The bell tolls for Arabic print news. As the COVID-19 pandemic washes over the Middle East, Arab daily newspapers suffer curfews, collapsing ad income, and bans on print publication.
For newspapers that were already struggling for relevance in a media landscape shaped by authoritarian rule and rapid digitalization, the pandemic may prove the last straw. In the words of one Iraqi journalist, “The corona pandemic has completed the war on daily print news that was begun by online journalism.”1
The decline of print news marks a major transition in the Arab media landscape—a shift underway in the rest of the world, too. It is not primarily a political shift, but it will have political effects.
Although its political and economic conditions vary greatly from one country to the next, Arab print media has by and large been no less monitored and controlled than radio and television. Whether under direct state ownership or subtle state pressure, newspapers have often functioned as megaphones for the Arab world’s ruling elites. The dearth of independent, critical journalism with political clout is a major part of the explanation for the weakness of Arab print news. Put simply, it’s hard to keep readers interested in a product that, at the end of the day, doesn’t matter to their lives.
Even so, Arab newspapers deserve attention—not merely for their role or lack thereof in politics, but also as forums for the discussion of local culture, literature, and history, and for having played nation-building roles in a region filled with young, postcolonial states. And nostalgia aside, the decline of the printed press and the rise of digital media signal a fundamental change in the interplay between information and political mobilization. The full impact of this change is only beginning to become clear, but humanity’s headlong dive into online politics is both transformative and profoundly destabilizing, as evidenced by events as disparate as the 2011 Arab uprisings, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump.
Based on interviews with Arab journalists and academics and on a survey of recent reporting in Arabic-language media, this report looks at the state of the printed press in the Arab world and the impact of COVID-19.
Journalism without Press Freedom
Being an Arab journalist was never easy or free of risk, in a region often described as the least democratic part of the world.2 Most Arab newspapers have always operated under the thumb of autocratic regimes, although conditions have differed from country to country and, of course, over time.3
In the 2020 edition of its yearly rating of global press freedom, Reporters Without Borders awarded Tunisia the best score of any Arab nation, which still meant a mediocre seventy-second place in the world. From there, it was a steep drop down to the super-repressive regimes that crowd the bottom ranks of the list, such as Saudi Arabia (170) and Syria (174).4
|Arab nations in the RSF press freedom ranking (2019–2020)|
|(1: Norway. 180: North Korea.)|
|United Arab Emirates||131|
|Source: “Index Details: Data of Press Freedom Ranking 2020,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF), https://rsf.org/en/ranking_table.|
Arab governments typically publish one or more state-owned daily newspapers, which, in the most flagrantly authoritarian nations, can look and read like Soviet propaganda sheets.5 Examples of this sad genre include the Syrian Ministry of Information’s two national dailies, Al-Thawra and Tishreen, and the semi-governmental Al-Ba’ath.6 All three are drab, un-journalistic compilations of government propaganda, which have remained in circulation only because they are supported by the state and distributed to government offices. “People used to buy them for the crosswords or to clean the windshields of their car,” recalled Syrian freelance journalist Rajaai Bourhan.7
Egypt, where the state publishes no less than four print dailies, offers an example of a government-run newspaper of greater stature: the nation’s flagship daily Al-Ahram.8 Although it is unswervingly loyal to Egypt’s rulers, Al-Ahram’s nearly 150-year history has made it into something of a national institution—a chronicler of Egyptian history as much as it is a purveyor of regime politics. Between 1957 and 1974, the influential political journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal (1923–2016) served as Al-Ahram’s editor in chief, and over the years it has published many of Egypt’s greatest minds, such as the pioneering public intellectual Taha Hussein (1889–1973) and Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006), the Nobel Prize-winning author.
But although Egypt helped pioneer the Arab newspaper business, it is now a decidedly hostile environment for independent journalism. The lively, critically minded press that grew in the last decade of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule and flowered after the 2011 Arab uprisings was smothered by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s 2013 coup d’état. Most of Egypt’s media now marches in lockstep with the government, or self-censors to avoid trouble in a climate of intolerant, paranoid nationalism.9 If a newspaper fails to demonstrate the expected obsequiousness, the state is always ready to intervene. In 2018, for example, a court seized the private Cairo daily Al Mesryoon and transferred editorial control to Akhbar el-Yom, a state-run newspaper.10
To be sure, flickers of independence remain in Egyptian media. But if citizens are looking for meaningful, critical investigations of their government’s conduct, they must turn away from print and go online—for example, to Mada Masr, a small journalists’ collective whose daredevil muckraking has triggered repeated police raids, including the detention of its editor in chief on May 17.11
Democratic Tunisia stands in sharp contrast to authoritarian black holes like Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, but several other Arab nations also offer a significant measure of free expression. Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, and Morocco are home to a variety of media outlets, including newspapers that can challenge each other and, to some extent, their governments. While these papers are sometimes mere mouthpieces of political parties or sectoral elites, competitive special interests can still produce meaningful diversity in reporting.
However, even in these countries, freedom of expression is curtailed, and journalism can be a dangerous career choice. There is trouble in store for Algerian journalists who get in the way of their country’s corrupt military elite, or for Moroccans who dare criticize King Mohammed VI or Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. Religion also tends to be a very touchy subject across the region. Irreverent discussions of Islam are not just frowned upon but often also legally prosecutable and at risk of a violent public backlash.
