What does the blocking of the Doha News website mean for media?

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Many Qatar-based visitors to the Doha News website will have seen this block message yesterday. No reason has been given for why the news site is blocked.

It’s not been a good week for the region’s media. First of all 7Days announced that it’d close by the end of the year. And now, the Doha News website has been blocked by Qatar’s two telecommunications firms, Vodafone and Ooredoo. The news site, which is the only independent media outlet in Qatar (i.e. not government owned, was inaccessible to many inside Qatar. To quote from the site’s own announcement:

As many are aware, Doha News became inaccessible to most online users in Qatar as of yesterday, Nov. 30.

Our URL – dohanews.co – was apparently blocked by both of Qatar’s internet service providers, Ooredoo and Vodafone, simultaneously.

Since then, the majority of people in the country have been unable to access our website on their desktop computers and mobile devices.

Exceptions included access to a VPN (virtual private network) or unfiltered corporate internet.

Yesterday, Doha News put in requests for information from the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), Ooredoo, Vodafone, the Government Communications Office (GCO) and Qatar’s National Information Security Center (Q-Cert.)

While we waited for their response, we temporarily diverted readers from dohanews.co to another domain name, doha.news.

However, that URL also stopped working in short order.

Deliberately blocked

Given this development and the silence from the government and ISP providers, we can only conclude that our website has been deliberately targeted and blocked by Qatar authorities.

We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which appears to be an act of censorship.

We believe strongly in the importance of a free press, and are saddened that Qatar, home of the Doha Center for Media Freedom and Al Jazeera, has decided to take this step.

There’s been no announcement from Qatar’s authorities as to why Doha News has been blocked, and there’s been much speculation on Twitter about why the site has been blocked (follow the hashtag  which translates to Doha News website ban to see more).

I’ve written about Doha News before. I respect their team for writing about subjects no other media outlet will cover. I value a free media because I understand the good it does for society. Journalism encourages debate and discourse, it promotes an exchange of ideas and it supports transparency. Doha News is a credit to Qatar. I hope that whoever was behind the decision to block Doha News realizes this, and flicks the proverbial switch. However, given the prevailing sentiment, this hope may be ill-founded.

In the meantime, I wish the very best for the Doha News team. As they’ve shown, there’s a futility to blocking websites in today’s age. They’re already publishing on Facebook and Medium. We are in an age where it’s easier than ever to share information, and attempts to block this only result in more coverage of an issue.

Today the only effective way to stop a story breaking is to jail the reporter. However, this approach will do major harm to Qatar’s reputation, particularly as the home of the Arab world’s largest and most influential broadcaster (Al Jazeera’s acting director general was talking about professional journalism only six weeks back). Already the Doha News story has gone global thanks to reporting by the Associated Press, with coverage as far off as America.

For Shabina, Omar and Doha News team, I and others will keep on supporting you in your mission to report on everything that is happening in Qatar.

How to control the message Egyptian style

Us communications professionals think that we  control the message. In Egypt, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The below image has been circulating on Facebook for a couple of days now. It’s supposedly clips from random street interviews with Egyptians for one TV station in Cairo. But, as you sharp-eyed lot may have noticed, this is either the same man or Egyptian men all look the same.

As the saying goes, if you want something doing right then do it yourself. And this channel obviously doesn’t want the wrong message getting out.

 

Arab News, Molouk Ba-Isa, the Axact scandal and how the Arab media lost a world exclusive in 2009

Molouk Ba-Isa broke the Axact story five years before the New York Times. And then her story was pulled by the management of Arab News two weeks after it was published (image source: Saudi Gazette)

Molouk Ba-Isa broke the Axact story five years before the New York Times. And then her story was pulled by the management of Arab News two weeks after it was published (image source: Saudi Gazette)

While there’s plenty of media titles in the Middle East region – by all accounts the Gulf is the one part of the world where print is still making a profit – there’s few occasions I can remember where the region has had a world exclusive.

There’s always an exception to the rule, and unsurprisingly the person who has been in the limelight recently is a Saudi-based journalist called Molouk Ba-Isa. For those who know her, Molouk is a no-nonsense reporter who often tackles items of interest to her readers and who produces original news rather than copying and pasting news releases.

Molouk’s name was mentioned in the New York Times, as the journalist who first broke the Axact fake diploma scandal. To quote from the first piece the New York Times wrote on the story, in which it broke news of the scandal:

Heavy scrutiny by investigators, politicians and the fractious Pakistani media sector has mounted over the past week for Axact, a Karachi-based software company that has made millions selling fake degrees through a sprawling empire of school websites.

Axact, which has its headquarters in Karachi, Pakistan, ostensibly operates as a software company. Axact runs hundreds of websites, many of which purport to be online universities and high schools based in the United States.

Axact has thrived for more than a decade on its ability to hide links between its operation in Karachi and hundreds of fictitious online schools, many of them claiming to be American. But more such links are coming to light in the days since The New York Times published a detailed account of the company’s operations.

