Podcasts, Podcasts and more Podcasts. Just remove the Comments!

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Podcasting is a popular move for publishers in the UAE (image source: theodysseyonline.com)

If, like me, you’re a news junkie who feels they spend far too much time in a car, you’re in luck. The UAE’s media outlets have gone on a Podcast frenzy.

The Gulf News business desk began their podcasting about five months back. Named Dirhams and Dollars, the series is an eclectic mix of anything and everything business related, from social media and e-commerce, to the impact that politics has on economics and economies. Headed up by the trio of business editor Scott Shuey, and staff reporter Ed Clowes and Sarah Diaa, the casts are hosted on Soundcloud and usually run for about 15 to 30 minutes. The series is distributed by Twitter  as well (disclaimer – I do love the team picture).

As part of their relaunch, The National has launched a new series of current affairs podcasts, named Beyond the Headlines, where they aim to deep dive into issues which the editorial team feel deserve more attention. The podcasts are hosted on Audioboom and are normally curated by the Assistant Editor-in-Chief Mustafa Alrawi for about 30 minutes.

Others are set to follow. Motivate’s Emirates Woman will soon be launching a podcast series focusing on women’s issues across the region.

While some publishers are putting out more content, in new formats (I’d love to see if the move to podcasting will have any impact on radio in the region), others are doing away with some sections of their website. Al Jazeera is removing its comments section, and here’s why:

The mission of Al Jazeera is to give a voice to the voiceless, and healthy discussion is an active part of this. When we first opened up comments on our website, we hoped that it would serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with each other.

However, the comments section was hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism. The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually non-existent.

Also, over time, we found social media to be the preferred platform for our audience to debate the issues that matter the most to them. We encourage our audience to continue to interact with us this way.

This decision also comes at a time when we as a publisher need to evaluate what our priorities are. We feel that rather than approaching the problem with a collection of algorithms and an army of moderators, our engineering and editorial resources are better utilised building new storytelling formats that resonate with our audience.

Al Jazeera are looking at how to host comments, so this may only be temporary. However, it does highlight the issue of anonymity online, especially in a region which is beset by a number of political disputes between different countries.

Has Social Media Overtaken the News Cycle? The Story of the Kuwait Mosque Bombing

Last Friday was one of bloodshed and horror in Kuwait. The country, which has not been affected by regional sectarian issues in the same manner as its neighbours Iraq and Saudi Arabia, experienced something truly terrible. During Friday prayers, when men gather to pray together in the mosque, a suicide bomber entered one such mosque with the intent to kill as many of those inside as possible. To date, twenty seven people inside the Imam Sadiq Mosque, a place of worship for Shia Muslims. Two hundred people were injured.

Apart from the horror of this atrocity, which Islamic State claimed responsibility for, what is telling is the speed and amount of information which spread via social media, particularly WhatsApp, in the Gulf.

I was receiving messages about the bombing two hours before the news had made it onto websites such as Al Jazeera English. Not only was the information written down, but people were sharing both images and video thanks to the proliferation of smartphones as well as the availability of high-speed mobile data services.

Below is just a selection of the images that I received on that day.

What’s fascinating is not just the speed of information, but also the accuracy of that information. When Al Jazeera Arabic made a mistake with the name and picture of the suspected bomber an image was shared on social media of the correct suspect.

In addition, the amount of information was remarkable. While global networks provided a couple of minutes of coverage about the bombing, the images and video shared via Whatsapp built up a comprehensive picture of the incident, including video footage of the scene as well as interviews with witnesses and survivors. Unlike the news networks, many of whom don’t have correspondents in Kuwait, this was amazing, in-depth reportage of the Imam Sadiq bombing. Just two of the videos I received are below.

What was missing from all of this was context. On the same day there were terrorist incidents in both Tunisia and France, one of which was claimed by ISIS. Due to the local interest in Kuwait on my Whatsapp channels, no news on these two events was shared. This was a different story on the news networks where the three stories came together into one coherent piece on ISIS and its aim to spread terror across the Middle East and Europe.

