How do we continue? How do we make an impact?
A conversation on independent media in the Arab world
 
 
 
From the session organized by Al-Jumhuriya known as the “February Meet-Up"
 

In February 2018, an open session was organized by the Syrian media collective Al-Jumhuriya, marking the third annual meeting of independent Arab media institutions known as the “February Meet-Up.” At the session, held at the American University in Beirut’s Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, there were Al-Jumhuriya’s publisher Karam Nachar, as well as Lina Ejeilat, the executive editor of 7iber, the Jordanian web magazine, Maan Abu Taleb from Ma3azef, the music website and Mada Masr’ chief editor Lina Attalah.

Here’s an edited version of the conversation. 

Karam Nachar: The idea of this conversation is to share with you some of the political or existential debates that bring together a group of Arab websites that in some way associated themselves with 2011, a foundational moment in society and politics in the Arab world. Many of these questions are theoretical or ideological, and are related to the meaning of producing epistemic and journalistic content in the Arab world at a time when the optimism from 2011 is disappearing. We also connected these theoretical questions to practical and institutional issues such as operating in the digital and social media revolution.

What is the meaning of journalistic content production in this age? How can we contribute to building independent media institutions in the region? How can we work to sustain these institutions and continue to be effective? 

The first question may seem somewhat repetitive or dated, but I think that it must be discussed, namely the connection of our institution to the 2011 moment. Let’s begin with Lina Attalah.

Lina Attalah: Mada Masr had not yet been established in 2011, but it began in an important moment from the shockwaves of 2011, namely the transition from Muslim Brotherhood rule to military rule in 2013. I say shockwaves because it was a decisive moment in the position of the civilian current calling for democracy, civil and political rights. It was a cruel moment, because the most progressive position at the time was to withdraw from the conflict with its two main poles, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. For you not to be with the Muslim Brotherhood or the military authority, you had to be a non-position.

As a founding team, we had a slightly different take. We began working on June 30, 2013 even though we weren’t exactly ready in terms of website, or the kind of resources that would allow us to have a strong start. We launched despite these conditions because we wanted to have a presence rather than retreat, a presence by observing and witnessing the moment that was not being talked about much, or being talked about with a unified voice. We realized this in early 2013, when the balance of power in the country began to shift [before being completely restored in the hands of the army]. It was clear that this was a completely different moment, a profound political shift post 2011, and in Egypt’s entire modern history.

Nachar: Maan Abu Taleb, your site Ma3azef is rather distinct as it focuses on music. In our previous discussion, you rejected heavily politicized approaches to art criticism. At the same time, you said that 2011 was a pivotal moment for Ma3azef and its growth. Could you speak more about this?

Maan Abu Taleb: We had been thinking about this project prior to 2011. There was some reluctance to start working on it, and we believed that it should also be published in English and work to promote certain artists and many other things. Then the wave of Arab revolutions came, which made us think that we should begin working, even if it was only in Arabic, completely changing our plan. We began to think deeper about the project and knew we wanted it to be more than just replication or promotion. Nor would we take other critical discourses and apply them to Arab music. At the same time, we did not use a discourse or method of criticism that was prevalent in Arab media at the time.

When we launched, we had momentum from the revolutions, but the direction of the site was not necessarily linked to the political trend of the revolutions. By that, I mean that we did not exclusively cover music from the revolution. Our idea of what constituted “good music” was not based on whether or not it contained revolutionary ideas. This was the situation in the beginning, but over time our thinking and conception of criticism developed and we decided to focus on the aesthetic value of music, as it seemed to be a more serious way of dealing with art and music. We judge music based on aesthetic rather than moral criteria. Of course, there is a close relationship between the aesthetic and the moral, but I am speaking of morality in its most surface level and direct conception. It is like when we say this singer is racist and we shouldn’t listen to them.

Nachar: Lina Ejeilat, there are a number of specificities of 7iber in the context of this question. First of all, the site launched before 2011. Second, Jordan was not one of the countries that faced a wide-scale revolution or fundamental changes, although there were certainly protest movements after 2011. In summary, what is the relationship between 7iber and the moment of 2011?