The Axact story wasn’t broken by the New York Times, but rather by Molouk Ba-Isa, who was writing for the Arab News back in 2009. Again, to quote from the New York Times:

For years, former employees said, Axact’s diploma certificates were shipped to customers across the globe through a courier service in Dubai, to give the impression of being based in that city’s free trade zone. But that facade nearly collapsed in 2009, when a technology journalist from Saudi Arabia started looking more closely.

The journalist, Molouk Ba-Isa, was following up on a report that Rochville University had awarded a master’s in business administration to an American pug named Chester. Although Rochville’s physical location was a mystery, Ms. Ba-Isa learned from a courier company official in Dubai that the degree originated from Axact’s office in Karachi.

But when The Arab News published her report, naming Axact, she said her editors received a strongly worded legal threat from company lawyers, and the article was removed from the Internet. This week, Ms. Ba-Isa said in an email that she felt vindicated.

In her weekly article for the Saudi Gazette, Molouk wrote about her Axact story which was published both in print and, even more importantly for a company which sells degrees via the internet, online.

On October 7, 2009, I received an email from Abdul Karim Khan & Company with a subject line “Cease and Desist.” The email was sent from akkc2005@yahoo.com, copied to legal@axact.com.

Abdul Karim Khan & Company, claimed to be “Advocates, Attorneys and Legal Consultants,” located at Suite No. 1108, 11th Floor, Kashif Centre, Sharah-e-Faisal, Karachi.

The email stated that the lawyers represented Axact (Pvt.) Ltd and they were putting forward a Cease and Desist Letter authored by Fahim ul Karim.

The letter demanded that the article published on October 6 be removed from arabnews.com or prosecution would proceed. Arab News was also included and threatened in the Cease and Desist Letter.

Immediately, I was asked by senior Arab News staff to provide evidence for all allegations in my report. I turned over my notes and the taped interview with Vicky Phillips, the founder of GetEducated.com, whose dog had been awarded the degree.

I provided telephone numbers for the shippers in Dubai and images of the shipping label. Within a week of the first email, the legal documents arrived from Pakistan to Jeddah by courier.

Once the article had been up on the website for two weeks, senior management at the newspaper made the decision to take the report down to stop any lawsuit.

However, no apology was issued and my report was never retracted. I continued to dig for information about Axact’s illegal activities.

While Molouk should be praised for her pioneering work, why didn’t the management at Arab News and its publisher defend her reporting and keep it online? Did they really fear a court case? Do they bear responsibility for those who have been defrauded by Axact in the five years since that initial piece was published by Molouk? And what does this say about investigative journalist in the Middle East?

A global scoop which never was… Molouk, you did a fantastic job. If only our publishers are as brave as our journalists, maybe this piece would have had a different ending. Ultimately, I’ll leave the last word to Molouk.

My thanks go out to all those who have helped to publicize Axact’s alleged malfeasance. Keep up the good work.

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.

Getting the timing wrong when communicating – MBC’s NYT mishap

The timing of the decision not to print the New York Times in the UAE couldn't have been worse for MBC's Al Ibrahim

The timing of the decision not to print the New York Times in the UAE couldn’t have been worse for MBC’s Al Ibrahim in light of his comments on local press freedoms

Despite what you’ve been led to believe, there are lots of mischief makers in the Gulf – there’s even a handful in the United Arab Emirates. These naysayers were online last month and poking fun at the chief of the largest satellite broadcast group in the region, the Middle East Broadcasting Group, after he announced that Dubai offers “complete press freedom”.

Sheikh Waleed Al Ibrahim, chairman of MBC Group, told journalists at the Arab Media Forum that the Emirate offered complete press freedom in a region where the media is heavily regulated by government. To quote from Arabian Business.

“We launched the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) Group as a pan-Arab media in 1991 in London – to be able to exercise freedom of the press – as most Arab countries were not open to the idea of press freedom.”

“It was an uphill task initially. However, we remained committed to develop quality contents for the Middle East audiences. We tried to enter Egypt and the government did not let us enter to protect the local television channels. However, when an invitation came from Dubai, we started to engage with Dubai government. Initially, I was reluctant to relocate as we might have to compromise on the content – fearing that we might become subject to censorship and interference. Since then, we were never asked by the government how we run our business and why we do what we do. There has been no government interference on our programme.”

So far, so good. But, as pointed out by comments underneath the Arabian Business article the New York Times was pulled from the publishing presses in the UAE by its local, government-owned partner due to an article printed in the newspaper on labour rights at New York University Abu Dhabi.

While Al Ibrahim’s comments may be spot on, the timing of the New York University Abu Dhabi controversy and the halting of the printing of the New York Times said much more than Al Ibrahim’s comments. Actions do speak louder than words, and despite Al Ibrahim’s best intentions his words were undone by a decision which underlines how much press freedom we have in the region.

