Media moments that shaped 2018

Updated 01 January 2019
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Media moments that shaped 2018

LONDON: From the opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia to the arrival of #MeToo in Egypt, 2018 was a transformative year for media throughout the Arab world. Here Arab News reporters reflect on the memorable moments that shaped the year in media.

JANUARY
Saudi Arabia starts first film screenings ahead of commercial cinema opening
The Kingdom began screening feature-length animated children’s films after a 35-year-old ban on cinemas was lifted. Before the opening of commercial cinemas, authorities started to sponsor temporary venues, including one in the Red Sea city of Jeddah with a simple projector, a red carpet and of course, a popcorn machine.

FEBRUARY
Netflix produces first Arabic-language original
The streaming giant revealed it was producing its first Arabic-language show, focusing part of its massive $7-8 billion global production budget on its Middle Eastern audience.
The American entertainment service said it would produce “Jinn,” a six-episode drama series, with the award-winning Lebanese director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, known for the film “Very Big Shot,” released in 2015.
The supernatural teenage drama is about young Arab characters whose lives are disrupted when a Jinn appears to them in the ancient city of Petra.

MARCH
BBC leads UN appeal to stop Iran harassing journalists
The BBC took the unprecedented step of appealing to the UN to stop Iran harassing its Persian-service journalists in London and their families based in Iran. The move reflected the rising level of intimidation reporters based outside of the country were facing, according to human rights lawyers and media organizations.
“This is not just about the BBC — we are not the only media organization to have been harassed or forced to compromise when dealing with Iran. In truth, this story is much wider: It is a story about fundamental human rights,” said Tony Hall, the corporation’s director-general.

APRIL
Arab News relaunches: #WhatChanged?
This newspaper made the headlines in April with a high- profile relaunch that would go on to win a number of design plaudits. The month saw the newspaper and website get a new identity that was bolstered by increased coverage of both the Arab region and the wider world.

MAY
Royal wedding mania grips Arab world
The royal wedding was not only just a big story for UK tabloids in May — it also captured the imagination of audiences across the Middle East.
“It was a nice romantic story and a break from the misery in the Middle East,” Rima Maktabi, Al Arabiya’s London bureau chief, told Arab News.
The wedding ceremony between Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle — which took place in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle — was broadcast live on Al Arabiya. The network’s coverage attracted a surprisingly high number of viewers, despite Ramadan starting the week before.

JUNE
Women get behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia
The front pages of newspapers around the world were festooned with images of women driving in Saudi Arabia. As the de facto ban on women driving ended after more than 60 years, women across the Kingdom flooded social media with videos of their first car trips, while some police officers out on the streets distributed roses to the first-time drivers.
In a tribute to Saudi female drivers, the Lebanese soprano Hiba Tawaji released a special video of a song she performed live in Riyadh at a concert the previous year. “Today women in Saudi Arabia can legally drive their cars,” she said. “Congratulations on this achievement, this one’s for you.”

JULY
Warner Bros makes a splash in Abu Dhabi
The hugely anticipated Warner Bros theme park officially opened in July at a cost of $1 billion. With 29 rides and daily shows, it represented the emirate’s push to offer the kind of big-budget attractions more associated with neighboring Dubai. The park is a key plank in Yas Island’s target of attracting 48 million annual visits by 2022.

AUGUST
Egyptian woman’s ‘harassment’ post triggers social media storm
It was seen by many as a #MeToo moment for Egypt. An Egyptian woman claimed that a man stalked her at a bus stop, made inappropriate advances, and only backed off when she began filming him with her cellphone. But when she posted the video on Facebook, it ignited an online storm in which many Egyptians, including women, took the man’s side. Some said he was politely flirting and the woman overreacted, while others speculated about what she was wearing, suggesting she was at fault. Sexual harassment, mostly ranging from catcalls to occasional pinching or grabbing, is rampant in Egypt. Polls have found that a majority of both men and women in the country believe it is justified if women dress “provocatively” in public.

