Rants from Beirut

Sorry about the hiatus. I’m back in town after a few days in Beirut, and No, I wasn’t there to enjoy the Eid break. I was invited by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) to participate at the 3rd Arab Free Press Forum. I was a speaker at last year’s event and I had a good time there. This year, my friend Fouad al-Farhan was invited to speak on a discussion panel on the changing face of Arab blogging. Unfortunately, Fouad was stopped at Jeddah airport and was told that he is banned from leaving the country.

I was in Riyadh airport preparing to take my plane to Beirut when I received the disturbing news which made me upset. What happened to Fouad reminded me with other good people in this country also banned from traveling despite what they have contributed to this nation. People who sacrificed their freedom to promote free speech, human rights and justice. It is truly sad that such people are treated this way, especially in these times that carried the signs of reform and hope for a better future.

However, Saudi Arabia was not alone in this shameful act. Syria and Tunisia followed suit by banning two journalists and a human rights activist from traveling to attend the event. In his opening remarks, Timothy Balding, CEO of WAN, thanked the authorities of Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Syria for this eloquent and timely demonstration of their contempt for, and fear of, free expression. Of course this is not surprising. According to the latest Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index released by RSF, the three countries ranked 143, 161 and 159 out of 173.

Now coming to the forum’s sessions, the first one dealt with new tactics used by governments and the judiciary to impede and sanction the independent press. In his introduction, the moderator described these new tactics as oblique or subtle. But Ibrahim Essa, editor-in-chief of Al Dastour daily in Egypt refused such description, saying the Arab governments are not cleaver enough to employ such tactics. “I think Arab governments are stupid and repressive and they don’t need to resort to oblique tactics. Our governments don’t need to resort to oblique tactics because they are blunt,” he added.

The second session, on which Fouad was supposed to speak, focused on the Arab blogging scene. Interestingly, and maybe not surprisingly, the three presenters are all living and writing from outside their countries. Syrian blogger Mohammed al-Abdullah talked about restrictions on the internet in his country and the evolution of the Syrian blogosphere. He said the bloggers have become a source of information for Syrian citizens, despite all the constraints and obstacles for even just being on the internet. Mohammed left Syria after being arrested twice and facing a third arrest (his father and brother are both in jail).

Sami Ben Gharbia, as usual, was awesome. He talked about Tunisia’s sophisticated internet blocking apparatus, and how bloggers and activists have used Web 2.0 technologies to find and use innovative ways around the system.

But I have to say that it was Kizzie Shawkat, the blogger from Sudan, that I felt I could relate to her story the most. Kizzie started blogging because she had no venue to express her opinion, but quickly found herself in a role where she was providing a view of her country from a different perspective from official sources. I agree with her that blogging has become an important forum for social activism, and I think this could lead the way for other kinds of activism in the future. “You have to allow people to express themselves and we’re not used to doing that,” she concluded.

While the third discussion panel of the day that addressed editorial policies, trends and innovations in Arab newsrooms was not particularly interesting to me, the first day of the conference ended with much drama as four Tunisian government officials interrupted the presentation of a new report by the Tunisia Monitoring Group about the lack of freedom in Tunisia. The Tunisian officials broke into a shouting match with the speakers and other attendees who found themselves quite amused by those officials who shamelessly embarrassed themselves.

The second day of the conference had only one panel which discussed the business of newspaper publishing in the Arab World. Later on the day, we witnessed the ceremony of the Gebran Tueni Award. This year’s prize was handed out to Ibrahim Essa, who was recently pardoned by his country’s president, but still facing 32 lawsuits.

Away from the conference, and although Fouad’s travel ban left a dark shadow on the trip, it was as always good to be back to Beirut and meet friends and fellow bloggers. The city was filled with tourists and visitors, many of them Saudis, but I avoided hanging out in their favourite spots. I want to thank my friend Buthaina for taking me to the Comedy Night show, where Mario Bassil and his colleagues entertained us for more than 2 hours and made fun of almost every single Lebanese politician. I want also to thank my friend Alex for the good times, especially at Club Sociale in Gemayzie where we enjoyed a lovely performances by Hiba Mansouri and Zeid Hamdan aka shift Z.

