Telling a story of epic dimensions: How media cover Hajj

Telling a story of epic dimensions: How media cover Hajj
Anisa Mehdi became the first US journalist to cover the Hajj for television. (AFP)
Updated 14 August 2018

Telling a story of epic dimensions: How media cover Hajj

Telling a story of epic dimensions: How media cover Hajj
  • Hajj adds up to one of the biggest gatherings of humanity on Earth
  • A big event demands a media operation on a commensurate scale

MAKKAH: The numbers alone are simply staggering — last year involving 40,000 civil servants, 17,000 civil defense personnel, eight air ambulances and 300 ambulances on the ground, 2,000 Saudi Red Crescent representatives — all with the same mission; to look after more than three million people from more than 80 countries speaking goodness knows how many different languages.
Hajj adds up to one of the biggest gatherings of humanity on Earth. By comparison, Christmas mass at the Vatican, with 11,000 in attendance, looks like an intimate occasion.
In terms of religious gatherings, only the Hindu pilgrimage, the Kumbh Mela, is bigger with about 100 million to 120 million participants. But that takes place over two months, not two weeks, and rotates around four different locations.
A big event demands a media operation on a commensurate scale. Sky News Arabia, to name but one network, is sending a team of 15, from the London, Cairo, Riyadh and Jeddah bureaus.
Some reporters will mingle with the masses in search of heart-warming stories of family reunions and dreams come true. Others will be in the air, circling overhead in police helicopters.
BBC Arabic, the British public service broadcaster's Arabic service, is sending “a small team, including a reporter and local producer.” Planning began in early June and the coverage will include digital and Facebook content.
This year the Saudi Ministry of Media said that it will be offering “state of the art facilities” to the 800 foreign journalists who are expected to descend on Makkah and its environs.

 

