Lebanon's al-Akhbar's English version

The English language version of the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar is out, promising to deliver English content of one fo the most dynamic new newspapers in the Arab world in the last decade. Al-Akhbar is sometimes described as radical leftist, pro-Hizbullah, pro-gay rights, Qatar-funded and more. It's often criticized as being too kind to March 8 in Lebanese. I read it from time to time, not working on Lebanon much, and was most struck by the variety and quality many of articles. Yes, it's opinionated and partisan, but also often critical of what it supposed to be its own camp. And it's been refreshingly anti-sectarian for a Lebanese newspaper. Worth bookmarking.

I saw this headline on its front page and thought it might perfectly capture it's essence: sympathetic to Hizbullah and the southern "resistance," but with typically Lebanese business acumen. 

"Southern Strawberries ‘Killed’ by Rumors and Weak Marketing"

Libya Dispatch: The Cage (2)

The lobby of the Rixos.Our intrepid correspondent Abu Ray, once covering Libya's East, is now covering the West. This week he makes it to Tripoli's Rixos hotel. (See past dispatches.) 

The billboard in the lobby shows a smiling child waving pictures of other cute smiling children, topped by the slogan, "Stop the Bleeding!" Bleeding? What bleeding? What now?

Welcome to the Rixos Hotel, Tripoli's finest and a gleaming, inlaid marble cage for Western journalists.

I'd heard a lot about this place over the last five months, about being trapped inside, about the mind games and the midnight summons, the hallways prowled by semi-feral minders and the press conferences by the smooth-tongued Moussa Ibrahim.

I wasn't prepared for the opulence. In my mind's eye, as I traveled along the coastal road from the border with a BBC reporter who'd stayed here before, I saw a tacky hotel built during the mad oil rush of the late 70s, now gone to seed, all flaking plastic and chipped gilt Barberella finery.

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For journalists covering Morocco

The pro-reform collective Mamfakinch has put together a press kit to encourage Western journalists to cover Morocco. It's reproduced below.

Mamfakinch (which in Moroccan Arabic means: we won’t give up) is a group of Moroccan activists and bloggers who support the pro-democracy movement “February 20.” Our group includes several online activists who speak French and English, in addition to Arabic and Tamazight (Berber). Mamfakinch is at the disposal of international journalists to answer their questions and put them in touch with local activists and committees affiliated with the “February 20” movement
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Qatar's new media law

Basically says, don't attack Saudi Arabia or Bahrain without our permission. Via POMED:

Qatar’s cabinet approved a new media law that is likely to be ratified during a meeting presided by Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Thani. The draft states that journalists will be able write freely, “except on issues concerning national security and friendly countries.” The Peninsula then adds, “There would be no censorship on the media.” The law does, however, prevent journalists from being detained without a court order, as is currently the case.

Egypt's first female presidential candidate

Recently, I met Buthayna Kamel, TV-presenter-turned-activist and the first woman to announce she will run for the presidency her. Here's a bit about it from a profile I wrote up for The Daily Beast:

She, like women across the country, was an enthusiastic participant in the January 25 Revolution.

“Women are always at the front of revolutions,” she says. “But then men want to take all the results.”

But, she insists, “I’m not just women’s candidate. I am a candidate for all of Egypt.” She is running for “the peasants, the workers, the women, the handicapped, the Copts, the Nubians, the Bedouin”—all of whom are marginalized, all of whom have been denied their rights. To change women’s status requires changing all of Egyptian society, she says, learning to “accept others and accept criticism.”

In the piece, I discuss Kamel's recent appearance on State TV, which led to accusations of "insulting the army." I mistakenly say the show was pulled off the air. Actually, it ordered off the air but the presenter continued to the end, when he told the audience he'd been receiving calls from the director of Radio and TV to shut down, and wasn't sure he would be on the air again(!)--watch the end of this clip. As to what got Kamel in trouble, it appears to be her ballsy comments in the beginning of the program, in which she condemns the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for their dealing with the sectarian clashes in Imbaba, for torturing demonstrators and for carrying out military trials of civilians while Mubarak regime figures have yet to be prosecuted. 

