Gulf publishers slam tech firms like Google for ‘unfair’ publishing war

A Saudi Arabian woman on her mobile. A number of Gulf media voices have called for Google and Facebook to be held to account for the free publication of locally-produced content. (Shutterstock)
Updated 16 May 2018

Gulf publishers slam tech firms like Google for ‘unfair’ publishing war

LONDON: A number of Gulf media voices have called for Google and Facebook to be held to account for the free publication of locally-produced content.
The US tech titans have been accused of profiting from the free flow of news in the region, without being registered and recognized as media businesses in Gulf countries, or being locally accountable for the news and content they distribute.
Regional voices from media buyers and advertising agencies have grown increasingly shrill in the last few weeks, with industry chiefs such as Abdul Hamid Ahmad, editor-in-chief of UAE-based Gulf News, calling the current status quo “a matter of national security.”
The region’s publishers and media buying houses have been reeling in the wake of a huge downturn in spend on traditional media channels, such as print and TV, as online social media aggregators rake in bumper profits from republishing local media content.
According to US research firm eMarketer, digital spending will account for 47 percent of global advertizing spend in 2018, growing to 53.9 percent in 2022.
“Amazon pays a similar amount (of taxes) to the grocery next door… while merely siphoning off revenue from the country and the region,” wrote Ahmad in a column published in Gulf News earlier this month.
Ahmad called for “fairer” taxes for global tech companies, such as Google and Facebook. He also asked for government intervention to protect national publishers by instructing big local companies to advertise in local media.
Julian Hawari, co-CEO of Dubai- and Beirut-based publishing firm Mediaquest, said the regional industry is facing “many different problems at the same time.”
He told Arab News that “more attention” needs to be paid to regulating the market while still allowing it to operate freely. Hawari said: “It’s about creating a level playing ground for global players and local players, so that there is one rule in the market for all. This would greatly alleviate the current challenges for local publishers.” 
Hawari recommended that regional governments look at taxation models to address inequalities in the market, as well as implementing anti-dumping laws to protect local outlets.
Referring to anti-dumping legislation, Hawari said: “Some of the global players have extra inventory that costs them nothing, so they can sell this inventory cheaply at the last minute.
“It creates a situation where they are dumping the inventory and burning the local players. In effect, by selling cheap they are destroying the market. The industry needs to come together to resolve this unfairness.”
However, the CEO said that “singling out” players was not the answer and any new regulations must not stifle the market. “We just must create a level ground so that global players are not unfairly squeezing local media producers and agencies.”
Hawari said that dwindling ad profits and globalization of the local media market threatens the survival and quality of national journalism. “The local media is homegrown and has always been a conduit to some extent between the people and the government. If local media becomes irrelevant, there will no longer be this valuable exchange.
“When information is global you can’t check the reality of the information and the newsmakers are not bound by local laws... this is where you veer into the territory of fake news. The consequences could be terrible because content is the key and it is the craft of the media. (Quality content firms) need quality journalists and this costs money.”
Anthony Milne, chief commercial officer at Dubai-based publishing house Motivate, suggested the tech titans could subsidize services for publishers to even out the playing field.
“Facebook and Google use publishers’ content and take payment for Ad Word campaigns or content boosting. This illustrates how one-sided the relationship is. At the very least, if publishers received free access to these services, they would stand to benefit from the increased exposure that their content receives and drive more revenue to support their businesses.”
Milne added: “Publishers are creating content that Facebook and Google are obtaining at no cost that enables them to enhance their platforms. This allows them to earn revenue off the back of the investment that publishers have made in their content.
“Publishers are then at the mercy of Google and Facebook when they change algorithms making content less visible, leading to publishers having to further invest in changing their business models.
“From a media perspective, the industry needs to take a hard look
at itself. Rather than investing in platforms that are reliant on publishers’ content to provide good channels of communication, look to the content creators and invest in them.”
Hawari said that local players are also feeling the pressure of national content restrictions, while global players are unfettered by censorship or cultural guidelines. “You cannot have two sets of content, the local media needs to push the government to look at unification measures,” he said.
However, Ahmad takes a more hard-line view. “Priority on ad spending should be on the national media and not on international
media. In fact, in doing this, it will not just benefit newspapers and news organizations, but it will be in favor of national interest and sovereignty. If we do not have our own media, we will not have our own voice when we need it. It preserves our identity and social and cultural values — hallmarks of a vibrant society.”
A Google spokesperson told Arab News: “The web is very dynamic and is increasingly offering more choice for users. Google in MENA has long been committed to helping local news publishers and media companies grow, from committing to training 4,000 journalists in the region and driving clicks to publishers’ websites for free, to always paying the majority revenue share back to publishers.”
Google has previously stated that “publishing has been core to Google’s mission from the beginning” and said it drives more than 10 billion clicks a month globally to publishers’ websites for free.
The company distributes 71.9 percent of its display ad revenues across all formats to publishers on a revenue share basis. The firm said it paid $12.6 billion to publishers in 2017