Conflicts, too, can threaten the freedom of the press and, even more, undermine the practical viability of print publishing. Yemen’s once surprisingly vital news press has been decimated by violence and repression in recent years. Although Syria managed to keep progovernment dailies on the newsstands until the COVID-19 crisis, most attempts to launch print publications in rebel-held areas have fizzled. In Libya, new publications mushroomed after the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, but the ensuing chaos has dramatically weakened the printed press.12
The Pan-Arab Dailies
Although there are numerous spoken dialects of Arabic, not all of which translate smoothly from one region to the next, language continues to unite the Arab world in meaningful ways. A standardized form of literary Arabic is used all over the region in official settings and in the media, and it continues to be read, written, understood, and to some degree spoken from Mauritania to Oman, and from Syria to Sudan.13 As a result, Arabic-language newspapers have the potential to attract readers from several countries, as long as they can weave their way past the accompanying financial, logistical, and political hurdles.
Since the late 1970s, a handful of Arabic-language newspapers have set up shop in London, establishing the city as an unlikely hub in Middle Eastern journalism.14 Expat publicists from Lebanon or the Palestinian refugee diaspora often spearheaded the creation of these newspapers, but they mostly had to rely on wealthy oil regimes for funding. That, of course, has left its mark on their politics.
The first regional daily to begin publishing in London was Al-Arab, founded in 1977 by a former Libyan minister of information, Ahmed Salihin al-Houni.15 Given its origins and that it tended to “reflect official Libyan views,” the paper was, in the first decades of its existence, widely assumed to be funded by Qaddafi’s regime.16 The current leadership includes Mohammed al-Houni, the founder’s son, and Heitham al-Zubeidi, an Iraqi. Exactly who funds Al-Arab these days is unclear, but the paper’s fervent support for the United Arab Emirates might provide clues.
Al-Arab may have been first on the London scene, but it was always small fry compared to the two most important pan-Arab newspapers: Asharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat, both of which have been generously bankrolled by Saudi royalty.17
Easy to spot on newspaper racks for its emerald-green cover, Asharq Al-Awsat has reportedly enjoyed the greatest circulation figures of all the pan-Arab dailies, and it is printed each day in fourteen cities on four continents.18 Launched in London in 1978, it is owned by the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), a Riyadh-based media conglomerate that controls several other publications, such as the English-language Arab News.19 From the start, SRMG has been under the effective control of Saudi Arabia’s current king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, and his family, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Three other sons of the king—the princes Ahmed, Faisal, and Turki bin Salman—have served as SRMG chairmen over the years.
For its part, Al-Hayat answered to Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the son of Saudi Arabia’s late minister of defense, Sultan bin Abdulaziz (1928–2011).20 While its circulation figures may have been less than those of Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Hayat also long enjoyed a powerful presence on the pan-Arab media scene, and was arguably the more prestigious of the two papers.
Saudi Arabia’s rival, Qatar, exerts great influence through Al Jazeera, a Doha-based satellite television network started in the mid-1990s, but it historically held a much smaller stake in print media. In recent years, that has changed.
It was reportedly Qatari moneymen who stepped in to save Al-Quds Al-Arabi in 2013.21 Launched under Palestinian leadership in 1989, this populist-nationalist daily struggled financially for years as it waged a lonely press insurgency against its Saudi-backed competitors. The Palestine Liberation Organization, Sudan, Iraq, “independently wealthy Palestinians,” and Qatar were all rumored to have offered support during its first decade, though the paper’s “threadbare” editorial operation hinted at a lack of consistent patronage.22 The 2013 rescue operation allegedly came at the cost of editorial control, and it triggered the resignation of Al-Quds Al-Arabi’s pugnacious editor in chief, Abdel Bari Atwan.23
Qatar’s financial muscle was also behind the 2014 launch of Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, a rare new investment in the newspaper world spearheaded by the Doha-based Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara.24 It is also headquartered in London.
Although the London-based dailies were, at their peak, widely read by Arab intellectual and political elites, none of the papers ever achieved a mass circulation remotely comparable to top Western newspapers.
Although the London-based dailies were, at their peak, widely read by Arab intellectual and political elites, none of the papers ever achieved a mass circulation remotely comparable to the major U.S., British, or French newspapers. In 2003, William Rugh estimated that Asharq Al-Awsat likely sold no more than 60,000 copies all over the world, trailed by Al-Hayat at 40,000 and by Al-Quds Al-Arabi and Al-Arab at 15,000 and 10,000, respectively.25 By way of comparison, The New York Times sold more than 1.13 million copies on an average weekday in 2003–4. 26 A separate estimate published by the Arab Reform Bulletin in 2004 arrived at higher numbers for Asharq Al-Awsat (close to 235,000) and Al-Hayat (160,000–170,000), yet these figures paled in comparison with the Arab world’s top national dailies, such as Egypt’s Al-Ahram (900,000), Algeria’s El Khabar (400,000), and the Khartoum-based Al-Sudani (305,000).27
Noha Mellor, a professor of media at the University of Bedfordshire, wrote in an email that the pan-Arab papers’ self-reported circulation figures have always been unreliable and exaggerated, especially given that “such papers usually sell in limited numbers in individual Arab countries, where local papers tend to be more popular.” However, she noted that the London dailies have nevertheless remained valuable to their funders over the years, since “the pan-Arab media market (whether print or television) is one important tool in the regional rivalry.”28
A Changing Media Environment
For the better part of the past two decades, print news has been in decline in the Arab world, just as it has been elsewhere. While that is in large part due to global technological shifts, such as the rise of television, satellite broadcasts, and then online publishing, some of it also has to do with how authoritarian rule has stunted the development of Arab journalism.
Arab newspapers had “essentially lost credibility” with their readers around the turn of the century “because they were seen to be either propaganda arms of the government or propaganda arms of political groups,” said Rami G. Khouri, a Jordanian-Palestinian professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut. “They continued to publish—like Al-Hayat, Asharq Al-Awsat, An-Nahar, Al-Ahram, whatever, all over the region—but they were just a shadow of their former selves.”29
The rise of satellite television and digitalization then dealt further blows to the printed press, by peeling away readers and advertising revenue.