 There are fully equipped media centers with computers, and a new online portal will be an official source of news and information about the Hajj.
By far outnumbering the “official” journalists are the so-called “citizen journalists” — essentially people recording their Hajj experience on their mobile phone and posting it on social media, with the full blessing of the authorities.
While news outlets have to apply for permits to film or record, pilgrims taking selfies to post on Instagram face no such restrictions.
Arab-American Muslim journalist Anisa Mehdi said that Dr. Saud
Kateb, then Saudi Minister of Culture and Information, told her in 2013: “We’re all about citizen journalism now.”
In 1998, Mehdi, who is half-Iraqi, became the first US journalist to cover the Hajj for television. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily the government getting in my way, although I had to plead my case when I got there with only a Hajj visa and wanted permission to film. I had to explain why it was essential for the audience I was serving to dispel misconceptions and they (the Saudi authorities) understood that.
“There was simply no tradition of having journalists there so there were no facilities. There was nowhere for the cameraman to recharge the battery for the camera. He had to attach a cable to a car so I could continue an interview. There were no mobile phones so if you wanted to find someone you had to walk. It took more than four hours for me to find one subject in Mina. All I knew was that he was in Camp 19, but there were no maps and it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Mehdi returned in 2003 for National Geographic and again in 2014 for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series “Sacred Journeys.” Despite having all the necessary permits, she and her crew were prevented from filming at the entrance to the plaza leading to the Haram.
The solution, which saved both time and hassle, was to distribute small cameras to Hajjis and let them capture the atmosphere in their own way. The minister approved, maintaining it was a good way to project a positive image.
“It’s not only the mainstream media. For non-Muslims it’s good to see the real Muslims,” Kateb told PBS. “Muslims are not having the right image all over the world, and I think we have a big responsibility to show who real Muslims are.”
The fact that the Hajj is a Muslim ritual does not mean that it holds no interest for non-Muslims.
“If you look at press coverage year in, year out, the main reason for interest in the Hajj outside the Muslim world is firstly that it’s perhaps the largest gathering of so many people from so many different parts of the world together in one place at one time,” said Dr. Sean McLoughlin, professor of the anthropology of Islam at Leeds University, who studies Muslim diasporas.
“Another headline issue that has featured periodically in the UK is the radical expansion of the Haram and the commercial redevelopment of Makkah in recent years, and especially the impact of this on Muslim history and heritage.
“However, beyond this focus on the infrastructural and organizational side of Hajj, the journeys of the pilgrims are also a genuine human interest story.”
McLoughlin said that US network CNN pioneered coverage from the Holy Places more than a decade ago. A 2003 documentary on Channel 4 in the UK “gave a genuine insight into pilgrims’ religious motivations an experiences of the sacred journey,” he added.
“There is a fascination too with the spiritual magnetism of perhaps the last place on Earth that non-Muslim Westerners cannot visit.”
In fact, CNN’s coverage of dates back 30 years, but the network is not sending a team this year because resources are taken up with covering other breaking news stories in the region.
The media — both mainstream and social — have an important part to play in challenging the perception of Muslims as “other,” said Dr. Chris Allen, associate professor at the Center for Hate Studies at Leicester University.
“In Britain, religion is a private matter. For Muslims, that line between the public and personal is less clear. If it’s presented well, without the element of preaching, if it focuses on the human story, then coverage of the Hajj has the potential to draw people into what, in Britain at least, is a niche subject.”
Does that mean Hajj is best explained to a Western audience by Western media?
“There is, in fact, very little of the ‘weird practices’ type of reporting,” said Allen. “Stories about people being fleeced by scam Hajj tour operators is not negative reporting, it’s legitimate consumer affairs journalism.
“Reporting on a tragedy like in 2015, when people died in a stampede, is not negative. It was newsworthy. There is an interest in Hajj, but it’s not a sinister interest.”
The influence of social media should not be dismissed, he added.
“The reach may be smaller and more localized than mainstream media, but put a lot of those smaller networks together and it adds up.”
He recounts how staff at his daughter’s workplace rearranged the rota so that a Muslim colleague was able to be at home for iftar during Ramadan.
“He was the only Muslim in the place and the reason the non-Muslims understood about Ramadan was because he had spoken about it. Small numbers can make big changes,” said Allen.
The success of the 2012 exhibition “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” at the British Museum in London demonstrated the growing appetite for better understanding of the Hajj, said Professor McLoughlin.
Several UK production companies have sought to make documentaries since then. BBC One was planning to run a two-part series following Nadiya Hussain, winner of “The Great British Bake Off,” on her Hajj.
While these projects have not all been realized, there is ample evidence that the importance of good media coverage is well-recognized.
Last year the Muslim Media Practitioners of Nigeria organized a conference in Lagos to “examine how robust media coverage can enhance the performance of the spiritual exercise.” It was attended by the Lagos State Deputy Governor, the Commissioner for Home Affairs, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, States Pilgrims Welfare Boards, private tour operators and airline representatives as well as the media.
McLoughlin said that the new media facilities fit into Saudi Arabia’s plan to expand Hajj and Umrah numbers significantly in the next decade to increase the role that religious tourism will play in the national economy. But there is more to it than that, he added. “Hajj has always been a focus for intra-Muslim exchange and diplomacy.”
Mehdi is now executive director of the Abraham Path Initiative, an NGO that has opened up 2,000 walking trails through Jordan, Palestine and Israel, following the journey of Ibrahim/Abraham, a figure revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
“The aim is to promote understanding and bring people together,” she said. “And that’s the point of the Hajj too.”

FASTFACTS

Hajj numbers

An estimated 2.4 million people performed Hajj last year.


Journalists will not be seen as spies: UK government defends Official Secrets Act reform

The Home Office stressed that work on the legislation is still “ongoing and has not reached a conclusion.” (Reuters/File Photo)
The Home Office stressed that work on the legislation is still “ongoing and has not reached a conclusion.” (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 23 July 2021

Journalists will not be seen as spies: UK government defends Official Secrets Act reform

The Home Office stressed that work on the legislation is still “ongoing and has not reached a conclusion.” (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Some media outlets claimed that the legislation, if passed, will effectively treat journalists like spies
  • UK government claimed that freedom of the press is an integral part of the country’s democratic processes

LONDON: The UK government on Friday defended its stance regarding its proposed overhaul of the Official Secrets Act and claimed that freedom of the press is an integral part of the UK’s democratic processes.

“It is wrong to claim the proposals will put journalists at risk of being treated like spies and they will, rightly, remain free to hold the government to account,” a Home Office spokesperson told Arab News. 

“We will introduce new legislation so security services and law enforcement agencies can tackle evolving state threats and protect sensitive data,” the spokesperson added. “However, this will be balanced to protect press freedom and the ability for whistleblowers to hold organizations to account when there are serious allegations of wrongdoing.”

In early July, the UK government proposed new legislation to counter state threats which included an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act, legislation that essentially guarantees the protection of state secrets and official information.

According to the government, the proposed legislation is largely intended to modernize existing counter-espionage laws and improve the government’s ability to protect official data. 

The proposed reforms target the Official Secrets Acts of 1911, 1920 and 1939, which outline the main espionage offences, as well as the Official Secrets Act 1989, which governs the law around the “unauthorized disclosure of official material and its onward disclosure.”