Lina Ejeilat: 7iber launched in 2007, during a moment that was very significant. There was a rather natural evolution in the blogging community and in the space that opened to discuss topics that were not touched on by the mainstream Arab media at the time.

There were many intriguing projects in the region at the time, like Alaa Abd El Fatah and Manal Bahey al-Din and their web aggregator which gathered Egyptian blogs. Although each Arab nation has its specificities, I think that we were a part of that same scene. This was striking, there was networking and relationships between Arab bloggers and techies, and 7iber was in the middle of this scene.

When we started in 2007, we introduced ourselves as a citizen media platform but we only worked in English, which was a major contradiction. Perhaps because we emerged from the blogosphere from that time, when there was an impression that the internet was not widespread enough, and that everyone was writing in English.

Within two years of starting, we began producing Arabic content as well. Then, 2011 happened, which was a transformative moment for the site. Before this time, we defined ourselves as a citizen media platform, a platform with stories, testimonials, and experiences of people who weren’t professional journalists or regularly publishing material. This was very difficult. We had a romanticized perception that if we simply made a call for submissions, articles and stories would be coming in left and right. Then we found ourselves begging bloggers and friends, recommending to them specific things to write.

There was gradual and spontaneous growth, then the 2011 revolutions occurred and brought with them an explosive energy and a great political movement. We then found ourselves receiving a ton of great content dealing with political issues that no one was previously writing about in Jordan. I often return to our 2011 archive and ask myself, what actually happened? The site dealt boldly with sensitive topics, including the regime, the King, the army, secret police. There were also articles where young people spoke of what the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia meant to them, as well as other topics like democracy, reform, etc.

7iber made a giant leap at that time, and there were discussions being streamed on the internet, and the relationship between the online and the offline also grew stronger. We had created a beautiful and bold space. Then the revolutionary momentum ended, optimism subsided to be replaced by a sense of despair. We once again found ourselves in a difficult position where we were no longer sure of our ability to maintain the site we had built. We asked ourselves: What is our place in all the changes surrounding us and what should we do?

Nachar: Since all of our websites have a social and cultural emancipatory depth, do you feel that 7iber in Jordan can be utilized by the authorities? For example, they could say that we have young men and women discussing interesting and emancipatory ideas, so you are being employed in the battle against conservative Islamists.

Ejeilat: The regime in Jordan has not only said that we have a liberal space for social and cultural work, but we had a direct experience in this regard. In 2011, we were holding lively political discussions that we posted on the internet under the name of the “hashtag debates,” the King said on a talk show in the United States that the Arab Spring is an opportunity that he was waiting for to complete reforms that confront the old guard. He also said that there is a space for dialogue and democracy in Jordan and used “hashtag debates” as an example of that.

Frankly, one is often aware of this, of how we unwillingly play a role in a certain discourse or system. We are often asked questions like, how do you spread these things without being exposed to threats? We reached two conclusions. The first is that we are continuing to produce content that is committed to socially, politically, culturally, and ideologically emancipatory values. At the same time, if our presence is used this way, we will expand this space as much as possible. That is our commitment.

The situation has changed in Jordan since 2011, there is more censorship of the media in the form of printing, publishing, and cybercrime laws, and there is also increased self-censorship. However, we are committed to the idea that we will not self-censor as much as possible, and that we will publish what we want to publish, then keep an eye on what happens afterwards. Our commitment is to open space to issues that no one else is publishing about in Jordan.

Nachar: [Speaking to Abu Taleb] There is a sense that there are regimes on the one hand, and also somewhat of a civilian middle class whose children go to western and Arab universities, who are interested in globalized and universal cultural production, including music, social media, films, etc. However, there is also a large demographic that is largely uninterested in this, including mainstream musical trends. To what extent do you think Ma3azef, through its production and the variety of music it covers, worked outside of the framework of the Arab elites which is associated with global and cosmopolitan cultural trends?

Abu Taleb: Ma3azef was not a project made to confront regimes, but the position that we are in today has been caused by the regimes in our countries. The complete collapse of criticism in the Arab world during the 1960s and 1970s was caused by the regimes. If there was, for example, a play at the government theatre in Damascus, criticizing it meant criticizing the regime itself, which was not possible.