The NYT on Dennis Ross

When George Mitchell resigned last week, a PA official suggested it might have been because he had been elbowed out of his role as US envoy for the Middle East peace process by senior White House advisor Dennis Ross, the longtime peace-processor of the Bush I and Clinton administrations. Some were skeptical when it came from a Palestinian, but the NYT runs a rare story basically confirming this take on Ross' role in the White House as an advocate for Israel. In a sense it might be seen as a positive step that the NYT is talking about this: Ross is a major figure pro-Israel figure of the Democratic establishment with strong ties as a "centrist" or "moderate" in the Israel lobby.

One thing that's signicant in the article is that Jordan's King Abdullah chimes in on the criticism of Ross:

From the State Department, “we get good responses,” the Jordanian king said, according to several people who were in the room. And from the Pentagon, too. “But not from the White House, and we know the reason why is because of Dennis Ross” — President Obama’s chief Middle East adviser.

Mr. Ross, King Abdullah concluded, “is giving wrong advice to the White House.”

By almost all accounts, Dennis B. Ross — Middle East envoy to three presidents, well-known architect of incremental and painstaking diplomacy in the Middle East that eschews game-changing plays — is Israel’s friend in the Obama White House and one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in town.

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Assad's propaganda

The Syrian state media is engaged in a no-holds barred propaganda campaign, described here by this rare report from inside Syria by a foreigner. It reminds me of the insanity on Egyptian TV during the 18 days of the revolution. From the Beast:

The protests in Syria have caused the world's media to focus on this autocratic state and its brutal response to the latest development in the Arab Spring. Foreign journalists are not being allowed into Syria. As a result, conspicuously lacking from international coverage is the response of Syrians themselves to the protests. And key in understanding this response is the "media war" that the Syrian regime has openly declared.

The extent of distortion and disinformation, of efforts to control Syrians' opinions, is mind-boggling, and terrifying. Here is a brief sample:
  • Armed terrorist groups are trying to destabilize Syria. Televised confessions and discoveries of weapons caches prove this.
  • Syrian citizens welcome the arrival of the army into their cities to protect them from these armed groups. Scenes of women throwing flowers over advancing tanks prove this.
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Egypt: The media and the military

From CPJ:

Substantial setback for press freedom in Egypt
 
New York, April 13 2011- A new requirement by the Egyptian military that local print media obtain approval for all mentions of the armed forces before publication is the single worst setback for press freedom in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.  
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State media clean-up?

Well, the heads of all the state newspapers as well as of the Egyptian Radio and TV Union were replaced last week. The extent of the commitment to change is unclear, however, given that most of them have been replaced by men (and they are all men, no change there...) who were also high-ranking figures within these institutions under the former regime. 

(I don't know enough about these people and their relationship to the Mubarak regime, if any of you readers have information, please do share!) 

At flagship daily newspaper Al Ahram, the new CEO is -- according to a source of mine there -- a disappointment in that he is "one student of the corrupted Ibrahim Nafie," (the infamous former CEO who destroyed the paper over his long reign and was replaced in 2008). But the new editor was actually the choice of reporters, who held a straw poll for the position earlier this month. 

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Recognize fascism when you see it

A reminder that the media is not only odious in the Middle East from TPM's Josh Marshall:
As you know, we have cable news running in our news room permanently, flipping back and forth between the three biggies. And the percentage flow of obvious falsehoods, outright lies and what frequently verges on or passes for hate speech is just awe-inspiring. In an awful sort of way, but still awe-inspiring. I know it. You know it. But when I actually listen, pay attention to the stuff they're saying, wow. It's amazing that this exists as one of the big sources of news in this country. Just now we were listening to Megyn Kelly interview Mike Gallagher. Okay, I got it off my chest.

Whenever I go to Amreeka, I'm mesmerized by the cable news channels — Fox News most of all, but also CNN US and the rest. At times it's reminiscent of the broadcasts in Starship Troopers.