The move has caused a major stir in the British media, where it is being widely interpreted as having serious consequences for journalists and their ability to hold governments to account. 

Some media outlets claimed that the legislation, if passed, will effectively treat journalists like spies and mean that the government can treat cases of unauthorized disclosure and acts of espionage in essentially the same way. 

While the UK government does equate acts of espionage to cases of unauthorized disclosure in terms of severity, it nevertheless highlighted in the new legislation document that “there are differences in the mechanics of, and motivations behind, espionage and unauthorized disclosure offences.”

The announcement came shortly after the homes of two people were raided in England last week by police officers and officials from the Information Commissioner’s Office in connection to the leak of compromising security-camera footage of former health minister Matt Hancock and his aide Gina Coladangelo in his ministerial office. 

If passed, the new legislation would mean such leaks would be classed as dangerous and criminal.

In the past, the Official Secrets Act was used to prosecute individuals responsible for revealing sensitive information — about the activities of security services, for instance — to newspapers. 

The Home Office stressed that work on the legislation is still “ongoing and has not reached a conclusion.”


Concern mounts about possible Turkish law on media funding

Concern mounts about possible Turkish law on media funding
Updated 23 July 2021

Concern mounts about possible Turkish law on media funding

Concern mounts about possible Turkish law on media funding
  • Top aide to Turkey’s president said this week the country needs a regulation on media outlets that receive foreign funds
  • Negative social media campaign targeted independent press outlet Medyascope and its founder, veteran journalist Rusen Cakir

ISTANBUL: Press freedom groups expressed concern Friday about comments by Turkish officials about possible legislation to regulate foreign funding for media and the dissemination of fake news, saying it could further curtail independent journalism in Turkey.
A top aide to Turkey’s president said this week that the country needs a regulation on media outlets that receive foreign funds. Director of Communications Fahrettin Altun said foreign media funding merits scrutiny when it comes from countries that “openly express their intentions and efforts to design Turkish politics.”
“We will not allow fifth column activities under new guises,” Altun said.
Turkish journalists flying back from a state visit to northern Cyprus this week reported that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party planned to review later this year whether the country needs a law against disseminating fake news. They quoted Erdogan as saying Turkey would have to fight the “terror of lies.”
The comments came as a negative social media campaign targeted independent press outlet Medyascope and its founder, veteran journalist Rusen Cakir, for receiving funds from the US-based Chrest Foundation. The private philanthropy group has also funded non-profit organizations and foundations working in arts, culture and diversity.
Media Freedom Rapid Response and 23 allied groups said in a statement Friday that foreign funding was a critical source of income for independent news outlets in Turkey as they face government pressure. Mainstream Turkish media is mostly run by businesses close to the government.
“Taken together, these statements create the impression that the Turkish government is preparing to introduce new legal measures that will further undermine media freedom and pluralism in the country,” the statement said.
But Altun said similar regulations apply in the United States, where media outlets funded by foreign countries must provide information on activities to US authorities. Turkey’s state-funded English-language broadcaster TRT World was required to register as a foreign agent last year under the Foreign Agent Registration Act for lobbyists and public relations firms working for foreign governments. TRT then said its performed new slathering and reporting like any other international media.
Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index ranked Turkey at 153 out of 180 countries in 2021. The Journalists’ Union of Turkey says 38 media workers remain behind bars.


Inside OSN Streaming’s digital transformation

Inside OSN Streaming’s digital transformation
Updated 23 July 2021

Inside OSN Streaming’s digital transformation

Inside OSN Streaming’s digital transformation
  • How OSN delivered a digital-first product in six months

DUBAI: A year after OSN rebranded its streaming platform WAVO to OSN Streaming, it has unveiled a brand new digital-first platform, putting technology and content at its core.
In October 2020, OSN Streaming changed its look and feel, but the technology remained the same. It was around the same time that the company decided to digitally overhaul the platform, delivering an entirely new user experience. 
“My early estimation was that we need to have 12-18 months,” Peter Riz, chief technology officer at OSN, told Arab News.
However, six months was a “very aggressive timeline” for a development such as this, he added. Riz and his team had to devise a hybrid approach using six different modules to achieve this vision. The next step was to find a way to bring together the modules in a seamless manner, because running them separately was not sustainable or cost-effective.
The two key areas of the rebrand were multiple user profiles — including dedicated children’s profiles — and content presentation focusing on enhanced search and discovery.
Content presentation and discovery were critical to the user experience, said Riz. The first layer was presenting content to each user based on the general interests of that audience segment determined by factors such as age and location. 
The second and more challenging layer was navigating personal user preferences. For example, Western expats generally watch movies and shows from the West, but also like watching certain Arabic dramas, explained Riz. The platform was also designed to learn from user behavior and tailor recommendations over time.
Riz said: “We wanted to show users the content we believe is relevant, so the question became: How do we do this quickly, and how do we give all this control to the editorial and marketing team?”