A camel drive-thru, changing tyres whilst driving and new Youtube regulations for Saudi

Not only does the Gulf have a 24/7 addiction to watching YouTube, but it seems the content out there is becoming ever more ‘interesting’ to say the least. Two new videos may tickle your fancy. The first is from Saudi, and could be construed as a Dummies Guide on how to change your car’s tyres whilst driving.

The second fun clip is slower-pace. The video, highlighted by Doha News, is more a spoof clip (even in Saudi I never saw an example of this) by a well-known Qatari comedian. If I was the burger chain I’d be paying to promote this online.

On a more serious note, Saudi Arabia’s government is planning to more closely monitor video content produced locally and meant for uploading to channels such as YouTube according to a fascinating report by the Wall Street Journal.

To quote from the piece:

The General Commission for Audiovisual Media will monitor the quality and quantity of content produced in Saudi Arabia on platforms such as YouTube via a code that will include guidelines on alcohol, tobacco, nudity and sexual acts, said Riyadh Najm, the commission’s president. It will also promote private-sector-led investment in the media industry.

“We will make them aware of what’s acceptable in Saudi Arabia and what’s not acceptable,” Mr. Najm said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “Criticism is acceptable as long as it’s professional and constructive.”

The irony of the above is that while Saudi Arabia has become one of the most important markets in the world for online video consumption via the likes of YouTube, Keek, Vine and other social media sites, Saudi content produced for mass entertainment has generally steered clear of Saudi taboos such as alcohol and sex. Will the above help or hinder the explosive growth of locally-produced content (you could even argue that censorship isn’t typically undertaken in parallel with promoting the industry to potential investors).

In the meantime, I hope you’ll continue to enjoy uncensored YouTube in Saudi. And if you still can’t get over the two-wheel tyre change, check out this video. Shisha-to-go? No problem. I just want to know why the choice of music!

It’s not me, it’s you – Who Censored the Wolf of Wall Street?

Want swearing, sex and other obscene moments in your film? Then you’re best heading to Beirut (image source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com)

I’m a very nostalgic person. I remember the good old days when the internet was all about dots and beeps, when a gourmet burger could be found in a Happy Meal and when newspapers came with columns inked out by a black marker. Censorship isn’t a foreign concept to the Gulf region. Be it television, printed media or, more recently, the internet, censorship is a given. I sometimes wondered about the rooms of employees who’d be sitting in a room reading over the foreign papers with their thick, fat marker pens ready and eager to put market to paper on a large section of the paper.

Rarely do we hear from those people behind the censorship. However, the past couple of days have thrown a light on the world of censorship in the region. The latest Martin Scorsese film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a tale of financial excesses with an over-excessive use of expletives, sex, drugs and other naughty things. It’s not surprising that such a film may cause flutters, especially in a conservative part of the world. While most of the country’s cinema-goers would have expected cuts here and there, the film ended up losing 45 minutes from its three-hour running time.

Local media reported on the incident, including a wonderful piece by Rory Jones, the UAE-based correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. As the piece is so fun I’m going to quote directly from Mr Jones.

Whole scenes were taken out of the Martin Scorsese-directed movie, including a particularly raucous trip to Las Vegas that included a plane full of prostitutes. The F-word has also been removed where possible, creating an almost constant jerking of the screen as one frame has been spliced into another.

Somewhat understandably, film-goers in the U.A.E. have taken to social media to vent their anger over the cuts, warning others not to see the film as most cinemas are not making viewers aware of the level of censorship.

As Mr Jones and others such as Gulf News’ tabloid! have pointed out, cinema releases are supposed to be censored by the National Media Council. In this case, the NMC has pointed the finger at the film’s distributor, Gulf Film. Why the distributor would want to annoy cinema-goers to the point that they tell others not to see the film and demand refunds from the cinema firms is beyond me. Gulf Film haven’t commented. One official from the NMC did speak however and here’s what he told tabloid!:

Juma Obaid Al Leem, director of the Media Content Tracking Department at the NMC told tabloid! the cuts were made even before it came under their review.

“We didn’t touch the film. The distributor already made the cut [when it came to us]. When we asked the distributors, they said they cut all those scenes and words, because they want to distribute the film in GCC,” he said.

Al Leem added that, following complaints from moviegoers, the NMC has instructed distributors to leave the editing to them.

“[We have told them] next time, don’t touch the film. We will make the cuts. We will decide. Maybe some scenes will be accepted. Don’t make any cut outside till they bring the full film and we will decide about the film,” he said. “We told them very clearly.”

Ironically, the film has been released in its entirety in Lebanon. It seems that nothing can offend the Lebanese cinema-goer, not even the Wolf of Wall Street. As for the UAE, we’ll have to put up with only two-thirds of a film. A wolf in sheep’s clothing anyone?