For example, Oxford Business Group, a research and consultancy firm, has estimated that Saudi Arabia’s national print market revenues peaked at $506.8 million in 2006. Ten years later, that sum had fallen to $205.9 million.30 Circulation figures also seem to have declined dramatically. In July 2019, the Saudi national distribution company decided to stop newspaper sales in several of the kingdom’s provinces, arguing that it was no longer economically viable.31
Polling by the Doha branch of Northwestern University has shown that in 2013, 42 percent of interviewees in seven Arab countries said they regularly read a newspaper, but in 2019 that number had dropped to 16 percent. In 2019, 68 percent of respondents were reading news online, and 60 percent found news on social media. The polling data also made clear that the region’s acculturation to free online and television media has been quick and thorough, subverting the economic basis of independent, self-funding news reporting. Of those questioned in 2019, only 8–15 percent said they would consider paying for journalism in any medium whatsoever.32
“The printed press in the Arab world is suffering just like everywhere in the world,” wrote Monalisa Freiha, an associate editor with Lebanon’s An-Nahar, in a text message:
In Egypt, the leading newspaper Al-Ahram is going through difficult times, as well as Al Ra’i in Jordan, since advertisers are more inclined to use online platforms for their ads. In the Gulf, Twitter is becoming the main source of information. As for Lebanon, the problem is bigger, since the newspapers are not financed by the state, and with the economic crisis the papers are shutting their publication one after another. The digitalization as well as the economic crisis are putting the printed press in the Arab world in front of an existential threat.33
Although most Arab print newspapers are also published on the Internet, few if any have successfully monetized online publication through subscriptions and paywalls. Reasons may include having too few readers who are willing or able to pay, as well as the absence of a tradition of home subscriptions that could carry over to online publishing. But the most important reason is likely the crushing competition from state-funded media outlets, which pump out an overwhelming flow of free-to-access news and entertainment. The state-backed outlets would never lock their material behind paywalls, since they do not operate on commercial terms—they don’t seek maximum profit, but rather maximum dissemination of their politics.
The Withering of the Lebanese Press
Beirut, the traditional capital of Arab journalism, has long prided itself on its freewheeling press, even if that pluralism was always, to some extent, subverted by the influence of foreign money and political groups. 34 Over the past few years, however, a rapidly growing number of Lebanese dailies have succumbed to hardening economic conditions.35
On New Year’s Eve 2016, the influential leftist-nationalist daily As-Safir finally folded after years of economic trouble.36 Once supported by Libyan money, As-Safir had more recently fought over a dwindling readership with Al-Akhbar, a better-funded Hezbollah-friendly daily launched in 2006.37 An attempt in 2017 by former As-Safir staffers to revive an older title, Al-Ittihad, cratered within a few months.38 In 2018 came the demise of Al-Anwar, a newspaper that had, in its heyday, served as the voice of Lebanon’s Nasserist movement.39 As Al-Anwar folded, the Lebanese newspaper editors’ syndicate cried out for urgent action: “Saving print journalism means saving the image of a Lebanon of civilization, built on a legacy of freedom.”40
Unfortunately, the Lebanese government was sliding toward bankruptcy even before the pandemic struck, and it was in no position to offer economic support to newspapers. Instead, the closures have continued, and in 2019 the Saudi-allied Hariri family was forced to close its daily, Al-Mustaqbal. 41 More newspaper deaths are to be expected: ominously, the right-leaning An-Nahar, Lebanon’s oldest newspaper, has been unable to pay its staff for months on end.42
Breaking the pattern, a new daily called Nidaa Al-Watan was launched in 2019 by the businessman Michel Mecattaf, who is close to the right-wing Christian Kataeb Party. Given that the new paper seemed like an obvious riposte to the growing clout of the Iran-friendly Al-Akhbar, it triggered rumors that Mecattaf was backed by Saudi or Emirati funding. 43 While the launch of Nidaa al-Watan points to the continued relevance of print media to the political class, it is also a reminder of how completely the press is in thrall to politics.
The Death of Al-Hayat
No single event has spelled out Arab print journalism’s problems as clearly as the death of Al-Hayat. The whimpering end of this influential regional daily in 2018–19 demonstrates that even major players are unable to cope with the media’s financial and technological transformation. However, politics also had a hand in Al-Hayat’s demise.
Veteran publicist Kamal Mroue founded Al-Hayat in Beirut in 1946 and edited it until he was assassinated twenty years later, possibly on orders from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in Cairo. The paper was forced to cease publication in 1976 when civil war raged in Lebanon.44 In 1986, the founder’s son, Jamil Mroue, and Jihad al-Khazen, a well-known Palestinian-Lebanese journalist, relaunched Al-Hayat in London. In its new incarnation, Al-Hayat operated as a regional publication backed by Prince Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia.45
Al-Hayat was able to operate more than twenty bureaus and correspondents across the Middle East and North Africa, while reportedly running a $10 million annual deficit and losing its owners some $160 million between 1986 and 2002.
Thanks to regular cash infusions from the prince and other Saudi investors, Al-Hayat was able to operate more than twenty bureaus and correspondents across the Middle East and North Africa, while reportedly running a $10 million annual deficit and losing its owners some $160 million between 1986 and 2002.46 Though it wasn’t without critics, the new Al-Hayat quickly established itself as one of the Arab world’s most influential press voices: “a favorite of Arab intellectuals throughout the region” with “the most influential cultural pages anywhere in the Arab world.”47 It featured a reasonably diverse cast of pundits, but the main thrust of its politics was to promote Saudi interests. Over time, that side of Al-Hayat’s mission grew at the expense of both news and views, and in 2005 the paper established a separate Riyadh edition to better access the Saudi market. However, even if Al-Hayat claimed lower circulation figures than then-prince Salman’s Asharq Al-Awsat, it was widely seen as the more prestigious, intellectual brand of the two Saudi-backed international papers.