On the other hand, culture and music criticism was taken lightly, and transformed into just news about music. When there is broader criticism than this, it is done on moral criteria, as if the matter is related to a judgment of the political position of the creators of political music. Like when people say, a certain singer is not revolutionary. And before that, people would say about some artists ‘traitors’ or ‘Western agents’, etc.

In the midst of the collapse of music criticism itself for many years, when we began we found that there was no audience or even writers for this type of writing. So, we had to create the style, work team, and audience ourselves. There was no one writing about this kind of music in the style that we love with the passion that we have. We did not want casual reviews from casual music listeners. We really wanted someone to write reviews about a certain musical genre that they are passionate about, in order to be able to put it in its proper context, and to evaluate it.

Nachar: Does the question of elitism bother you? How do you feel when people say that Ma3azef writes in an elitist style, that its articles are complicated and difficult to understand, or that your website is not widespread?

Abu Taleb: This accusation of elitism does not bother me, not because we are elitists at Ma3azef, but because you will be accused no matter what you produce of populism or elitism, because there is a black and white logic when judging things.

All writers in the Arab world have an amazing opportunity today to write well by simply working to present good writing. If a writer has their own ideas, knows what they’re talking about, and does not write about things they agree with, they are able to present complex and interesting ideas that can pull in the reader.

There are those who say that Arabs do not read, but I sympathize with the reader in this regard rather than the author. Many Arabs do not read because there is nothing worth reading. If the writer writes their article in half an hour, why would someone else who is returning home after 10 hours of work spend a half an hour of their free time before they are preoccupied with other things in life? If the writer writes in a rushed way and does not attract or reward the reader, they should not expect their material to be widely read.

Nachar: How do you deal with this question, Lina [Ejeilat]?

Ejeilat: I agree completely with Maan. I think that this accusation is often a way of expressing a sense of superiority over the Arab reader. Through many observations online, experiences, communicating with libraries and publishers, and following the volume of books published as PDFs online, I think that there is a strong desire for deep knowledge.

It’s true that long, in-depth articles are not the most widespread, but is popularity really the measure of influence? What is our definition of influence? There are articles and reports published that are widely read and influence a reasonable group of readers — I’m not saying millions, of course — which has a direct impact on policies and decisions, or inspires specific research.

For example, Shaker Jarrar, our colleague at 7iber, wrote a report on Jordanian land that Jordan recovered as part of the Wadi Araba Agreement, which it then leased to Israel. No one had really discussed this topic before. The article was widely read, but only to a certain extent. However, the direct impact of the piece was evident when MPs raised the issue and questioned the government about it after it was published. This was striking, and made us rethink the meaning of influence.

Karam Nachar: How do you deal with this issue, Lina [Attalah]?

Attalah: My answer will be somewhat similar to those of Lina and Maan. I believe that there is a key issue when we try to describe the meaning of having alternative journalism practices as independent websites, connected to how we change the rules of the game in our field, in politics in general, and especially in the media. It relates to the meaning of media, its history, how we understand it, and the distortion of its history in some way.

One of the essential rules that we learned in academic journalism, is that journalism is a process of simplification, reality is extremely complicated and our job is to simplify it for the reader. We now circumvent this rule and do not ignore the idea that reality is complicated, and try to write articles that try to convey this complexity with texts that do not portray solutions to crises as black and white.

I think that is why we are not concerned with understanding what is and isn’t elitism. That doesn’t mean that we don’t care about reaching out. Reaching out to the public is pivotal for us, as it is a weapon in the political sense, but we are not rattled by the question of elitism.

My second point is that we offer the reader new information or a new point of view that they may not have previously known. We surprise them and ourselves as well. This is connected to our understanding of journalism as it must not come from predefined positions and that it should depend on curiosity, which produces content that transcends the idea of elitism and populism.

We are always trying to deal with the question of: Why are we making the reader come to us? What is the new thing we are offering them? Of course, we are biased in our belief that good writing is what would bring readers, even if an article is 7,000 words. At the same time, a bad video won’t, even if it is just a few seconds long.

Nachar: We will now open the floor to questions and comments from all attendees.