A dispatch from SXSW

I spent most of this week in Austin, Texas, where I was invited to participate in a panel on Wikileaks organized by The Guardian at the South By SouthWest Interactive festival. I had  a great time there — it's a geeky festival I had long wanted to go to, with also great film and music festivals — although I'm still suffering from the brutal 20-hour trip. 
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Revolution in the newsroom

Readers of the blog know I've been following Egyptian state media for some time now, and am particularly interested in how much it will be "revolutionized" and the role it will play in political developments here now. The impact of the media will be very important in the coming year--perhaps even more so as the system opens up and there is real political competition. I also think the bloated and compromised state media is a good test case to see how much institutional reform will take place in the new Egypt. Anyway, I have a piece in Newsweek looking at what's going on at flagship state newspaper Al Ahram: 

These days, the labyrinthine hallways are abuzz. “Have you heard…?” reporters whisper to each other. They aren’t just discussing the news outside—the wave of appointments, prosecutions, protests, and clashes that is sweeping Egypt. It’s the battle raging over the future of Al-Ahramitself that has everyone riveted.

“There used to be a ceiling to our freedom,” says editor Ahmed Amer, seated at a circular table in one of the paper’s many conference rooms, its walls decorated with faded old maps. On this day, he is working on a story about an illegal land deal involving the former speaker of Parliament. The latest edition of the paper carries a headline that announces “the fall” of the country’s dreaded State Security Investigative Service, whose offices have been ransacked by protesters.

Like other papers in Egypt, Al-Ahram is now printing stories that would have been unimaginable only a few months ago. But some say the paper’s makeover is just that: a makeover.

“It’s not smart to change your editorial policy 180 degrees in one day,” says Sabah Hamamou, one of the journalists leading a small insurgency at Al-Ahram. “You can be more objective. But you shouldn’t just be pro-revolution when one day earlier you were pro-Mubarak.”

BBC crew tortured in Libya

The Libyan regime thinks it's a good idea to do this to journalists:

Three members of the BBC Arabic team in Tripoli were detained and beaten while reporting on the situation in Libya. They were arrested on Monday (07 March) and taken to various barracks where they suffered repeated assaults, were masked and handcuffed, and were subject to a mock execution.

There's a full transcript from the BBC on Christopher Dickey's blog, pretty harrowing stuff:

G: "there was a big iron gate. It looked like a film set, like an execution place. They took us out of the car and the middle of the compound there was a cage, they put three of us in the cage and the last thing I saw before the door shut they hit Feras with an AK 47. We started hearing him groaning. They turned up the radio, all Qaddafi songs."

C: "They were wearing uniforms with no badges of rank. Some of then had their faces covered."

F: "they were kicking and punching me, 4 or 5 men. I went down on to my knees. They attacked me as soon as I got out of the car. They knocked me down to the ground with their guns, AK-47s. I was down on my knees and I heard them cocking their guns. I thought they were going to shoot me. It was a fake execution. Then they took me into the room."

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Calls for change at Al Ahram

One of the most interesting (and hard to follow) phenomena of the moment in Egypt is the proliferation of demands for reform at the level of institutions and workplaces. At all sort of different organizations, workers are demanding the resignation of top officials and the institutions of more equitable pay scales. 

I just did a piece looking at this for the radio show The World. One of the people I spoke is my old friend Sabah Hamamou, who is one of the leaders of an effort to reform state newspapers. She and 300 other journalists wrote a letter of apology to readers for Al Ahram's coverage of the protests. The editors refused to print it so they called a press conferences and read it out loud. They have also created a Facebook group called The Front to Save Al Ahram (there is another Facebook group calling for a boycott of the paper until its management changes). And for an account of an editorial meeting right after Mubarak's resignation in which Hamamou confronted the newly, suddenly "revolutionary" management, listen to the piece. 