Is the Imam Sadiq mosque bombing an example of citizen journalism working at its best in the Gulf? If so, how can media outlets catch up to ensure they have access to this information at the same time as its distribution through both private messaging networks such as WhatsApp as well as open platforms such as Instagram and Twitter? Twitter is looking to bring in a head of media partnerships for the MENA region, to work with publishers. It’ll be interesting to see how this and other efforts to get news outlets to work through social media impacts their ability to tell the story accurately in real time.

On a final note, my thoughts are with those who experienced this terrible incident. May all of those who were injured make a speedy recovery, and those who died always be remembered.

Not the headline one hopes for – Migrant workers, ‘trespassing’, and Qatar’s BBC own goal

A communicator’s job (or part of at the very least) is to generate headlines. Preferably favorable headlines. But even the best of intentions can often come undone.

It’s an understatement to say that Qatar has been under the microscope recently. The country, with a population of just over a million (both nationals and expats) and hundreds of billions of dollars of gas reserves, has often strived to make its mark on the global stage. One such project is the news station Al-Jazeera, which has revolutionized media in the Middle East and beyond.

Qatar’s World Cup bid and subsequent win hasn’t been the success the country may have hoped for however. Ever since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup by FIFA, it has been subject to criticism by international NGOs about a host of issues ranging from the rights of homosexuals to labor rights.

The biggest concern has been the living conditions of low-income workers, specifically those people who are building the infrastructure for the World Cup.

To their credit (or maybe because there’s little other choice afforded to them), the Qatari government has tried to tackle allegations of poor treatment of migrant workers head on. They have announced new legislation to penalize companies who do not pay workers on time and an amendment to the national labor law to facilitate the payment of workers through direct bank deposits.

Qatar has also been keen to promote the new migrant labor villages that the government has built. As part of its media efforts, the country’s Labor Ministry invited global media last week to view this new accomodation and meet the country’s Labor Minister to talk about Qatar’s push to promote labor rights.

However, things didn’t go quite as expected. I’ll quote from the Guardian below.

A four-strong BBC crew had been invited by the prime minister’s office on an official tour designed to show off new accommodation for migrant labourers, but were arrested by the security services while trying to gather additional material. They were interrogated and jailed for two days, before being released without charge.

The visit was part of a public relations drive, partly overseen by London-based agency Portland, in the wake of an international outcry over the slave-like conditions for workers exposed by a Guardian investigation in September 2013.

Rather than the story being the improvements in living conditions for Qatar’s migrant workers, the headline on the BBC (which was carried across the globe) was BBC team arrested, and held for several days.

It went from bad to worse for Qatar when Qatar’s communications chief explained that the BBC team had been arrested for ‘trespassing’. Again, to quote from The Guardian.

The Qatari government’s head of communications, Saif al-Thani, said the BBC crew were arrested after departing from an official tour. He said: “We gave the reporters free rein to interview whomever they chose and to roam unaccompanied in the labour villages.

“Perhaps anticipating that the government would not provide this sort of access, the BBC crew decided to do their own site visits and interviews in the days leading up to the planned tour. In doing so, they trespassed on private property, which is against the law in Qatar just as it is in most countries. Security forces were called and the BBC crew was detained.”

The challenge organizations often face is how to ensure that the same message is conveyed across the entirety of the organization. It’s obvious that in Qatar there were differences of opinion which led to the BBC crew being tailed by the security forces once they’d entered the country and to their arrest while doing their job.

The question now for Qatar is how do they go on from here and get the message right, across all of the country’s government and leadership? The media scrutiny is only going to get even more intense, the closer we get to the 2022 World Cup. I’ll continue to watch this story and how it unfolds in the media.

Inauspicious Beginnings or PR Coup: Al Waleed’s Al-Arab TV station and how it was shut down on its opening day by Bahrain

Al Waleed’s Al-Arab is now known worldwide thanks to Bahrain’s closure of its operations on its first day of broadcasting (image source: http://www.bbc.com)

Have you heard of the saying, ‘There is no such thing as bad publicity’? If you’re a communications professional at BP or you work for Bill Cosby you may feel differently, but the quote, often attributed to the American self-publicist PT Barnum, still rings true in terms of brand awareness and familiarity.