Question from the audience [name unclear]: My question is for Lina Ejeilat, and is linked to Karam’s question on the Jordanian government exploiting a website like 7iber. Please correct me if my information is incorrect, but I understand that your website has been blocked a number of times within Jordan since 2011. Later, you managed to obtain permission to join the Jordanian Journalists Syndicate, allowing you to work once again. I personally have not noticed any changes in the content you produced since receiving this permission. I mean that your joining of the Syndicate, a recognition of the ruling regime permitting you to work, has not led to self-censorship in your work. This marks a victory for you. However, do you not feel that the ruling regime has exploited you by doing this, by saying that your presence is evidence of plurality? Due to the fact that the level of self-censorship has increased in Jordan, do you feel that this has influenced the content of your articles?

My second question is for all participants. Traditional Arab journalism, and global journalism at that, are going through a financial crisis. We have seen this in Lebanon in the closure of a number of publications like Al-Safir. Under these circumstances, you are offering valuable content that respects the reader, but at the same time you present yourselves as an independent publication that has a voluntary aspect. How has this crisis impacted you? Has volunteering helped? How do you deal with this?

Ejeilat: I am happy that you have not noticed a difference in our content before the licensing and after. We have been insistent about this matter. We opposed all attempts to censor us. We decided collectively that, if our content was going to be controlled, it would be better to stop work completely. We go into negotiations and fight to preserve our independence. So far, we have succeeded, but I do not know what the situation will be later.

As for the second question about funding; when we began at 7iber in 2007 the work was completely voluntary, but when we knew we wanted to work to produce deeper, expanded, and more professional content that requires long hours and extensive effort, it was no longer possible to rely on voluntary work. It is impossible to produce such content with voluntary work, or so I believe. Of course, there are great experiences based on volunteering, but I think that there are limits to dependence on voluntary work when developing sustainable projects.

We started to apply for grants from mostly non-Arab institutions, and we have always questioned how this affects the independence of our work and future plans. We are very selective when choosing which institutions to apply for, because editorial independence is the core focus of our work. Secondly, we have been trying to develop independent sources of income so we can spend more on the journalism that we want because quality, in-depth content production requires investigation and research that consumes considerable resources.

In any case, as you said, this issue is faced by journalistic institutions around the world. We are part of an interesting experiment in this regard.

Abu Taleb: We used to be volunteers but that is no longer the case as we now rely on donor funding. This is necessary during the establishment phase because our institutions are new models of journalism in the Arab world, and cannot yet be self-sufficient.

Nachar: Do you mean that we need to reach a phase where the Arab reader financially helps produce content, meaning that they pay the price of a newspaper, or that an alternative system should be developed for digital content?

Abu Taleb: That could be a potential solution, but what worries about this topic is that means of electronic payment are not common in the Arab world. Even if Arab readers wanted to financially support the institutions by paying a certain fee to access content, most of them are unable to do so. We have many readers in Tunisia, most of whom don’t have means to make electronic payments.

[Lebanese journalist] Khaled Saghieh: Do you all work to develop collaborations between yourselves and work on shared issues? Have you considered a single platform gathering all of the articles you publish?  I ask this question because there is an issue for me as a reader. If I visit Mada Masr, but there are bigger events happening in Syria, I cannot find anything about Syria there. Or, if I went to Al-Jumhuriya, I would not find anything other than what’s going on in Syria. However, there is one spirit unifying all of your websites. Do you think about how to develop cooperation between you to combine your resources in one place?

Attalah: When we meet, we often talk about the idea of the local versus the regional. There is a collective celebration of the idea of having such a network, which we are attempting to build, and it is one of few attempts that are not very numerous to re-interrogate what’s Arab and to redefine what’s common among us as Arabs, bottom up and not in a top-down way, as was the case in the era of nationalism in the 1960s.   

I believe that a central part of this re-understanding is to start from a very local position, recognizing local specificities. At the same time, we must resist a state of isolation and seclusion that could come as a result of overindulging in the local, but considering that no one among us are in an exceptional position and that we are not alone.

Building on this point, I think that the important matter is not reproducing formulas for websites and publications that have a pan-Arab orientation, but rather that we do unique work in a shared space, not only through shared content production once a year, but through being open towards other types of work, whether they are joint, bilateral, or collective at the networking level.