However, the rise of online media wore down Al-Hayat like it did other newspapers—and then came trouble in Saudi Arabia. After inheriting the throne in 2015, King Salman immediately started to promote his son Mohammed, who was elevated to crown prince in 2017. The new crown prince began to put pressure on potential rivals, and, around that time, funding for Al-Hayat appears to have dried up.48 Given the state of the media market more generally, the paper couldn’t continue on commercial terms.
The first signs that something was seriously awry at Al-Hayat came in late 2016, when the paper began to hemorrhage staff. Notably, editor in chief Ghassan Charbel moved to take up the same position at Asharq Al-Awsat, which, given its links to the Salman branch of the House of Saud, was unlikely to face trouble with funding.49 In 2018, Al-Hayat suspended its print edition and closed its offices in London, Cairo, Dubai, and Beirut. Salaries went unpaid, prompting strikes among the employees.50 In autumn 2019, Al-Hayat finally stopped updating its website, and in early March 2020 its editor in chief, Saud al-Rayyes, announced that he had given up hope of reviving the paper.51 But by then, the demise of this once-prestigious regional daily elicited barely a shrug from the Arab public—that’s how little it had come to matter. Al-Hayat had already long ago lost the credibility and stature it enjoyed in its earlier years, and its readers had drifted off to new forms of media, such as satellite television and online news.
With Arab print newspapers long in decline, other types of media have risen to take their place, both as journalistic institutions and as government mouthpieces. Today, the Arab public is fed news and views by a bewildering variety of online sites. Some of the better-funded and more serious online operations remain attached to print newspapers or to satellite television networks, but, just as in the United States or Europe, the public’s news intake is increasingly filtered through social media.
Print media retains one important advantage. “When you work for print media, you know that what you write cannot be changed once the newspaper is published,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a senior diplomatic editor at Asharq Al-Awsat. “When you write online, it’s different—you can make updates and fix errors gradually.” The ephemeral quality of online text may have contributed to what Hamidi said is a lingering sense in the region that print publications carry more credibility than online-only news.52 Indeed, the prestige that comes from being a real newspaper seems to have dissuaded some publishers from ditching economically burdensome print editions, even when their core strategy is to seek success online.
The prestige that comes from being a real newspaper seems to have dissuaded some publishers from ditching economically burdensome print editions, even when their core strategy is to seek success online.
However, the main hub of the Arab world’s evolving information ecosystem is the regional satellite television channels. Large, lavishly funded, and technologically advanced, they offer round-the-clock broadcasts and professionally edited news websites—all of it, of course, free of charge to the audience. It is these television channels and their websites that now function as the primary mouthpieces of governments and powerful elites in the Middle East.
On the pan-Arab television scene, Qatar is represented by Al Jazeera and a newer channel, Al Araby, while Saudi Arabia’s views are promoted by Al Arabiya and its sister channel Al-Hadath.53 Non-Arab nations, too, have invested in Arabic-language satellite television: Russia, Turkey, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Iran all run their own state-funded, free-to-view Arabic news channels.54
Print media may still be prestigious and have some advantages when it comes to credibility, but it is now largely unviable without political funding. And since the pan-Arab television networks reach vastly bigger audiences than the printed press, interest in funding loss-making legacy media is fading fast among regional political elites. Even those Arab governments that are most invested in publishing official print newspapers have started to write them off as financially unsustainable—Egypt, for example, plans to phase out state funding for its government-run newspapers by 2025.55
The COVID-19 Effect
In its weakened, withering state, the Arab world’s printed press is poorly equipped to cope with the impact of COVID-19.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the pandemic could have a devastating impact in the Middle East and North Africa, where underdeveloped healthcare systems and dysfunctional bureaucracies struggle to cope with the needs of vulnerable populations.56 In the refugee camps of Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, self-isolating is as difficult as regularly washing your hands with hot water and soap.57
In response to the spread of the virus, Arab nations have imposed a host of restrictions, including, in some cases, hard lockdowns and curfews that make newspaper sales virtually impossible; the effect is to drive the last remaining print readers online.
Governments have also been tempted to use the opportunity to restrict press freedom, with, for example, Algeria issuing a new law against “fake news.”58 The COVID-19 crisis “reminds me of 9/11, how some governments used the attacks to crack down,” Hamidi said.59
In addition, advertising income has evaporated all over the region. According to Abdelmohsen Salameh, the head of Al-Ahram’s administrative council, the pandemic has slashed 75 percent of Egypt’s ad market.60 The situation is probably just as grim in other countries, and, as Mellor noted, “Arab governments would not be expected to prioritize aiding or bailing out media institutions.”61
In mid-March, Jordan took the unprecedented step of banning the printing of newspapers entirely, ordering the local press to carry on through online reporting.62 The decision quickly inspired copycat bans in other Arab nations, whose leaders were just as eager to show that they took COVID-19 seriously. Before the end of the month, print media had been shut down in areas of Syria under the control of President Bashar al-Assad and in the part of southern Yemen that is ruled by the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.63 Bans on print media were also issued in Oman, Morocco, and, to an extent, in the Emirates.64
The official reason, as Syria’s Ministry of Information put it, was a fear that “paper is one of the surfaces that can transport the virus.”65 In fact, WHO has not recommended stopping print publications, and the measure seems virtually unheard of outside the Middle East.66 But stopping print news was nevertheless an attractive choice for these governments: it was a highly visible, demonstrative action against the virus, and it was cheap—in fact, shedding unprofitable print editions of state-run papers may have helped cut costs.