One man who doesn’t lack for publicity is the Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Al Saud. Al Waleed, who has long had an interest in the media (he owns stakes in News Corp, Fox and Saudi Research and Publishing Group), set out his own media vision for the region a couple of years back when he announced his intention to set up his own news channel. Named Al-Arab, the channel would compete with the likes of Al-Jazeera and MBC Al-Arabiya to shape the news agenda.

After years of planning, the channel went live this week. Al-Arab is based in Bahrain, ostensibly to allow the channel to benefit from Bahrain’s relative media freedoms and, as the channel’s general manager and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi put it, to cover “all views” in the region.

On its first day of operations the channel was temporarily suspended by Bahrain’s information ministry. Akhbar al-Khaleej, a pro-government paper, reported that the suspension was due to the channel “not adhering to the norms prevalent in Gulf countries”.

The allegation is that Bahrain’s government took offense to an interview aired with Bahraini opposition activist and politician Khalil al-Marzooq, who was talking about Manama’s decision at the weekend to revoke the citizenship of 72 Bahrainis.

The closure has made headlines worldwide, and has guaranteed headlines for Al-Arab in capitals such as Washington, London, Paris and Berlin. While the closure may have been an operational nightmare, for a publicist it has been a coup. As Oscar Wilde put it, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. By this measure Al Waleed should be delighted with the launch of his television channel.

The stunt may have also have helped to cement Al-Arab’s position as a channel that will tackle any and all subjects. Before the channel’s launch, Khashoggi stated the need to be both bold in terms of talking about taboos as well as the need to discuss issues from a balanced perspective. “We are going to be neutral; we are not going to take sides,” he said. “We are going to bring in all sides in any conflict because right now we have a conflict in almost every Arab country.”

By setting down this marker from day one, will Al-Arab be able to set itself apart from other channels in the region which do have particular media biases. Will Al-Arab create a middle ground that wins over Arab audiences?

According to Al-Arab’s Twitter feed the station will be operational again soon. I for one can’t wait to watch its re-launch.

And if you want to see the alleged reason for why Al-Arab was shut down watch the clip below.

How can the UAE encourage more locals to enter the media industry?

The words of HH Sheikh Mohammad during the Emirati Media Forum. The country is looking to encourage more locals to enter the media industry

The words of HH Sheikh Mohammad during the Emirati Media Forum. The country is looking to encourage more locals to enter the media industry

This month we’ve been treated to not one but two regional forums focusing on the media sector. First we had the Abu Dhabi Media Summit. Not to be outdone, Dubai held the second edition of the Emirati Media Forum (EMF). The words above were the highlight of the event, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, spoke about the need for there to be more nationals in the media sector.

Reinforcing the message, UAE Minister for State and Chairman of Sky News Arabia Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber spoke on the need for the country’s media to, as Gulf Today put it, become proactive and anticipative, provide deep analysis and interpretation for the current events, carry its social and cultural responsibilities, deliver our message and voice to the world and reflects our sound peaceful culture.

“Over the past years, UAE media has registered many successes and achievements and we need to adopt a balanced and objective strategy that shall contribute in enhancing and bolstering UAE creditability regionally and internationally.”

“When I call for a proactive role, I do not mean exaggeration but rather I call upon our national media to be an icon for ethics and professionalism.”

As a former journalist in the UAE and someone who has dealt extensively with media across the Gulf, the country doesn’t lack for journalists or publications. However, the vast majority of journalists are expats. Even on the Arabic side, most of the media are from Egypt, Jordan or Lebanon.