The answer came in the form of a custom technological component called the Customer Experience Builder (CXB). “The CXB is a new type of innovation from a technical point of view,” added Riz, because it enables the company to add new features and updates to various touchpoints — such as the mobile app, web browser, and TV apps — through one common system.
Digital disruption has been driven, in part, by a rapid change in user behavior, making it more important than ever before for companies to be able to adapt and improve their digital services quickly.
“OSN was not only able to deliver this new platform very quickly using the CXB, but we can continuously improve the experience,” said Riz. From building the CXB from scratch to writing new code, the new platform is a technological innovation for OSN.
“We changed the entire environment,” said Riz. “There is no legacy code in the new environment so every line of code that the engineers created to deliver the service is new.”
Since the launch of the new platform, OSN has been making tweaks through the CXB suite every two weeks. “Most of the logic, or ‘magic’ as we sometimes call it, happens on the backend,” he added.
Although these changes are almost imperceptible to users, they have a profound impact on how people discover and watch content on the platform, said Riz, resulting in OSN doubling content consumption on the platform.
Streaming companies reached their peak during the coronavirus disease pandemic, as more people spent time indoors and cinemas shut down. The surge in new users has forced these platforms to innovate in order to sustain their growth.
So, what is next for these companies?
“The real differentiator is still the content and how we present this content,” said Riz. “We are continuously working to find new content sources and secure current partnerships.”
Streaming platforms, including OSN, are also looking for new kinds of partnerships that will see them diversifying into gaming and audio. OSN, for instance, partnered with multi-player video game “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (PUBG) to provide PUBG Mobile players an exclusive opportunity to access the OSN Streaming app.
On the technology side, OSN continues to measure multiple factors such as streaming quality, load time, lags, or delays, to constantly improve the user experience. When there is a new update on any operating system, the company immediately runs tests to see if it affects the performance of the OSN Streaming platform. It is also working on adding alternative payment methods, in addition to credit cards, to the platform.
But, behind it all, “you need to continue that invisible, seamless and perfect technology,” said Riz.
It is all about “continuous improvement and continuous innovation to bring the content to the audience, increase the partnerships and support the entire digital economy to grow and unlock all the potential in the region,” he concluded.


Can Facebook’s $1 bn gamble help it regain lost cool?

Facebook has yet to outline detailed plans for the $1 billion, but a large chunk will reportedly be distributed via Instagram, which still enjoys a “cool” factor. (File/AFP)
Facebook has yet to outline detailed plans for the $1 billion, but a large chunk will reportedly be distributed via Instagram, which still enjoys a “cool” factor. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 July 2021

Can Facebook’s $1 bn gamble help it regain lost cool?

Facebook has yet to outline detailed plans for the $1 billion, but a large chunk will reportedly be distributed via Instagram, which still enjoys a “cool” factor. (File/AFP)
  • Facebook announced last week that it will pay $1 billion to content creators of popular posts, including fashionistas to comedians and video gamers
  • This attempt, however, is being seen partly as an attempt to regain cultural relevance and stem the youth exodus

PARIS: Like Internet personalities the world over, Kenyan TikTok comedian Mark Mwas was intrigued when Facebook announced a $1 billion plan to pay content creators like him.
But the 25-year-old, whose following surged past 160,000 as entertainment-starved Kenyans flocked to the app during the pandemic, is skeptical that fans would follow him to the older social network.
“In our market, Facebook is kinda old-fashioned,” said Mwas, who posts skits about campus life in a mixture of Swahili, English, and Sheng slang.
“Like, Mom is on Facebook and doesn’t know what TikTok is,” he told AFP in an email. “My content is suited for the millennials, who prefer other platforms.”
Announced last week, Facebook’s $1 billion will pay the creators of popular posts, from fashionistas to comedians and video gamers, through 2022.
It is the strongest signal yet that the US social media giant now recognizes the strategic importance of the “creator economy.”
YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat have waged an increasingly fierce battle to attract figures with big followings that can in turn attract serious advertising revenues.
Last November, photo and video app Snapchat began paying $1 million a day to top creators, although the payments have since tapered off. Popular YouTubers have been receiving a slice of the site’s billions in ad revenues since 2007.
Facebook has been comparatively slow on the uptake. While the site began paying popular video-makers in 2017, most vloggers have found YouTube to be far more lucrative.
Facebook-owned Instagram has meanwhile launched the careers of many a food blogger and fashion influencer, but the app only began sharing its advertising income directly with them last year.
Traditionally, the bulk of Insta-celebrities’ earnings has come through product endorsement deals negotiated directly with brands.