Given that COVID-19 will remain a threat to public health indefinitely, or until a vaccine can be found, it is unclear how long these draconian measures can remain in place. By early May, the curfews imposed across Arab nations were being abandoned as their devastating impact on the economy had become apparent, but no government had yet decided to lift a print ban.
“It’s hard to see [print dailies in the countries where they were stopped] return as they were before,” Khouri said. “The economics of physically printing and distributing newspapers is getting really difficult,” he added. “These papers were dying anyway.”67
Arab journalists interviewed for this report agreed, painting a bleak, almost hopeless future for print media.
“The corona pandemic came to strangle journalists and has confronted them with a new, immediate threat, namely the loss of their jobs due to a major interruption of print sales,” wrote Firas al-Shoufi, a reporter with Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar, in a text message. “This problem may end the life of print journalism after the changes wrought by digital media.”68
“The pandemic has pushed print media to the brink.”
Veteran Jordanian journalist and political commentator Osama Al Sharif agrees. “The pandemic has pushed print media to the brink,” he wrote in a text message. “Unable to sell print copies, print media has lost its last connection with readers. Now hundreds of journalists face a dire future, not getting paid as newspapers may go bankrupt. The government is trying to propose solutions. But financial help will not work. Print journalism cannot be saved and we are looking at a world where print is gone.”69
In the longer run, the death of print journalism may have been impossible to avoid, but its inevitability does not make it any less significant.
The disappearance of this peculiar medium, which has for so long been intimately bound up with the conduct and deliberation of politics, also signifies the rise of new forms of mass communication. Politics is moving into a pseudo-anarchic online environment that is in fact powerfully structured by opaque algorithms and ideological clustering on social media.
As countless media scholars have argued, the transition to online media, which is already well advanced, is a sea change in human communication no less transformative or disruptive than past revolutions in media technology: book printing, newspapers, radio, television.70 The importance of this change has become common knowledge, but its unpredictable impacts—from the Arab uprisings to the election of Donald Trump—continue to surprise and shock. For the Arab world, as for the rest of humanity, the political, economic, and social effects of the information revolution are only beginning to be felt.71
The transformation of the Arab media landscape may be especially quick and comprehensive because of the region’s particular combination of authoritarianism, economic patronage, and linguistic unity. Satellite television networks, online publications, and social media all appeared on the scene within a short span of time and gathered momentum quickly, amid radical political change in the years from the U.S. invasion of Iraq until the Arab uprisings. The new Arab media has been able to speedily eclipse a uniquely vulnerable print media sphere, which proved unable to adapt by diversifying its platforms—as many legacy publications elsewhere have done.
Yet for all its particularities, the structural similarities between print media in the Middle East and other parts of the world are more salient. In watching the terminal decline of the Arab printed press, the West should realize that when it comes to the changing media environment, the Middle East isn’t behind the curve, but ahead of it.
- Aktham Seifeddine, “كورونا يشلّ الصحافة الورقية في العراق” [Corona Paralyzes Print Journalism in Iraq], Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, April 2, 2020, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/medianews/2020/4/2/رونا-يشل-الصحافة-الورقية-في-العراق-1.
- The most recent version of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index listed no Arab nation as a “full democracy.” The index categorized Tunisia as a “flawed democracy” (ranking 53 out of 167 governments), while Morocco (96), Lebanon (110), and Algeria (113) were classified as “hybrid regimes.” All other Arab governments fell into the bottom category, “authoritarian regimes.” See “Global Democracy Has Another Bad Year,” The Economist, January 22, 2020, https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/01/22/global-democracy-has-another-bad-year.
- For a dated but detailed survey of the Arab press landscape, see William A. Rugh, Arab Mass Media: Newspapers, Radio, and Television in Arab Politics (London: Praeger Publishing, 2004). The early era of the London-based pan-Arab press is also covered in some detail in Jon B. Alterman, New Media, New Politics? From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998). For a somewhat more current and still useful list of Arab online newspapers, see Brian Whitaker, “Online News Media,” Al-Bab.com, https://al-bab.com/online-news-media.
- “Index Details: Data of Press Freedom Ranking 2020,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF), https://rsf.org/en/ranking_table.
- The Al Jazeera talk show star Faisal al-Qassem once wondered aloud whether such newspapers could be “good for anything more than wrapping falafel sandwiches, with all due respect to the sandwiches.” Qassem on the Al Jazeera show Al-Ittijah Al-Muakes, July 27, 2003, as cited in Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 37.
- Al-Thawra [The Revolution] was founded in 1963. Website: http://thawra.sy. Tishreen [October] was founded in 1975. Website: http://tishreen.news.sy. The first issue of Al-Ba’ath was printed in 1946, a year before the formal legalization in Syria of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, which has been in power since 1963. The word “ba’ath” translates, approximately, as “renaissance.”
- Rajaai Bourhan, interview with the author, online messaging service, April 2020.
- Al-Ahram [The Pyramids] was founded in 1875 and came under state control in 1960. Website: http://gate.ahram.org.eg.
- Ruth Margalit, “Sisi’s Crusade: One Country’s Legislative Assault on the Press,” Columbia Journalism Review, Fall 2019, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/sisi-crusade-egypt.php; “TIMEP Brief: Press Freedom in Egypt,” Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, May 24, 2019, https://timep.org/reports-briefings/timep-briefs/timep-brief-press-freedom-in-egypt.
- Egypt: RSF Decries Government Takeover of Cairo Newspaper Al Mesryoon,” Reporters without Borders (RSF), September 25, 2018, https://rsf.org/en/news/egypt-rsf-decries-government-takeover-cairo-newspaper-al-mesryoon. Akhbar el-Yom [News of the Day] was founded as a private newspaper in 1944, but is now owned by the Egyptian senate. Website: https://akhbarelyom.com.