Whilst it could be argued that the media industry in the Gulf isn’t respected or held in the same regard as in other geographies such as Europe or America, most of the countries in the region have a high percentage of nationals working as journalists – most of the Arabic-language journalists in Saudi are locals, while Bahraini journalists include the head of the local AP bureau. Kuwait has the most lively political publications, which are mostly fueled by local columnists and writers. If countries like Bahrain and Kuwait, two countries with national populations roughly the size of the UAE, how can the UAE promote media among their nationals? Here’s a couple of ideas to get nationals more engaged in the media:

1) Encourage critical thinking and debate – it’s probably no surprise that Kuwait and Saudi have the largest number of local writers, thanks in part to debates around issues such as governance, politics and other issues which matter to local communities. The greater the range of views and opinions that are on offer locally, the greater the public engagement with that media. Conversely, the greater the degree of monotony the less interest there is in the media.

2) Support an independent press – there’s some confusion in the region in terms of what the media is and what its job is. As many media outlets are government owned, they’re often seen as a voice for the authorities. Independent media are generally viewed as more credible, more likely to take on vested interests and promote investigative journalism. Independent media help to promote a strong civil society that in turn promotes transparency and ethics.

3) Engage nationals from a young age – there are some up-and-coming young Emiratis in the media sector who are producing great work. They’re the exception however. Most of the nationals in the media are older and occupy higher positions. We need young role-models for today’s Emirati students to follow, role-models who will tell of the long days, of the persistence on chasing a lead, and of the exhilaration in scoring a scoop.

As was touched upon at the Emirati Media Forum, the Internet is disrupting traditional media. In America dozens of newspapers have had to close shop due to our changing media consumption habits. In a world where stories are broken and shared virally online, many are arguing that traditional media is not needed as it has been for decades. I disagree. Good local analysis can put any news story in context. This is where a strong press plays a role.

For a country that wants to be the first in everything it does, the UAE needs to look again at the local media and ask where is the country’s Al Jazeera, and where are UAE journalists who can be compared to the likes Saudi presenter Turki Al Dakhil, Bahraini editor-in-chief Mansour Al-Jamri, and Kuwaiti journalist Mohammed Al-Sager, all of whom are well respected, famous figures in the media industries in their home countries and abroad.

If the UAE wants a strong media presence and aims to attract more UAE nationals into the sector, then there has to be a shift towards a strong, empowered media that can tell the country’s story through its own words. A mature media that can speak on its own behalf, that has a reputation for holding others to account, and which strengthens local communities can only be good for everyone in the country, most of all its nationals, and will help to attract young nationals who want to support their country’s development as well as be involved in what is one of the most exciting jobs anyone can do.

I’m going to end this piece with a quote from the Columbia School of Journalism, of what media can do for a country.

Journalism exposes corruption, draws attention to injustice, holds politicians and businesses accountable for their promises and duties. It informs citizens and consumers, helps organize public opinion, explains complex issues and clarifies essential disagreements. Journalism plays an irreplaceable role in both democratic politics and market economies.

For those in the industry, I’d love to hear your feedback.

Attacks on Al-Jazeera intensify following the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Al-Jazeera has come under fire for its alleged political ideology in its coverage of Egyptian news (image source: islam.ru)

Who doesn’t know Al-Jazeera? The Doha-based and Qatar-owned news broadcaster became infamous for its airing of messages from Al-Qaeda’s leaders, most notably Osama Bin Laden. The news channel, which was created in 1996 following attempts by the British Broadcasting Corporation to set up their own Arabic channel failed, has always been the target of criticism partly due to its political inclinations and its inability to criticize its owners – the State of Qatar – while running documentaries and publishing news critical of neighbouring Middle East states.

However, Al-Jazeera has been having a particularly rough time of late following recent events in Egypt. partly of its own making but what’s even more interesting is the level of coverage that other media has given to targeting Al-Jazeera following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Government in Egypt.

Ever since the events of the end of June and the start of July in Cairo it’s almost felt as if there’s been a witch-hunt against Al-Jazeera due to its Egyptian coverage. The main accusation? Al-Jazeera’s bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

While I understand the accusation, the fact that many of those making the claims are firstly media publications and secondly state-owned doesn’t sit well with me. I know of few state-owned media who are not guilt of being their master’s voice and hence being guilty of their own allegations against Al-Jazeera. Furthermore, I always find it strange when media attack other media; it’s hard enough being a journalist as it is today without being criticized by fellow colleagues.

