foreign visitors to the cup in no way changes the forced invisibility of LGBTQ people who actually have to live and work in Qatar.

Really, who can listen to such drivel and anesthetic locution? This is why I only listen to NPR by accident, for the most part.

Fred Baumgarten is a writer living in western Massachusetts.