Arab News, the early years: An inside view

Arab News, the early years: An inside view
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Arab News, the early years: An inside view
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Arab News, the early years: An inside view
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Roohul Amin being honored by group chairman, the late Prince Ahmad bin Salman.
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Updated 21 April 2020

Arab News, the early years: An inside view

Arab News, the early years: An inside view
  • Pakistani journalist Roohul Amin was one of the first to join the newspaper
  • Amin worked as a copy editor when the office was in the Sharafiya district

ISLAMABAD: “We worked in complete harmony,” said Roohul Amin as he recalled his experience working for Arab News in its early days.

The veteran journalist was among the first to join the newspaper’s editorial team. He played a part in some of the most memorable events in the publication’s history, and to mark its 45th anniversary, he shared his memories of some of them.

Amin arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1975, the year the paper was launched. He came from Karachi, where he had worked at the Pakistan Press International news agency. Just three weeks before moving to the Kingdom, he got married.

The first Arab News office was in Jeddah’s Sharafiya district. Amin worked there as a copy editor.

“It was a small space,” he said. “Everyone sat together in a single room — from publishers to office boys. Later, the office moved to Al-Faisaliya district, where we had a simple but elegant building.”




Roohul Amin, right, with Khaled Almaeena, seated center, and other members of the staff at the newspaper’s old building in Jeddah’s Al-Faisaliya district. (Arab News Archives)

The printing process, he said, was time consuming in those days because it used Linotype machines, a “hot metal” typesetting system that created blocks of metal type. The flow of local news was little more than a trickle, he added, so the newspaper had to rely on stories from the news wires to fill its pages.

The editorial staff had to work hard to meet their deadlines, Amin said, using old-fashioned equipment. As the technology evolved, however, computerized design and layout was introduced, and Arab News moved from its original eight-column page format to a six-column design. Later, an Apple Macintosh computer system was added, which improved workflow and helped to streamline the production process.

“Being a subeditor requires full commitment and responsibility, which we all understood,” said Amin. “Though we didn’t face any major obstacles to our work, we always made sure that nothing was published that went against Islam and its core values/teachings.”

Amin is proud of his work with Arab News during a time that included eras and events such as the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, the unification of East and West Germany, the post-Thatcher years in the UK, the fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the rise of the Congress Party in India, the tragedies of the Gandhi family, and the days of Bhutto and Gen. Zia in Pakistan.

He said he developed good relationships with his fellow journalists, and with the staff working on the graphics desk. He described his experience of working under a number of editors in chief, including Ahmad Mahmoud, Mohammed Al-Shibani, Abdul Qader Tash, Farooq Luqman and Khaled Almaeena, as enjoyable and profitable.

Amin, in turn, became a respected figure among his bosses and his co-workers, all of whom paid tribute to his conscientious approach to work.

“There was great coordination with one another and we always helped each other,” he said. “We used to share our viewpoints with one another, but we always respected the other person’s views.”

Such was Amin’s dedication to the newspaper, some of his friends called him the “soul and spirit” of Arab News. On weekends, he often drove co-workers to Makkah. These were memorable trips, he said, which he remembers fondly. He is proud of the great friendships he developed with other members the production team, whose creativity he always admired. In particular, he said, he was fascinated by the work of veteran cartoonist Mahmoud Kahil.

Of course, there were some hard times, he said, but when things were challenging, everybody pitched in and worked as a team, creating a bond of true friendship of which he will be forever proud.

During the First Gulf War, for example, Amin remembers how reporters and subeditors worked hard to cover events taking place on the northern borders of the Kingdom, ably supported by their colleagues in the office in Jeddah. Khaled Almaeena, the editor in chief at the time, was among the team of senior reporters covering events from the border as Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait.

The work was hard, Amin said, but with the support of other sub-editors the team was able to ensure that readers were kept up to date with the latest news and developments. To help accomplish this, some Arab News staffers chose not to go home but to remain in the office working incredibly long hours. They realized how important it was at such a crucial time in the history of the nation and the region to maintain the flow of breaking news from the northern front. Sometimes, he said, staff remained in the office 24 hours a day to keep up with events. Their first priority, he added, was to be certain of the factual accuracy of the stories that came to them.

Over time, Arab News evolved and grew.

“Later, the setup expanded and I wanted to move from Jeddah to Riyadh,” said Amin. “I was fortunate to get a chance to do so.”

He went on to work for Urdu News, a sister publication of Arab News, and left Saudi Arabia in 2000. He now lives in retirement in Karachi. His son, Mashhood Amin, has followed in his father’s footsteps and is part of the Arab News team.

Amin congratulated the newspaper on reaching its 45th anniversary. He said he was impressed by the recent launches of its online Pakistan and Japan editions, and hopes it will continue to flourish. His experience while living in the Kingdom was excellent, he added, and he misses the country — especially being so close to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

 


Customer experience firm promotes key managers in MENA region

Customer experience firm promotes key managers in MENA region
Vimal Badiani, MD of Merkle and dentsu’s Customer Experience Management (CXM) Service Line for MENA
Updated 18 May 2021

Customer experience firm promotes key managers in MENA region

Customer experience firm promotes key managers in MENA region
  • Vimal Badiani made MD of Merkle, Dentsu’s CXM Service Line, and will be responsible for leading and growing the business
  • Beth Williams becomes Merkle’s head of performance media

DUBAI: Vimal Badiani has been promoted to managing director of customer experience management (CXM) company Merkle, which is part of Dentsu.