- “Update: Mada Masr Editor-in-chief Lina Attalah Released from Police Custody,” Mada Masr, May 17, 2020, https://madamasr.com/en/2020/05/17/news/u/mada-masr-editor-in-chief-lina-attalah-arrested. Mada Masr [The Scope of Egypt] was founded in 2013. Website: https://madamasr.com. See also Laura C. Dean, “All Truth Is Worth Publishing,” The Century Foundation, May 23, 2017, https://tcf.org/content/report/truth-worth-publishing; and Lina Attalah, “Innovative Arab Media and the New Outlines of Citizenship: A Collaborative Vision Builds Stronger Journalism across the Region,” The Century Foundation, May 7, 2019, https://tcf.org/content/report/innovative-arab-media-new-outlines-citizenship.
- Emad al-Madouli, “مصير الصحافة الورقية في ليبيا” [The Fate of Print Journalism in Libya], Al Jazeera Media Institute, November 18, 2018, https://institute.aljazeera.net/ar/ajr/article/513.
- This version of the language is known as “fusha” (pronounced FUS-ha) or “Modern Standard Arabic.”
- Alterman, New Media, New Politics, 8ff; Rugh, Arab Mass Media, 167ff.
- Al-Arab [The Arabs] was founded in 1977. Website: https://alarab.co.uk. Current sister publications include The Arab Weekly (https://thearabweekly.com) and Ahval (https://ahvalnews.com), a news site focused on Turkish politics.
- Rugh, Arab Mass Media, 172.
- Asharq Al-Awsat [The Middle East] launched in 1978. Website: https://aawsat.com. Its sister publications include the English-language daily Arab News (https://www.arabnews.com, started in 1975) and Al-Majalla [The Magazine], which was issued as a weekly between 1980 and 2009 and lives on as an online publication. Website: https://arb.majalla.com. Al-Hayat is discussed in more detail below.
- Habib Toumi, “First Non-Saudi Named Editor in Chief of Pan-Arab Daily,” Gulf News, November 24, 2016, https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/saudi/first-non-saudi-named-editor in chief-of-pan-arab-daily-1.1934612.
- Arab News was founded in 1975 and is published out of Jeddah. Website: https://www.arabnews.com.
- Rugh, Arab Mass Media, 169–71.
- Al-Quds Al-Arabi [Arab Jerusalem] was founded in 1989. Website: alquds.co.uk.
- Alterman, New Media, New Politics, 12–13; Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public, 256 (note 57).
- Asa Winstanley, “Gulf States and Israel Won’t Silence Me: Journalist Abdel Bari Atwan,” Electronic Intifada, December 5, 2013, electronicintifada.net/blogs/asa-winstanley/gulf-states-and-israel-wont-silence-me-journalist-abdel-bari-atwan.
- Al-Araby Al-Jadeed [The New Arab] is linked to the satellite television station Al Araby, which began broadcasts from London in 2015. Website: https://www.alaraby.co.uk. Born in Nazareth, Azmi Bishara was once a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. He fled Israel after being accused of illegal contacts with Hezbollah in 2007. Since then, he has lived in Qatar and played a role in that country’s politics, including by advising its rulers on foreign policy. “From Knesset Black Sheep to Qatar Insider: Azmi Bishara,” AFP/France 24, June 5, 2018, https://www.france24.com/en/20180605-knesset-black-sheep-qatar-insider-azmi-bishara.
- Rugh, Arab Mass Media, 173.
- Jacques Steinberg, “Newspaper Circulation Continues Overall Decline,” New York Times, May 4, 2004, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/04/business/the-media-business-newspaper-circulation-continues-overall-decline.html.
- Arab Reform Bulletin 2, iss. 11, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 2004, available at https://carnegieendowment.org/files/New_Chart.pdf. El Khabar [The News] was first published in 1990, and is available at http://elkhabar.com. Al-Sudani [The Sudanese] was established in 1985 and is found online at https://www.alsudani.sd.
- Noha Mellor, interview with the author by email, April 2020.
- Rami G. Khouri, interview with the author by phone, April 2020.
- “Saudi Arabia Focuses on Reshaping Media Landscape,” Oxford Business Group, 2018, https://oxfordbusinessgroup.com/overview/switched-authorities-focus-reshaping-media-landscape.
- Iman al-Khattaf, “مناطق في السعودية بلا صحف ورقية” [Regions in Saudi (Arabia) without Print Newspapers], Asharq Al-Awsat, July 2, 2019, https://aawsat.com/home/article/1793626/مناطق-في-السعودية-بلا-صحف-ورقية.
- Polling data available at www.mideastmedia.org.
- Monalisa Freiha, interview with the author via online messaging service, April 2020.
- Rugh, Arab Mass Media, 90–98.
- “Once a Beacon, Lebanese Dailies Lose Regional Sway,” Naharnet/AFP, March 31, 2016, naharnet.com/stories/en/205910; Paul Khalifeh, “Pressing Issue: Lebanon’s Print Media Is Dying,” Middle East Eye, November 11, 2018, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/pressing-issue-lebanons-print-media-dying.
- As-Safir [The Envoy] was founded by Talal Salman in 1974. Its website remains online: https://assafir.com
- In a 2017 interview with Al Mayadeen’s Lana Medawwar, As-Safir’s editor in chief Talal Salman acknowledged that Libya had offered support to the newspaper. See Hiwar al-Saa’ah, Al Mayadeen, January 10, 2017, http://www.almayadeen.net/episodes/750762/_طلال-سلمان—رئيس-تحرير-صحيفة-السفير. Al-Akhbar [The News] was founded in 2006. The paper publishes a range of opinions on social and cultural issues, including leftist writers, but it is politically aligned with Hezbollah and Iran. Website: https://www.al-akhbar.com.