This, in my opinion is significant in this phase, and is related to the ability to influence at the local level, because we need to build and work internally first and foremost.

Nachar: There is a legacy in Lebanon of apprehension from the local as it has been associated in the Lebanese context with isolationism. In other Arab countries, the crushing of political life is linked to the crushing of the local. It is no coincidence that the Arab nations who are the biggest consumers of pan-Arab media platforms are also the countries that have no political life. Syrians, for example, follow Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya, while the Lebanese follow Lebanese channels and read local Lebanese publications. The political process does not happen at the pan-Arab level. So, working on the local level is more progressive and democratic, as it gives a voice to different peoples, meaning that policy must be introduced in its local context. This is not necessarily isolating, but rather progressive and liberating.

At the same time, I agree with you that it is necessary for us to have an opening to what is happening in the Arab world. We at al- Jumhuriya, and our other partners as well, are aware that we should be more interested and cover events in the Arab world and around the globe. This is occurring at a slow place due to a lack of resources, but we are moving towards this step by step.

[Designer and editor] Sinaa Yazji: I would like to ask Maan about a topic that you spoke about related to moral and aesthetic criteria for music criticism. Have you considered the role of music and singing in Arab societies after 2011? Do you have this in mind when writing articles? I ask this question because there was a phase of liberation after 2011, but it was followed shortly after by a phase of collapse. Today in Syria, there is one rap group that makes very vulgar songs to the extent that they are difficult to listen to. When I heard the songs I noticed that, in addition to their vulgarity, they contain a strong structure and a pleasant and catchy melody, and are based in reality. This band, despite its obscenity, is popular on a wide scale, perhaps because they derive their lyrics and themes from reality. How do you deal with something like this?

Abu Taleb: There is an important point I want to speak on, which is the conflation of the revolution and rise of the internet. There are many who worked on different and uncommon types of music, but they did not have the means to spread and be heard. With the emergence of SoundCloud and social media, this type of music started spreading and being listened to more. Of course, the revolutions contributed to raising the ceiling. People started to swear more in their songs, for example, and touch on topics that could not previously be discussed. However, I am not comfortable with linking the revolutions and the boom in music production. For example, Egyptian mahraganat songs were around before 2011.

Yazji: I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the rap group I spoke of is loyal to the Syrian regime.

Abu Taleb: Individuals like those who you spoke about often present their work to provide answers rather than ask questions, meaning that they have a fixed position that they use artistic methods to prove. Therefore, their production has little artistic value because it is more akin to political propaganda than art. However, if there is a fascist artist like Wagner, who composed great music, should we refuse to listen to it because we morally disagree with him?

What I am saying is that those are artists and that the moral approach deifies the artist, because artists are not a moral compass, nor should they be. So, we must deal with what they produce, and with what we learn from it and enjoy from it.

[Syrian academic and researcher] Hassan Abbas: I have a question similar to Sinaa’s. You all have emancipatory and modernist values, which is one of the prevailing forms of resistance against tyranny. However, there are currently two prevailing paths of resistance in the Arab world, resistance in favor of modernism, and resistance in favor of backwardness and regression. It seems that the latter is actually more influential in Arab societies.

As platforms of resistance with modernist and emancipatory values, how do you resist the trend towards other types of resistance and hold on to a form of resistance consistent with your values?

Ejeilat: At 7iber, we are constantly reminding ourselves that we possess emancipatory values, but at the same time we try to avoid playing a proselytizing role. From this perspective, I fully agree with Lina Attalah on her point about witnessing, examining, and asking questions, then trying to understand our societies and what is happening inside of them and create dialogue and debate.

The resistance you speak of goes in divergent directions in terms of values. However, we understand that our primary role is to try to understand and break down, in light of the extreme polarization that has rendered members of society unable to communicate and have dialogue together.

Attalah: I’d like to add that I don’t think our project is inspired by references of Enlightenment. On the contrary, we have a position against this. If you spoke of modernist resistance, I believe that we are rather in a postmodern intellectual space to a certain extent, in the sense of the desire to unpack, dismantle ready-made narratives.

AD