SEPTEMBER
SRMG strikes deal with Bloomberg
The publisher of Arab News, Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) struck a long-term agreement to launch Bloomberg Al Arabiya, a new multi-platform Arabic-language business and financial news service. It paved the way for a 24/7 television and radio network, and a dedicated digital platform among other joint initiatives. The planned Bloomberg Al-Arabiya platforms would provide Arabic-speaking audiences around the world with news and analysis on
the companies, markets, economies and politics shaping the Middle East.

OCTOBER
Dubai newspaper editor murder case back in court
Former Gulf News editor Francis Matthew had his jail sentence increased to 15 years in October after the Dubai Court of Appeal convicted him of premeditated murder. The 62-year-old was in March found guilty of “physical assault leading to death” by Dubai Criminal Court, for killing his wife by hitting her with a hammer. But there would be another twist to the case before the year ended as the Dubai Court of Cassation later overturned the sentence and had his case reviewed by another panel of judges.

NOVEMBER
OSN looks for a buyer in era of Netflix and Amazon Prime
Bloomberg revealed in November that Goldman Sachs Group had been given the task of finding a buyer for OSN, the Middle East’s biggest pay-TV service.
Competition from the likes of Netflix Inc., Amazon Prime Video and other services had hit the regional broadcasting veteran hard.
OSN’s controlling shareholder, Kuwait Projects Co. had hired Rothschild in 2013 to evaluate a possible share sale. However, the investment bank’s mandate ended in 2014 after the IPO didn’t take place.

DECEMBER
Turkey named worst offender against press freedom
Turkey was named the world’s worst offender against press freedom by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), with at least 68 journalists imprisoned for anti-state charges. Turkey had previously said its crackdown was justified because of an attempted coup to overthrow the government in 2016. CPJ said that a near-record number of journalists around the world are behind bars for their work, including two Reuters reporters whose imprisonment in Myanmar has drawn international criticism. There were 251 journalists jailed for doing their jobs as of Dec. 1, the CPJ said in an annual study. For the third consecutive year, more than half are in Turkey, China and Egypt.


Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

Updated 21 May 2019
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Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

  • A recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan
  • Journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom

KABUL: Beneath the gaze of the TV cameras a woman begins speaking, at first softly but with growing passion as she faces the "Butcher of Kabul" across a crowded auditorium and asks if he wants to apologise for alleged war crimes.
Without missing a beat, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ruthless former warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghan capital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.
The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where -- for now -- traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men to account, live on camera.
"Years ago, these kind of questions could get you killed, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstream and social media," Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said after watching the debate.
But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferate across Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom.
"We are concerned about a total or a partial ban on media," Sediqullah Khaliq, the director of Hewad TV and radio in Kandahar -- the birthplace of Taliban -- told AFP.
"There is fear that we may go back to a media blackout or having a state-controlled press."
While in power, the Taliban raged against traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banning television, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to be broadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.
Anyone caught watching TV faced punishment and risked having their television set smashed and then displayed from a lamppost.
Almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic. For a while, trees in Kabul fluttered with the magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes.
Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing.
Afghanistan is the world's deadliest place for journalists, who face many risks covering the conflict and who have sometimes been targeted for doing their job.
Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul's chief photographer Shah Marai, were killed in an Islamic State attack in April 2018.
Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.
Despite the risks, hundreds of media organisations have blossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels, 284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to a government report.
With one of the world's lowest literacy rates, television and radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomed to outlets holding their politicians to account.
Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and government officials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and on social media.
"We now play live music, women call in and share their problems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don't think they would like our programmes," said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama private radio in Kandahar.
"There is huge concern that we will lose all our achievements," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if they return to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation of freedom of expression.
"We won't allow propaganda, insults and humiliation to people in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for the betterment of the society," he told AFP.
A sixth round of talks between the US and the Taliban wrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made on several key issues.
The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out a deal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire, talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not be used as a safe haven for terror groups.
But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan after nearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards of protections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms and improved rights for women and other marginalised people.
"Freedom of expression as a protective value should be incorporated into any document resulting from peace talks," NAI, a leading media support agency, said in a statement.
Rahimi, the university student, said he worried about Afghanistan going back to "the dark era".