Finally, I want to leave you with this interesting column (Arabic) by Yahia al-Ameer. He argues that what makes Beirut attractive to Saudis is not its touristic spots like Raouche, Solider or Aley but rather the freedom, diversity and individuality they can touch here, which represents a stark contrast to the conformity of their society. You think this is the case? Discuss.

Off to Beirut

Next Saturday I will be flying to Beirut, Lebanon to participate at the 2nd Arab Free Press Forum, a media conference organized by the World Association of Newspapers and An-Nahar daily. The conference will provide an overview of the latest press developments in the Arab world, from obstructive government policies, to case studies of newspapers that combine editorial independence with commercial success, to the rise of blogging and the role blogs play on the Arab media scene of today.

I will be speaking on the second day of the conference on a discussion panel titled “Blogs, an Alternative Way of Telling the News.” I’m humbled to be joined on the panel by Egyptian A-list blogger Wael Abbas, Jordanian blogger Mohammed Azraq, and Wadih Tueni, IT Manager of An-Nahar. The panel is moderated by Egyptian human rights lawyer Mohammed Abdelfattah.

It will be my first time to speak in a conference so I’m excited and nervous but I’m also looking forward to it. I hope I will be able to update the blog from Beirut, but I read that using the internet in Lebanese hotels is outrageously expensive. If any of you will be in Beirut at the same time and would like to meet up, drop me a line and we will see if we can pull something off.

Al Ekhbariya: Fresh (On) Air

When Al Ekhbariya was launched few years ago people thought this was MOI’s attempt to compete with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. This did not turn out to be the case. Instead, Al Ekhbariya focused on national issues and local news stories. You would think this is the least you can expect from a government-owned television channel, but looking at the history of Ch 1 and Ch 2 it is understood why we were impressed by the local coverage of Al Ekhbariya. Ch 1 and Ch 2 were so disconnected from reality (Ch 2 has improved lately, Ch 1 still sucks).

But media junkies in the Kingdom should have realized that early on when Mohammed Al Tounsi was chosen to head the new channel. Al Tounsi, who came from the print media empire SRPC, is largely known for transforming Al Eqtisadiah from a dry economic publication to a popular newspaper mainly by featuring local issues that get no coverage in other newspapers.

I have had the pleasure to meet Al Tounsi earlier this year in his office in Riyadh, and he talked about the channel, reform and the social changes that our country is going through. We usually listen to leaders like him talk about these issues, but what about the regular men and women walking down the street? Enter So’al Al Youm (Question of the Day), a show on Al Ekhbariya where reporters go out and meet people in streets and shopping malls to ask them about their opinions in all kinds of issues.

The program is the brainchild of Al Tounsi. The idea occurred to him right after one of the terrorist attacks that hit Riyadh not a very long time after the launch of the channel. He sent a crew to record people’s direct reaction and it was a success. If you have followed the program for a long time you can observe the change in people’s attitudes. “At the beginning people were afraid to appear on TV and speak out. Now when they see the the reporter and the cameraman they run to them to ask if they can participate,” Al Tounsi said.

In a country where you don’t have reliable tools to measure public opinion, a simple television program like this could help to detect trends and changes in people’s mindsets, especially on polarizing issues such job opportunities for women and misyar marriages.

Also of note on Al Ekhbariya is a show called Hazrat Al Muwaten (Dear Citizen), where you can find some of the best local reporting work on the screen. I like Buthaina Al Nassr and I like her improvised yet elegant style of work where she won’t simply settle for the comfort of a chair in an air-conditioned studio but rather would go to poor neighborhoods and smelly places like the fish market to bring stories of very normal people who truly struggle to make a living, just like the rest of us.

Buthaina, who recently left the channel and joined Al Hurra to work on a new talk show to be aired later this month, says she never watches the show after she is done working on it. “I put a lot of work into it and I can’t watch it after they edit many things out,” she told me.