I’m going to highlight a couple of articles below, from the Dubai-based and Dubai-owned Gulf News. The first and the most conspicuous news item was a special which was run on the 14th July entitled Al Jazeera loses respect over Egypt coverage. Do read over and share your views with me on this one.

Founded in 1996 and funded by Qatar, Al Jazeera was supported by many Egyptian revolutionaries. Demonstrators in Tahrir Squar chanted for it. Also, Al Jazeera staffers were feeling proud that they contributed to the Egyptian revolution with their work and coverage. They made the network the most popular channel in the country.

However, when the now ousted president Mohammad Mursi pushed through an unpopular consistution last November, many Egyptians found themselves flipping from Al Jazeera to other Egyptian networks. Distrust over its coverage reached unprecedented levels and took it from being the most popular to the most hated channel — its staff were now feeling embarrassed as their reputation was dragged through the mud.

A senior official at Al Jazeera who did not want to be named said that while the network appeared to be a neutral media network it was still a political tool in the hands of the Qatari emir. “He personally visited the studios during the Iraq war to make sure no footage of dead of abducted soldiers was aired. It was clear he was under US pressure,” the official said.

“In a special meeting in 2009 attended by some media seniors in Doha, the Emir said that Egypt’s regional role must be ended forever,” said another official. “When the Muslim Brotherhood announced it would field deputy chairman Khairat Al Shater as a candidate in the elections, the news team slotted it as the second story in the news bulletin, but then upon special request from the Emir’s palace, it was bumped up to the first news story.”

A producer claimed that when people started complaining and accusing Al Jazeera of favouring Islamists in Egypt, the station started to exclude any outspoken political analysts and opponents of the Brotherhood from appearing on its screen. On the other hand, he said, video reports that propped up Mursi and the Brotherhood’s image were welcomed by management in Doha. Anchors who used to interrupt the Muslim Brotherhood’s opponents in live interviews were judged as excellent.

The perceived bias prompted many leading journalists and TV anchors to leave the network. Aktham Suliaman, the German-based correspondent who left the station recently, told the German magazine Der Spiegel: “Before the beginning of the Arab Spring, we were a voice for change — a platform for critics and political activists throughout the region. Now, Al Jazeera has become a propaganda broadcaster.”

Another Beirut-based correspondent said that “Al Jazeera takes a clear position in every country from which it reports — not based on journalistic priorities but rather on the interests of the Foreign Ministry of Qatar. In order to maintain my integrity as a reporter, I had to quit.”

Other interesting articles from Gulf News include Al Jazeera staff resign after biased Egypt coverage, Al Jazeera’s role raises questions, and media bias infuriates Egyptian moderates which I am quoting from below.

Al Jazeera’s Egypt channel (Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr) is blatant in its support for the Brotherhood giving no platform whatsoever to the other side. Egyptian authorities attempted to remove it from air, but failed to do so because Al Jazeera allegedly hijacked broadcast vehicles from Egyptian State TV, now protected by the crowds in Rabaa Adawiya.

Local reporters were so incensed they demanded the ejection of Al Jazeera’s senior editor in Egypt from a press conference. Some 22 of Al Jazeera’s employees resigned asserting pro-Islamist bias at the top. On Friday, I was shocked to see someone I recognised on the stage in Rabaa Adawiya, engaged in whipping up the crowds.

There was the host of Al Jazeera’s programme Bela Hodod (Without Frontiers) Ahmad Mansour advising on how to manipulate media coverage and insisting that pictures of June 30 massive anti-Mursi protest had been photoshopped.

June 30’s aftermath has not only thrust the Arab world’s most populated country into uncertainty, it has eroded media credibility and prompted the crossing of a thin red line between honest reporting and political/ideological propaganda. Journalism requires an ethical revolution before Al Jazeera, CNN and others can ever be trusted again.

