By Brian Whitaker
The launch of Huffington Post's Arabic website earlier this week has had a surprisingly favourable media reception considering that it's a joint venture with a Qatari-owned company, that its editor-in-chief is a longstanding member of the Muslim Brotherhood and its editorial director is widely regarded as pro-Islamist.
The Independent's media correspondent, Adam Sherwin, reported:
"A new Arabic language edition of the Huffington Post will give a voice to bloggers from across the region – including those who might succumb to the message of Isis – the platform’s founder Arianna Huffington promised ..."Ms Huffington said the Arab-language platform would be open to 'anyone with something to say – from politicians and business leaders to activists and students'."The new site, which could challenge the BBC, Al Jazeera and other regional news providers, will put the 'devastating rise of Isis, extremism, and sectarian and ethnic tensions' into context, she promised."
Quoted in the Guardian, Ms Huffington vowed to protect the website's contributors from reprisals by Arab governments:
Speaking on Monday following the launch of HuffPost Arabi, Huffington said the organisation would offer help, including legal funding and extensive coverage across Huffington Post, for anyone persecuted for opinions published on the site.“One of the reasons why we are going to be based in London and Istanbul is to make it clear avoiding any kind of censorship and control is absolutely key to our coverage,” said Huffington. “We will support [contributors] in every way.”
It's still early days, but despite these high-minded noises, HuffPost Arabi (or "Alhavengton Post" as it's called by the robots of Google Translate) has so far been offering a diet of mostly routine news stories and shamelessly large helpings of clickbait, with a few incongruous bits and pieces thrown in.
Given the Qatari connection and the spendthrift proclivities of the Gulf states, Alhavengton's most radical innovation so far may be its reluctance to spend money on content. The observation by its editorial director that online publishing can be "less costly" than print appears to have been taken seriously to heart.
It also seems to have adopted the Mail Online's principle of any excuse to show a picture of a pretty female face. And not just the face. Readers have already been treated to some generous views of celebrities' bosoms.
Browsing through Alhavengton yesterday afternoon, I found the home page dominated by a huge red headline: "Is he alive or dead?", later replaced by another saying "He died two years ago". This referred to reports that Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, may have died with hardly anyone noticing.
Another news item recounted the tale of an Australian reality TV show that unwisely decided to film in Syria and got a lot more reality than it bargained for.
Both those stories came via international news agencies but, looking further for some original Huffington content, I found a story about the actor Ashton Kutcher and a young American Muslim woman – though there was nothing salacious about it. Eighteen-year-old Abrar Shahin was voted best-dressed member of her class at Clifton High School, and is thought to be the first hijab-wearer to do so. And how does Ashton Kutcher come into it? Well, he doesn't, really. He merely posted a link about Abrar on his Facebook timeline along with a comment saying "Worry about how you feel, not what other people say."
Another story took a dig at the UAE's prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who was shown in a rather unflattering photo stirring a large cooking pot over a camp fire, somewhere in the countryside. The picture had been grabbed from Sheikh Mohammed's Twitter account where it had been retweeted more than 5,000 times. The story also pointed out that Sheikh Mohammed has about 4.5 million Twitter followers, even though there are only about one million Emirati citizens. The implication here seems to be that he is trying to make himself look popular by paying for retweets and fake Twitter followers.
This story also generated what appears to be Alhavengton's first published correction. A note at the bottom says a previous version described Sheikh Mohammed as wearing military clothes, and that has now been removed because of uncertainty about his clothing.
Interspersed among these items, and apropos of nothing in particular, was a vaguely historical article about four of the world's most influential economists: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Keynes and Milton Friedman.
As far as opinion articles are concerned, Alhavengton promises a diversity of voices. So far, these include Queen Rania of Jordan and Amr Khaled, the popular Muslim evangelist, but not all of them have well-known names. One, for example, is an Egyptian journalism student.
At the moment, it looks as if Alhavengton's top priority is to attract as much traffic as possible to its website. Not being prudish is probably part of that, and it doesn't seem to be afraid of offending the more puritanical Islamic elements. As far as the Muslim Brotherhood connections are concerned, it will probably take a while to get a clear picture of how much influence they have over content – though many in the Middle East will be watching with interest.
Editor-in-chief Anas Fouda is an Egyptian journalist. In 2013, while working for MBC television, he was arrested in Dubai and detained without charge for more than a month. The Emirati authorities seem to have suspected he was involved in Brotherhood activities. In subsequent testimony, Fouda said:
"On the second day of my detention I was interrogated for around four hours, which was the only time I was questioned throughout my detention. They asked me if I was a Muslim Brotherhood activist. I told them I had been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood since 1988 but that in nearly 10 years of living in Dubai I had never been politically active."
On his release, he was immediately deported back to Egypt.
HuffPost Arabi is run "in partnership" with Integral Media Strategies, a British-registered but Qatari-owned company which has three directors. One is Wadah Khanfar (also editorial director of HuffPost Arabi) who is described in the company documents as a Qatari citizen resident in Qatar. The other two are Nicola Lesley Enchmarch, described as a consultant from New Zealand living in the UK, and Leon Fernando del Canto Gonzalez, a Spanish citizen described as a tax lawyer resident in Qatar.
The company has a share capital of £65,000 and Khanfar is the only shareholder.
Palestinian-born Khanfar previously held the posts of managing director and director general at Al-Jazeera television. He left in 2011 for reasons that were never entirely clear and was replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family.
Khanfar "has always been seen as pro-Islamist", according to March Lynch, a political scientist who has written extensively about Arab media, and during his tenure at al-Jazeera some of its staff accused him of pushing the station in an Islamist direction.
Khanfar responded that having more "Islamic voices" at al-Jazeera merely reflected "political reality on the ground" in the Middle East.Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 30 July 2015