- Various explanations have been cited for Al-Ittihad’s failure, including poor finances and conflicts between staff and publisher Mustafa Naser, as well as Naser’s frail health; he passed away within weeks of the paper’s closure. See Omar Qesqes, “إقفال الاتحاد اللبناني: نهاية سريعة لصحيفة اختنقت بمشاكلها الداخلية” [Closing of the Lebanese Al-Ittihad: A Speedy End to a Newspaper Strangled by Its Internal Troubles], Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, December 28, 2017, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/medianews/2017/12/28/إقفال-الاتحاد-اللبناني-نهاية-سريعة-لصحيفة-اختنقت-بمشاكلها-الداخلية ;وفاة مصطفى ناصر ناشر الاتحاد [Death of Mustafa Naser, Publisher of Al-Ittihad], An-Nahar, January 30, 2018, https://newspaper.annahar.com/article/744144-وفاة-مصطفى-ناصر-ناشر-الاتحاد.
- Al-Anwar [The Lights] was founded by Said Freiha in 1959.
- “بعد 60 عامًا .. الأنوار اللبنانية تصدر عددها الأخير” [After 60 Years… Lebanese Al-Anwar Publishes Its Last Issue], Masrawy, September 20, 2018, https://www.masrawy.com/news/news_publicaffairs/details/2018/9/30/1436166/بعد-60-عام-ا-الأنوار-اللبنانية-تصدر-عددها-الأخير.
- “جريدة المستقبل اللبنانية تتوقف عن الصدور” [The Lebanese Newspaper Al-Mustaqbal Ceases Publication], As-Sabeel, January 31, 2019, assabeel.net/370552. Al-Mustaqbal [The Future] was launched in 1999 by former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a dual Lebanese and Saudi citizen. It was linked to Hariri’s political and business empire, which also included a now-closed satellite television channel by the same name and a political party called the Future Movement (Tayyar al-Mustaqbal).
- “Lebanon Crisis Deals Blow to Once-Thriving Press,” AFP/France 24, February 4, 2020,https://www.france24.com/en/20200204-lebanon-crisis-deals-blow-to-once-thriving-press. An-Nahar [The Day] was founded by Gebran Tueni in 1933, and continues to be run by the Tueni family. Shares in the company have been held by the Hariri family and Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. Website: https://www.annahar.com.
- “New Daily Bucks Trend in Lebanon,” France 24/AFP, July 1, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190701-new-daily-bucks-trend-lebanon. Nidaa al-Watan [Call of the Nation] can be read online at nidaalwatan.com.
- Youssef M. Ibrahim, “Al Hayat: A Journalistic Noah’s Ark,” New York Times, January 15, 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/15/world/al-hayat-a-journalistic-noah-s-ark.html.
- Prince Khaled eventually bought out Mroue and Khazen, tightening his control over the paper, and later appears to have handed the reins to his son, Prince Fahd bin Khaled. Rugh, Arab Mass Media, 170–71. Magda Abu-Fadil, “Al Hayat Daily Adrift in a Sea of Media Sharks,” Arab Media Society, August 15, 2018, https://www.arabmediasociety.com/al-hayat-daily-adrift-in-a-sea-of-media-sharks; Mohammed Abu Rizq, “من أعدم الحياة السعودية؟.. تحقيق لـ”الخليج أونلاين” يكشف المستور” [Who Executed Saudi A-Hayat? A Khaleej Online Investigation Reveals What Is Hidden], Al Khaleej, September 20, 2019, http://khaleej.online/g2kMJR.
- Rugh, Arab Mass Media, 170.
- Ibid., 171; and Ibrahim, “Al Hayat.”
- “توقف مفاجئ لموقع جريدة الحياة على الانترنت” [Surprise Closure of the Al-Hayat Newspaper’s Site on the Internet], Al-Quds Al-Arabi, September 14, 2018, https://www.alquds.co.uk/توقف-مفاجئ-لموقع-جريدة-الحياة-على-الا/.
- Toumi, “First Non-Saudi.”
- Abu Rizq, “من أعدم الحياة السعودية؟” [Who Executed Saudi Al-Hayat?].
- “الأزمة المالية توقف موقع الحياة عن العمل” [Economic Crisis Shuts Down Al-Hayat’s Site], Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, September 11, 2019, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/medianews/2019/9/11الأزمة-المالية-توقف-موقع-الحياة-عن-العمل; “Pan-Arab Newspaper Al-Hayat Officially Closes after Decades of Journalism,” Middle East Eye, March 4, 2020, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/saudi-owned-newspaper-al-hayat-suspended-permenantly-after-32-jourmalism.
- Ibrahim Hamidi, interview with the author by phone, April 2020.
- Al Jazeera was started in 1996, and can be viewed online at aljazeera.net. Its English-language sister channel, Al Jazeera English (aljazeera.com, launched in 2006), maintains a more professional and neutral tone than the Arabic-language main network, which is highly politicized. The outlet’s name means “the island,” referring to the Arabian Peninsula.Al Araby [The Arab] began broadcasting from London in 2015. Unlike Al Jazeera, it is not formally state-owned, but funded by Qatari investors and clearly supportive of the Qatari government. It is part of the same family of companies as the newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (see above). Website: https://alaraby.tv. Al Arabiya [The Arabic] is headquartered in Dubai, but serves the Saudi government. It was created in 2003, in part to counterbalance Qatar’s growing influence through Al Jazeera. Website: http://alarabiya.net. Al-Hadath [The Event] was created as a spinoff from Al Arabiya in 2012. Website: https://www.alhadath.net.
