Our inability to speak openly, and what this means for progress

More and more people are feeling the need to self-censor. And it’s not a good sign of where we are headed as a region (image source: Pinterest)

It’s been a funny couple of days (I know, it’s 2020). Over the past week, I’ve had two people reach out to me, basically telling me to be careful of what I post. The first was for a piece I wrote mentioning another place and its work on promoting education across the world (which I hope all of us would support). The second was a post mentioning a piece of bread and how much it cost (I’m serious). It goes without saying, more and more of us are self-censoring. And on every issue out there. And that worries me.

Why are they doing it? Partly due to politics, to laws, and to the overall cultural climate around us. We live in an increasingly divided world, where many believe that their viewpoint is the only one that matters. And increasingly, these people are in positions of power. Given the potential reach of social media, where one person can engage with millions, far too many believe that we should only write and share things that agree with them. Ironically, those that break the law whilst agreeing with those in power are not punished. And laws are used to hold others to account for the flimsiest of reasons.

Not knowing where the line is any more, people are remaining silent. Or they’re saying things they don’t believe it. That makes my job as a communicator much harder, as I don’t know if what I’m hearing is true or not. And even if my engagement online is making a difference, how would I know this if people aren’t saying or writing what they feel?

The issue is bigger than this. My belief is that, given enough time and reinforcement, self-censorship extends to our behavior in a number of settings, including our workplaces. We’re less likely to speak up with a new idea, to point out when something isn’t working, or when someone does something wrong. Freedom matters, for our personal lives and for our economies too. I will leave the last word to the American economist Milton Friedman, who was writing about the US, but could have been talking about any place on earth:

I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a
large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something
comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity

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?

Death, Arrests and Censorship: How the Middle East’s media has fared over 2013

The Middle East's press freedoms have, on the whole, suffered in 2013 (image source: Freedom House)

The Middle East’s press freedoms have, on the whole, suffered in 2013 (image source: Freedom House)

The past twelve months haven’t been lacking in terms of seminal events across the Middle East – we’ve experienced war, coups/democratic/popular revolutions (choose/delete based on your bias), and economic revivals across this diverse region. However, it’s fair to say that 2013 hasn’t been a wonderful year for good quality and independent journalism in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Overall, 2013 recorded a grim milestone for global media. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the year documented the 1,000th journalist killed in relation to his/her work since the organization began documenting fatalities in 1992. Sky News cameraman Mick Deane was killed in Egypt in August of this year while covering the violence in Cairo.

Over half of the 70 journalists lost this year were killed in the Middle East trio of Syria, Iraq and Egypt. One of those whom we lost at the end of 2013 was Molhem Barakat, a young Syrian freelance photographer who submitted dozens of pictures of the bloody conflict in Aleppo to Reuters. Molhem was killed while covering fighting between government and opposition fighters on December 20th.

A full list of those who have laid down their lives to bring us the reality in war zones and areas of conflict can be seen here at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Journalists working in safer climes across the MENA region have also faced serious challenges which has impeded their work. Media freedoms were curtailed across the region, with Lebanon being ranked by the US-based NGO Freedom House as the country with the most free press (Lebanon came in at number 112 globally and its press was rated as partly free).

I’m going to quote below from Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report on the Middle East and North Africa. The report in full is available to download in pdf format here.

The Middle East and North Africa region continued to have the world’s poorest ratings in 2012, with no countries ranked in the Free category, 5 countries designated Partly Free, and 14 countries assessed as Not Free… Although new information platforms — including blogs, social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and smart phones — have had a positive impact, traditional media in much of the region were still constrained by emergency rule, state ownership and editorial directives, harsh blasphemy legislation, and laws against insulting monarchs and public figures.

While the concept of citizen journalism has been slow to take root in the Middle East, a number of countries have jailed persons who have uploaded information such as videos and photographs onto the internet on charges ranging from insulting the national image and harming the country’s reputation to defamation.

The over-riding trend over 2013 has been efforts to monitor, control and censor online debate. A number of countries in the Gulf and North Africa have enacted highly restrictive laws targeting online publishing including blogs and social media that hurts national interests. Even in Kuwait, which was ranked by Freedom House as the Gulf nation with the freest press, journalists have been jailed for reporting on opposition demonstrations. Journalists have been jailed and remain imprisoned in at least eight countries across the Middle East and North Africa according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Looking forward, there’s no reason to believe that 2014 will prove to be different to 2013. Civil disputes in Syria, Iraq and Egypt show no signs of being resolved, and sectarian issues seem to be growing in prominence across the region. One bright spot may be a thaw in relations between the West and Iran, following the election of President Rouhani and discussions over Iran’s nuclear programme. However, as social media becomes the most common form of communications across the Middle East the odds are that online censorship will become ever more prominent.

What is the future of the internet in the Middle East?

The past week has thrown out a couple of fun and serious stories and news reports about the internet in the Middle East. The first was Iran reportedly deciding to create its own version of YouTube in order to filter out what it deems to be inappropriate content posted on the world’s largest video-sharing network. There’s a screenshot from the Mehr site, which loads remarkably slowly for a site which hosts videos for viewing and sharing, below.

Will Iran's version of Youtube be as big a hit as the original?

Will Iran’s version of Youtube be as big a hit as the original?

The second story wasn’t as funny. The International Telecommunications Union had gathered its member states in Dubai to discuss a number of issues at the World Conference on International Telecommunications. The one which hit the headlines was internet regulation. In short, a number of countries from the Middle East and other emerging regions submitted proposals that would have allowed member countries to monitor and control data flowing through their respective parts of the internet.

While this is already happening in many parts of the world, the proposed resolution would have basically made it legal and proper for all 190 or so of the ITU’s “member states” to have the power to regulate the Internet to promote security, fight spam, et cetera.

A number of opinions and views can be found online on the issue, including interesting posts by technology historian Peter Salus entitled The UN and your Business: Why ITU Dubai Loss is your Gain and Why the ITU is the wrong place to set Internet standards by Tech writer Timothy B. Lee.

I for one am concerned about the future of the internet and online access. While internet filtering and domain blocking isn’t new to the Middle East (the Gulf’s telecommunications bodies block material that they deems offensive including religious or pornographic material) it’s clear that the past two years have opened a Pandora’s box when it comes to control of the internet. Governments in Egypt and Tunisia tried to close off access to the internet to stop revolution. That didn’t work. Gulf countries have legislated against online threats. As I’ve pointed out above Iran is building its own country-wide internet whilst blocking access to foreign-hosted sites that pose a threat to the Islamic Republic.

So where are we headed to next? How far will governments in the Middle East go in order to secure their own national communications networks? And is there anybody or anyone out there who will bring some common sense to the issue of web regulation in the Middle East?

While I don’t expect multinationals like Google and Yahoo (or even Facebook) to step up to the plate and say to Arab governments we will not regulate the web for you (after all, Yahoo and Google didn’t say no to China), I am hopeful that the region’s populations will become more vocal about their online rights. Egyptians and Tunisians have proved that they will demand and protect their new-found rights. Let’s hope others, especially in the Gulf, will begin to seriously think about what their governments are doing online and asking:

  • Who is watching me online?
  • What online data do they want and why?
  • Can I be jailed for my online activities? Do I have to self-censor my thoughts and activities?

What is the future of the internet in the Middle East? Are we headed towards a patchwork of national or regional wide webs aka Iran? Or will sense prevail? Goodness knows we need commerce and entrepreneurship to flourish in this region to generate more jobs and an open internet is essential to both. Answers on an email, an online comment, or (if your connection is monitored) a postcard please!

Are you up for some (more) government censorship and online monitoring?