Is a Truly Free Press Emerging in the Wake of the Arab Spring?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
For decades, oligarchs and tyrants have controlled the media of the Middle East. Now, a growing band of independents is breaking free.
By Mat Nashed
The newspaper where Lina Attalah was working went under at the worst possible time. It was April 2013, and Egypt was at a crossroads. Attalah feared that the brewing unrest against Mohammad Morsi — Egypt’s first freely elected president and a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood — would be poorly reported. So she rallied former colleagues to establish a new, independent outlet. They called it Mada Masr — the first word means “range” or “span” in Arabic, and the second “Egypt.”
On June 30 that year, the website launched to cover the mass protests against Morsi, whom Egyptians were angry with for trying to force through an Islamist constitution by presidential decree and for the chaos in the streets and a slumping economy. Three days later, on July 3, a military coup deposed Morsi and opened the door for Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s authoritarian rule. Egypt was now deeply divided, but Mada Masr continued reporting with balance. “At the time, many media outlets had taken steps back in terms of reporting accurately and with integrity,” says Attalah, now 36. “I thought Mada Masr was going to serve as an important record of the history of the country.”
Six years later, Attalah is the chief editor of Egypt’s only independent media outlet, with 124,000 followers on Twitter and 241,000 on Facebook. But Mada Masr isn’t alone. It’s among a growing number of independent Arabic digital outlets that are emerging as fresh sources of news in a region where tyrants and oligarchs have for decades controlled the media.
If the story is important to tell and we have solid sources, then we’ll go for it.
Lina Attalah, chief editor, Mada Masr
Some, like Al Jumhuriya (The Republic) and Syria Untold, are run by exiled Syrian intellectuals from Germany, Turkey and Lebanon. Others, like Daraj (Stairs) — with 135,000 followers on Facebook — are providing pan-Arab coverage from Lebanon, where most traditional newspapers are party-affiliated. Still others, like 7iber (pronounced “hiber,” and meaning Ink) and Sowt (Voice), are offering nuanced coverage to readers in Jordan despite the threat of censorship. 7iber has 120,000 followers on Twitter and 341,000 on Facebook.
None of these publications existed as journalism platforms before 2012. By then, the state killing of unarmed protesters in Syria spiraled into an all-out war, while Egypt, Libya and Tunisia struggled to usher in an era of democracy. Only the last succeeded. Yet the grief, limited resources and threat of censorship haven’t dissuaded these outlets from revolutionizing Arabic-language journalism, propelled by a growing number of youth who began searching for independent voices and narratives at the start of the Arab Spring.
“We are not obsessed with surviving, and that’s liberating,” says Attalah. “We think if the story is important to tell and we have solid sources, then we’ll go for it.”
These outlets offer their content for free and generate money from grants or by providing research and translation services. Mada Masr depends on the latter two streams. The business model is precarious, but so far it’s working. The outlet has gradually expanded to 32 employees.
The Jordanian outlet 7iber experienced one of its biggest waves of support in June 2018 when a large protest against austerity kicked off in the country. Demonstrations were triggered by a rise in income tax when most citizens were already struggling to make ends meet. And in just one week, 7iber garnered 20,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter. “Our biggest demographic of readers were twentysomethings,” says Sanabel Abdel Rahaman, a former 7iber employee. “At the time, it was clear that people wanted timely content that covered the protests accurately.”
7iber originally started as a blog in 2007. During the Arab Spring, activists emailed 7iber essays about the revolutions unfolding in their respective countries. But as the euphoria faded, so did the submissions. “By 2012, we decided we couldn’t be a platform that reflected just how people feel,” says Lina Ejeilat, executive editor and co-founder of 7iber. That year, 7iber hired a journalist, editor, videographer and photographer. They were now a newsroom with a mission: They aimed to tell stories that regional platforms weren’t telling. 7iber now has 14 staffers and has built a credible reputation for providing in-depth reporting and nuanced analysis. In September 2017, it published an in-depth piece about the fate of 70 Sudanese refugees who were swiftly deported from Jordan in December 2015. The piece won an award for the best multimedia investigation at the Arab Investigative Journalism Awards in 2017.
Despite the recognition, truth-telling has consequences across the Middle East. On Dec. 10, 2018 — ironically, Human Rights Day — Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces entered the office of Daraj and detained editor-in-chief Hazem el-Amin, based on a complaint regarding a story they had published some months earlier, even though the plaintiff had already withdrawn the complaint. The editor was released within hours, but the incident was “reflective of the ways of a typical police state,” wrote el-Amin on Twitter.
In May 2017, Egyptian authorities blocked access to Mada Masr and 20 other websites. That makes it difficult for Mada Masr to measure its audience, but its followers still access the site through a VPN. Despite the risk of being shut down, Attalah says that Mada Masr concentrates on reporting fairly and accurately. One of Mada Masr’s articles this May, for instance, revealed how a majority of new television shows launched in Egypt during Ramadan have links to an intelligence agency.
The next challenge for outlets like 7iber and Mada Masr is to expand beyond their core followers of young progressive millennials and activists, says Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Lebanese Samir Kassir Foundation, which defends press freedom across the Middle East. “When you ask most people on the streets of Egypt, Jordan or Lebanon about these platforms, they don’t even know they exist,” Mhanna tells me in his Beirut office. Mhanna acknowledges that regimes could shut down independent platforms if they become too influential. But he says these platforms need to become mainstream to fulfill their democratic aspirations. “People need to know about them, so they have more choice over what to read,” he says.
That’s indeed the aim for 7iber, says Ejeilat. “The more we get out and do stories about marginalized communities, the more we get readers from those communities following us.” Reaching wider audiences is more difficult for Mada Masr since it’s blocked. And for the moment, these independent media groups aren’t partnering with Western journalism platforms. But they’re teaming up with each other to expand their impact. Mada Masr, 7iber, Sowt and Al Jumhuriya have banded together to provide a one-year fellowship called the Alternative Academy for Arab Journalism. The fellowship begins in September and aims to train 25 young journalists each year in critical thinking and in-depth storytelling.
They’re already laying the groundwork for the next generation of independent Arab journalists.
- Mat Nashed, OZY AuthorContact Mat Nashed