- Rusiya al-Yaum [Russia Today], later rebranded as RT Arabic, was started in 2007. Website: https://arabic.rt.com. TRT Arabi is an Arabic-language branch of Turkey’s national broadcaster, Türkiye Radyo ve Televizyon Kurumu (TRT). It was launched in 2010. Website: https://www.trtarabi.com. Alhurra [The Free] was launched by the U.S. government in 2004 to promote U.S. policies and values in the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq. Website: https://www.alhurra.com. France 24 launched a daily four-hour Arabic-language broadcast in 2007, which developed into 24/7 broadcasting by 2010. Website: https://www.france24.com/ar. The BBC’s Arabic-language radio broadcasts date to the 1930s, but the BBC Arabic television network was set up only in 2008. Website: https://www.bbc.com/arabic. Alalam [The World], which is owned by the Iranian government, launched in 2003. Website: https://www.alalamtv.net. Iran also appears to be supporting Al Mayadeen [The Squares], a Beirut-based satellite channel started in 2012 by former Al Jazeera staff. Website: https://http://www.almayadeen.net. In addition, Hezbollah has run the channel Al-Manar [The Minaret] since 1991, on satellite since 2000. Website: http://www.almanar.com.lb.
- Amr Khalifa and Mohammed Saad, “كواليس لقاء الـ«4 ساعات» بين رئيس الوطنية للصحافة وشباب المؤسسات القومية” [Behind the Scenes of the ‘Four Hour’ Meeting between the President of the National Press (Commission) and the Youth of the National Institutions], Akhbar el-Yom, February 13, 2020, https://akhbarelyom.com/news/newdetails/2998226/1/كواليس-لقاء-الـ-4-ساعات–بين-رئيس-الوطنية-للصحافة-وشباب-المؤسسات-القومية.
- “Statement by the Regional Director Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari on COVID-19 in the Eastern Mediterranean Region,” WHO Eastern Mediterranean Office, April 2, 2020, www.emro.who.int/media/news/rd-statement-on-covid-19.html.
- Muhammad Al Hosse and Madeline Edwards, “Bracing for Coronavirus in Syria’s Battered Northwest,” The New Humanitarian, March 26, 2020, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2020/03/26/syria-idlib-coronavirus.
- “Auteurs des fake news : Nouvelles dispositions pénales pour combler un vide juridique” [Authors of Fake News: New Penal Provisions to Fill a Legal Void], El Moudjahid, April 23, 2020 www.elmoudjahid.com/fr/actualites/152014.
- Hamidi, interview.
- Mohammed al-Sayyed, “عبد المحسن سلامة: إعلانات الصحف انخفضت بنسبة 75% بسبب أزمة كورونا” [Abdelmohsen Salameh: Newspaper Ads Decreased by 75 Percent Due to the Corona Crisis], Al-Youm Al-Sabea, March 29, 2020, https://www.youm7.com/story/2020/3/29/بد-المحسن-سلامة-إعلانات-الصحف-انخفضت-بنسبة-75-بسبب-أزمة/4695628..
- Mellor, email.
- “الأردن يعطل كافة القطاعات باستثناء الأساسية” [Jordan Disables All Nonessential Sectors], Al-Ghad, March 17, 2020, https://alghad.com/الأردن-يعطل-كافة-القطاعات-باستثناء-ال/.
- “كإجراء احترازي للتصدي لكورونا.. تعليق صدور الصحف الورقية إلى إشعار آخر” [As a Precautionary Measure to Counter Corona: The Publication of Print Newspapers Is Suspended until Further Notice], Syrian Arab News Agency, March 22, 2020, https://sana.sy/?p=1127191; “وزير الإعلام اليمنى يوجه بوقف إصدار الصحف الورقية الحكومية والأهلية موقتًا” [The Yemeni Information Minister Temporarily Halts the Publishing of Governmental and Private Print Newspapers], Al-Youm Al-Sabea, March 23, 2020, https://www.youm7.com/story/2020/3/23/4685305/وزير-الإعلام-اليمنى-يوجه-بوقف-إصدار-الصحف-الورقية-الحكومية-والأهلية.
- “سلطنة عمان توقف الصحف الورقية” [The Sultanate of Oman Stops Print Newspapers], AlBayan, March 22, 2020, https://www.albayan.ae/one-world/arabs/2020-03-22-1.3809816; “بسبب كورونا.. المغرب يعلق إصدار الصحف الورقية” [Due to Corona: Morocco Suspends the Publication of Print Newspapers], Al Arabiya, March 22, 2020, https://ara.tv/phr5n; In the Emirates, the authorities mainly moved to curtail distribution. See “Coronavirus: UAE Newspapers to Limit Print Distribution,” The National, March 23, 2020, https://www.thenational.ae/uae/coronavirus-uae-newspapers-to-limit-print-distribution-1.995447.
- Syrian Arab News Agency, “إجراء احترازي للتصدي لكورون,” [As a Precautionary Measure to Counter Corona…].
- A rare non-Arab example is Iran. See “Iran Bans Printing of All Newspapers, Citing Spread of Coronavirus,” Committee to Protect Journalists, March 31, 2020, https://cpj.org/2020/03/iran-bans-printing-of-all-newspapers-citing-spread.php
- Khouri, interview.
- Firas al-Shoufi, interview with the author via online messaging service, April 2020.
- Osama Al Sharif, interview with the author via online messaging service, April 2020.
- For a fascinating discussion of the “Al Jazeera effect” and how semi-open debate on new satellite television channels influenced Arab politics and society in the first few years of this century, see Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public.
- For a survey of expert views on this topic, see Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie, “Many Experts Say Digital Disruption Will Hurt Democracy,” Pew Research Center, February 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/02/21/many-tech-experts-say-digital-disruption-will-hurt-democracy.