Joe Gagliese, co-founder of international influencer agency Viral Nation, said it was not surprising that Facebook’s efforts had lagged behind competitors’.
Founded in 2004, Facebook had already built a hugely lucrative advertising business by the time the phenomenon of full-time Internet celebrities emerged at the end of the decade. Courting influencers wasn’t crucial to its “primary business,” Gagliese said.
But as creators have headed elsewhere, their predominantly young followings have followed — contributing to a sense that Facebook, in the eyes of Gen Z, has become an irredeemably uncool website where their parents hang out.
Facebook’s user base is indeed aging. The proportion of over-65s has shot up roughly a quarter over the past year — almost double the average, according to the Digital 2021 report from media companies We Are Social and Hootsuite.
In the meantime, Chinese-owned TikTok was the world’s most downloaded app in the first half of 2021.
It has largely replaced Facebook as the driver of international social media crazes — not least during the pandemic, as bored millions have turned to its dance videos and cooking trends for light relief.
In this context, Facebook’s $1 billion gambit is being seen partly as an attempt to regain cultural relevance and stem the youth exodus.
“The only way for these platforms to keep their relevance with younger generations is to understand what resonates with them and keep up with the pace of innovation,” said Claudia Cameron, head of marketing and insights at Amsterdam-based influencer agency IMA.
“Creators are a very important part of this equation, as they set the tone for what’s cool.”


While young users from Iran to Brazil have been flocking elsewhere, industry insiders say it is far too early to regard Facebook as doomed.
“You can’t underestimate them, because they are so powerful when it comes to the tech,” said Gagliese.
Facebook’s vast income — it raked in $84.2 billion in advertising revenues last year, more than the GDP of some countries — gives it huge funds with which to innovate.
It is also, despite its relative loss of street cred, still growing, with 2.8 billion monthly users worldwide.
Gagliese suggested Facebook should be spending far more on its efforts to lure Internet stars from other platforms.
“Unless Facebook leans in really hard — I’m talking, ‘way more than a billion dollars’ hard — it’s going to be very hard for them to attract all these new creators,” he said.
Facebook has yet to outline detailed plans for the $1 billion, but Cameron pointed out that a large chunk will likely be distributed via Instagram, which still enjoys a “cool” factor.
That would be good news for TikTok comedian Mwas, who also has a sizeable following there.
“I’m taking a wait-and-see approach,” he said.


Russia fines Facebook and Twitter for failing to delete content

Russia fines Facebook and Twitter for failing to delete content
Updated 23 July 2021

Russia fines Facebook and Twitter for failing to delete content

Russia fines Facebook and Twitter for failing to delete content
  • Russia fines Facebook, Twitter and Telegram for failing to delete illegal content
  • This comes as the Russian government attempts to regulate tech giants by imposing small fines for content violations
MOSCOW: A Russian court fined US social media firms Facebook and Twitter on Thursday for failing to delete illegal content, the latest salvo in a standoff between Russia and Big Tech.
Russian authorities have taken steps in recent months to regulate technology giants more closely by imposing small fines for content violations, while also seeking to force foreign companies to open offices in Russia and store Russians’ personal data on its territory.
Moscow’s Tagansky District Court said it had fined Facebook a total of 6 million roubles ($81,320) for two different administrative offenses related to stipulations that website owners delete banned information or face penalties.
The court fined Twitter a combined 5.5 million roubles for two offenses. Messaging app Telegram was also ordered to pay a total of 11 million roubles for three offenses, the court said.
Facebook, Twitter and Telegram did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Other countries have called upon social media firms to do more to police content. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met representatives of platforms last week and warned that they would face fines amounting to 10 percent of their global revenues unless they removed hateful and racist content.
Twitter has been subjected to a punitive slowdown in Russia since March for posts containing child pornography, drug abuse information or calls for minors to commit suicide, state communications regulator Roskomnadzor has said.
Twitter denies allowing its platform to be used to promote illegal behavior, and says it has a zero-tolerance policy for child sexual exploitation and prohibits the promotion of suicide or self-harm.