However, Al Ekhbariya lacks an important factor for any television channel to gain a larger audience, especially a news channel. Simply put, Al Ekhbariya has no stars. I don’t mean to undermine the value of teamwork and I totally agree that the quality of the end product is more significant to viewers than the individuals involved in producing it. But on television you always need familiar faces that people can relate to, and to a large extent this is still missing from the channel. Also, there are so many talk shows on the channel but little is done to distinguish one from another, so I think they should put more work on that.

Al Ekhbariya’s arrival to the media scene of the country was groundbreaking on some regards and not-so-groundbreaking on others, but it has nevertheless introduced a long-awaited breeze of fresh air in a desert that enjoyed silence for so long. It was shocking to some, but for many of us this amount of disruption and controversy, little as it may seem, was just what we needed.

How Dare You Criticize Me?

First you have some people who believe that the government cannot be criticized simply because الشيوخ أبخص, and the government know the interests of the citizens better than themselves. Then you have some officials in the government who believe they cannot be criticized because, well, they are the government, falsely thinking this gives them some kind of immunity. And now you have a Shoura member who believe he and his fellow members cannot be criticized because he claims that almost no one out there know anything about the nature of work they do under that big dome.

However, Abdullah Al Twairgi is not jut asking for immunity, but he also seeks establishing a law to punish those who dare to talk bad about the Shoura Council. Obviously the right honourable member was so offended by an episode of Tash Ma Tash that was aired in Ramadhan and lightly touched on the performance of the council, and now he wants to ban reporters from attending the council discussions until they come up with something that can silence the critics. Way to go doctor!

At least I’m glad I have not elected you.

Speak of the Devil…

That was fast. Only a few minutes after posting this, look what I found: Hamza Al Mozainy is very disappointed at Sheikh Salman Al Awdah for an article about Eid Al Fitr that he wrote for Al Jazirah daily which included what can be considered hate speech. Al Mozainy has denounced in particular the use of the term ‘raifdah’ to describe Shiite Muslims. “[I]t is not meant as a description but rather discrimination against a group of Muslim Saudi citizens,” he said.

Just like Al Mozainy, I found it very surprising that Al Awdah, a sheikh that has become known for his moderation and tolerance, would say something like that. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t some sort of a misunderstanding or misquoting, so I went to Al Jazirah website to read the article myself. You can find it here, and unfortunately that paragraph Al Muzaini quoted is there.

Still, I had a feeling that there was something wrong. I went to Islam Today, a website supervised by Salman Al Awdah himself, where you can find most of his published articles and media appearances. I found the same article, but the paragraph about the Shiites was no where to be found. What is going on here? Did Al Awdah write that paragraph or not? Is it possible that an editor in Al Jazirah has added the paragraph to the article without the knowledge of Al Awdah?

In an email exchange earlier this morning, Al Mozainy told me it is unlikely that someone at Al Jazirah would have the audacity to edit the article. However, “it is the responsibility of Al Awdah to clarify this,” he added. I have emailed Sheikh Salman Al Awdah asking about the issue and I have yet to receive a response. If he responded I will update this post.

Poor Journalism Says Hi

I’ve been following the local mainstream media closely for the last three years. One of the things that I observed is that some of the English-language press here do a better job when it comes to reporting important and controversial local stories. Part of this has to do with the fact that they are in English so they are not under the radar of the censorship, but more importantly because their editors are usually committed to higher standards than their peers in the Arabic ones.

arab_news_logoHowever, every once in awhile the very same publications come up with gems like this which make me reconsider that observation. Other than some unknown market analysts, the reporter relied completely for his story on one source only: the owner of a company that runs a few of these amusement parks and who apparently looks forward to open more of them. And why not? I mean he, after all, was the one who said his “centers were located in attractive places, close to beaches and residential areas” as well as being “equipped with advanced educational and entertainment facilities.”

This piece of lousy reporting, and believe me I’m being way too nice to describe it as reporting when it sounds like a paid for commercial more than anything else, makes me lose my hope in the future of the fourth estate in this country. When I spent two weeks in the States last September I decided to take a break from the Saudi MSM while I was there and guess what? I didn’t miss it that much.