What I find ironic is the lack of coherency of the argument as it relates to allies. An example in point would be Bahrain. The island’s press is markedly pro-government, and yet there’s no media bias criticism from those who have pointed their finger at Al-Jazeera. If you’re going to adopt an argument at least be consistent in its use. Otherwise, why should we the public trust any of you?

The pride of the Gulf: Kuwaitis and their determination to realize their civil rights

Kuwait has seen unprecedented levels of demonstrations over the past month

Kuwait isn’t a place one would naturally associate with freedom and democracy. The country and its nationals are often derided by other Gulf Arabs for a number of reasons (if you live in the Gulf you’ll understand what I’m talking about here).

When it comes to participation in government, there’s no doubt in my mind that the rest of the Gulf could learn a great deal from Kuwait. The country has always had, by GCC standards, a vibrant and active political scene. Kuwait’s Constitution guarantees democratic representation by virtue of Article 6, Part 1 which states that “the System of Government in Kuwait shall be democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers.”

When talking about civil protests in the Gulf area a common refrain has been to ask “why are there any protests at all?” The perception is that Gulf Arabs have money, and that they are looked after and provided with all that they may need by their respective governments. This may be true in some cases, but it misses the point entirely. Kuwaitis are demanding more say in their government and how the country is ruled.

The challenges in Kuwait are best summed up by Kuwaiti opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak in his article for the Guardian newspaper. You can read the article here, but I will also quote from it below.

We are protesting against an unconstitutional change in the electoral law pushed forward by the emir. The electoral system divides Kuwait into five districts; 10 parliamentarians are elected from each district. Previously people could cast four votes per ballot, but the new law permits voters to cast only one. This change aims to quell the national assembly’s role, as it facilitates the governing authority’s control of electoral outcomes – which in turn undermines the country’s democratic legitimacy.

On a deeper level, however, the demonstrations are against individual rule, something Kuwaitis have long and actively refused. In 1962, when the current constitution – which limits the governing authority’s role – was issued, it established that the public has the right to impose its opinions on the emir through the elected national assembly – a right that the governing authority refuses to acknowledge. The current struggle is therefore a struggle for power. Is power – as stated in the constitution – for the public, or is it – contrary to the constitution – for the emir?

The majority of people also believe that the government, representing the ruling family, is not serious in its battle against corruption. In fact, people are convinced they are sponsoring it. This belief was one of the reasons behind the dissolution of the 2012 parliament and the recent changes in the electoral system, following the opposition’s exposure of evidence that state money was being transferred to private accounts in London, Geneva and New York, and of the previous government bribing parliamentarians in 2009.

I for one am proud of the Kuwaiti people for standing up for what they believe to be their rights and against the actions of Kuwait’s ruler. They’ve shown bravery, determination, and a belief in themselves despite the very real risks to themselves. Kuwait’s people, both men and women, clearly believe in themselves and their ability to take the country forward. Kuwaitis have proved that they are prepared to risk a great deal for the right to govern themselves and fight corruption.

In his article for the Guardian Al-Barrak writes that in the end the people of Kuwait will be triumphant. I would hope that any victory for democratic participation in Kuwait would be felt by others across the Gulf. Will we one day look back to Kuwait in 2012 and say this is where the Gulf’s Arab Spring began? Today Kuwait and its people should be seen as the pride of the Gulf.

While the country does seem to be going through an unprecedented crisis, I do also feel that the Emir of Kuwait should be recognized to an extent for allowing protests (or at the very least, not cracking down in the same/similar manner to his GCC neighbours). Maybe I’m wrong on this, but Kuwait would seem to be the one country in the Gulf which allows for its nationals to protest openly. While I have read about and been told of attempts to use force and arrests to dispel protestors I certainly couldn’t imagine these scenes being repeated in any other city in the Gulf as of today.

For more on what is happening in Kuwait watch the below report from Al Jazeera’s English channel which makes for fascinating viewing.