Lebanon’s journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest

Updated 07 December 2019

Lebanon’s journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest

  • The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world

BEIRUT: Lebanese journalists are facing threats and wide-ranging harassment in their work — including verbal insults and physical attacks, even death threats — while reporting on nearly 50 days of anti-government protests, despite Lebanon’s reputation as a haven for free speech in a troubled region.
Nationwide demonstrations erupted on Oct. 17 over a plunging economy. They quickly grew into calls for sweeping aside Lebanon’s entire ruling elite. Local media outlets — some of which represent the sectarian interests protesters are looking to overthrow — are now largely seen as pro- or anti-protests, with some journalists feeling pressured to leave their workplaces over disagreements about media coverage.
The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world. Amid Lebanon’s divided politics, media staff have usually had wide range to freely express their opinions, unlike in other countries in the region where the state stifles the media.
The acts of harassment began early in the protests. MTV television reporter Nawal Berry was attacked in central Beirut in the first days of the demonstrations by supporters of the militant group Hezbollah and its allies. They smashed the camera, robbed the microphone she was holding, spat on her and kicked her in the leg.
“How is it possible that a journalist today goes to report and gets subjected to beating and humiliation? Where are we? Lebanon is the country of freedoms and democracy,” Berry said.
Outlets like MTV are widely seen as backing protesters’ demands that Lebanon’s sectarian political system be completely overturned to end decades of corruption and mismanagement.
Rival TV stations and newspapers portray the unrest — which led to the Cabinet’s resignation over a month ago — as playing into the hands of alleged plots to undermine Hezbollah and its allies. Many of those outlets are run by Hezbollah, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. These media regularly blast protesters for closing roads and using other civil disobedience tactics, describing them as “bandits.”
For Berry, the media environment worsened as the unrest continued. On the night of Nov. 24, while she was covering clashes between protesters and Hezbollah and Amal supporters on a central road in Beirut, supporters of the Shiite groups chased her into a building. She hid there until police came and escorted her out.
“I was doing my job and will continue to do so. I have passed through worse periods and was able to overcome them,” said Berry, who added she is taking a short break from working because of what she passed through recently.
Hezbollah supporters also targeted Dima Sadek, who resigned last month as an anchorwoman at LBC TV. She blamed Hezbollah supporters for robbing her smartphone while she was filming protests, and said the harassment was followed by insulting and threatening phone calls to her mother, who suffered a stroke as a result of the stress.
“I have taken a decision (to be part of the protests) and I am following it. I have been waiting for this moment all my life and I have always been against the political, sectarian and corrupt system in Lebanon,” said Sadek, a harsh critic of Hezbollah, adding that she has been subjected to cyberbullying for the past four years.
“I know very well that this will have repercussions on my personal and professional life. I will go to the end no matter what the price is,” Sadek said shortly after taking part in a demonstration in central Beirut.
Protesters have also targeted journalists reporting with what are seen as pro-government outlets. OTV station workers briefly removed their logos from equipment while covering on the demonstrations to avoid verbal and physical abuse. The station is run by supporters of Aoun’s FPM.
“The protest movement has turned our lives upside down,” said OTV journalist Rima Hamdan, who during one of her reports slapped a man on his hand after he pointed his middle finger at her. She said the station’s logo “is our identity even though sometimes we had to remove it for our own safety.”
Television reporters with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar and Amal’s NBN channels were also attacked in a town near Beirut, when they were covering the closure of the highway linking the capital city with southern Lebanon by protesters. In a video, an NBN correspondent is seen being attacked, while troops and policemen stand nearby without intervening.
“This happens a lot in Lebanon because some media organizations are politicized. No one sees media organizations as they are but sees them as representing the political group that owns them,” said Ayman Mhanna, director of the Beirut-based media watchdog group SKeyes.
“The biggest problem regarding these violations is that there is no punishment,” Mhanna said. Authorities usually fail to act even when they identify those behind attacks on journalists, he added.
Coverage of the protests also led to several journalists resigning from one of Lebanon’s most prominent newspapers, Al-Akhbar, which is seen as close to Hezbollah, and the pan-Arab TV station Al-Mayadeen, which aligns closely with the policies of Iran, Syria and Venezuela.
Joy Slim, who quit as culture writer at Al-Akhbar after more than five years, said she did so after being “disappointed” with the daily’s coverage of the demonstrations. She released a video widely circulated on social media that ridiculed those who accuse the protesters of being American agents.
Sami Kleib, a prominent Lebanese journalist with a wide following around the Middle East, resigned from Al-Mayadeen last month. He said the reason behind his move was that he was “closer to the people than the authorities.”
“The Lebanese media is similar to politics in Lebanon where there is division between two axes: One that supports the idea of conspiracy theory, and another that fully backs the protest movement with its advantages and disadvantages,” Kleib said.