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Revolution and Counter-revolution in the Media

I have an article in MERIP looking at the communication networks and strategies that the protesters and the government in Egypt each used during their standoff. Here's a bit from the intro:

In the tense and unpredictable days between January 28 and February 11, when Mubarak stepped down, the mood of the TV-watching Egyptian public veered from support of the protesters’ demands to a desire to return to normalcy to sympathy with the beleaguered president and back again. To a large extent, the contest of wills between a spontaneous, grassroots movement and an entrenched authoritarian regime became a battle of words and images, in which issues of national authenticity were paramount and modes of communication vital. Who could legitimately claim to speak for Egypt? Who could not? The protesters and the government debated these questions through very different means -- the former using free-wheeling, peer-to-peer, mostly digital networks, the latter with top-down announcements through channels over which they retain exclusive control.

(On a side note: I hold a deep and personal grudge against some of the state TV announcers who with their incitement put protesters and foreign journalists like myself in serious physical danger. They're all still there, even as state channels have completely jumped on the "youth revolution" bandwagon, and all the footage they wouldn't show during the protests is suddenly being used to make patriotic montages. They should be fired.)

Dark Foreign Forces

The youth website of al-Ahram (aka, "A Diwan of Contemporary Realignment") sends a reporter to Tahrir to investigate the identities of all those foreigners in the square. (It was published Feb 11, so it was probably commissioned a few days before). It turns out that while some of them may have been a bit Iranian-looking, they were mostly journalists asking demonstrators what they wanted, rather than foreign agents handing out cash.

Given that xenophobia-mongering was one of Mubarak's main tools in trying to delegitimize the revolution, it's nice to see that the state media is tackling the "Irano-Israeli spies in Tahrir stirring up trouble" narrative head-on.

Wael Ghonim relaunches the revolution

Everyone following events in Egypt knows by now that, last night around 11pm on Dream 2, Wael Ghonim — one of the instigators of the January 25 movement who has just been released after 12 days in detention — gave the country one of the most moving moments of television I have ever seen. After explaining his ordeal, his ideals, and his views on why the people in Tahrir were right, host Mona Shazli showed pictures of the "martyrs" of this uprising. Ghonim broke down and cried, saying as he sobbed: "It's not our fault. To the mothers and fathers, it's not our fault. It's the fault of the people in positions of authority who don't want to leave power."
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Today's headlines in Egypt

On 27 January — compare to yesterday's. The policy for the state press has changed from ignoring the situation to scaremongering about chaos.

The state press

Al Ahram: "Four dead and 118 wounded among the protestors; 162 policemen wounded and 100 arrests in Cairo and the governorates"

Al Akhbar: "Protests in Cairo and Suez; Minister of Interior has banned protests"

Al Gomhouriya: "Security forces will firmly face any attempt to break the law and spread unrest"

Rose al-Youssef: "In an exclusive interview, the Minister of Interior affirms that the Egyptian state is not fragile. This regime is supported by millions of Egyptians and a few thousand protestors will not destabilize it."

The private press

Al Masri Al Youm: "Protestors and police hold to their positions for the second day of protests"

Al Shorouk: "Gratuitous violence and excessive police brutality"

Al Wafd: "Change is the solution"

Nahdet Misr: "The protestors are right to be angry"

Uncertainty in Tunisia

Yesterday my column on Tunisia at al-Masri al-Youm went up, news about a curfew in Tunis had just surfaced, rumors of grumbling in the military and the firing of General Rachid ben Ammar, the head of the army, were spreading and there were reports that much of the Ben Ali family was either in Canada or heading to Argentina.

No wonder that by late Tuesday / early Wednesday there were rumors of a coup. And right now, as I write this, news is trickling that Ben Ali has fired his interior minister and prime minister, and released all those arrested (aside from those charged as criminals). This is the response Ben Ali should have had two days ago in his speech to calm the situation — it's a peace offering. He may have missed that opportunity, though, with general strikes scheduled for the next few days.

All of this highlights the paucity of reliable information about what's happening in a dictatorship, and the heroic efforts (and occasional mistakes) of the people spreading the news on Twitter and elsewhere. I'll be talking about this and more on al-Jazeera International today at around 5pm Cairo time.