And he will also head Dentsu’s CXM service line for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

In his new role, Badiani will be responsible for leading and growing the business by helping clients deliver a total customer experience.

Previously head of performance, he has been part of the Dentsu group for nearly five years. He joined Merkle UK in 2016 to oversee paid search through the acquisition of Periscopix, which is now Merkle’s media agency, and moved to the MENA region in 2017 to develop Merkle’s performance business.

“My focus will be on delivering growth and maturity through new business support and existing client engagement, providing a total customer experience, underpinned by a strong data foundation, proof in performance media execution, and highlighting the value of CRM (customer relationship management) strategies for nurture,” said Badiani.

Beth Williams, the newly appointed head of performance media at Merkle MENA, has been part the business for eight years, gaining market experience in Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and now MENA.

She joined Merkle at the beginning of her career in 2014 as an associate and has experience across ad tech platforms as well as building additional service lines for Merkle MENA in feed management. In her new position, Williams will oversee Merkle’s growing performance team in Dubai and Lebanon.


Twitter reportedly set to launch new subscription service

Twitter reportedly set to launch new subscription service
Updated 18 May 2021

Twitter reportedly set to launch new subscription service

Twitter reportedly set to launch new subscription service
  • $2.99 per month Twitter Blue rumored to include features such as Undo Tweet and Collections

DUBAI: Twitter is reportedly working on a new subscription service called Twitter Blue that would charge users $2.99 a month.

App researcher Jane Manchun Wong tweeted that she had discovered details about the paid service, which would include features such as Undo Tweets – similar to Gmail’s Undo Mail option – and Collections, a way for users to organize favorited tweets.

According to Wong, Twitter is also working on a tiered-subscription pricing model wherein higher tiers would have premium features such as a “clutter-free news reading experience.”

Talk of Twitter launching a subscription service is not new.

In July, the company’s CEO Jack Dorsey told CNN that the firm was looking at additional streams of revenue including, potentially, a subscription model.

That same month, journalist Andrew Roth tweeted pictures of a survey the company was conducting to find out what users would like in a paid service. The options included features such as undo tweets, longer videos, and ad blocking.

In January, Twitter bought newsletter platform Revue and in May acquired Scroll. In a blog post, Mike Park, vice president of product at Scroll, said that the service was going into private beta “as we integrate into a broader Twitter subscription later in the year,” indicating that the subscription service was due for launch this year.

Twitter was reportedly also planning to launch a $4.99 per month subscription product this year called Super Follows, which would allow users and publishers to earn money from followers for exclusive content and e-commerce deals.

The exact launch date and pricing as well as product details of Twitter Blue and Super Follows are yet to be officially announced by the company.

Twitter declined to comment on the launch of Twitter Blue but with regard to Super Follows a spokesperson told Arab News: “Our purpose is to serve the public conversation. As a part of that work, we are examining and rethinking the incentives of our service – the behaviors that our product features encourage and discourage as people participate in conversation on Twitter.

“Exploring audience funding opportunities like Super Follows will allow creators and publishers to be directly supported by their audience and will incentivize them to continue creating content that their audience loves.

“Super Follows is not available yet, but we’ll have more to share in the coming months,” the spokesperson said.


Snap launches Spotlight prize entertainment platform in MENA

Snap launches Spotlight prize entertainment platform in MENA
Updated 18 May 2021

Snap launches Spotlight prize entertainment platform in MENA

Snap launches Spotlight prize entertainment platform in MENA
  • Spotlight allows users to share their creativity, gain rewards

DUBAI: Social media firm Snap Inc. has launched its new entertainment platform Spotlight throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

With 75 million regional users, Snap aims to capitalize on the audience by allowing them to share their creativity on the platform and be rewarded for it through an incentive program paying out $1 million a day to users.

A Snap spokesman told Arab News that Snapchatters had a desire to use the Snapchat messaging app as a “social platform” where they could share their creations with a community, not just with friends.

Snap did not want to lose users to other platforms and had been thinking for “quite a while” about how it could cater for this need.

Hussein Freijeh, general manager of Snap Inc. in the Middle East, said: “We’ve seen from our platform that Snapchatters are super creative and looking for more ways to share snaps with the larger community. We want to help empower them to express themselves and share their experiences through the Snapchat Camera.”

The answer came in the form of Spotlight, which features the most entertaining snaps from the community. These snaps will be tailored to each user over time based on their preferences and favorites.

Anyone on the app can share snaps on the platform – either anonymously or through their profile. The content is then moderated by a computer and a person before being published on Spotlight.

Comments are also turned off in order to avoid offensive and inappropriate content on the new platform. “So, rather than relying on content being reported, it’s pre-moderated before it goes live,” said the spokesman.

He added that with other content-based platforms, there were always a few users who racked up followers and soon enough started creating professional content, which served as a deterrent of sorts to amateur users of the platforms.

“Our hope was that Spotlight lowers the barrier to content creation and we have already seen this taking place in countries where we have rolled it out so far,” Freijeh added.

The new platform had garnered more than 100 million users as of January, just two months after its initial release. Part of its success has been attributed to the incentive program that is now being launched in the MENA region.

The spokesman said that when any new platform came up, influencers switched to it taking their followers with them, resulting in “a closed circle of people who get wide distribution,” because most platforms rewarded content creators based on the number of followers. “We did not want to do that,” he added.

On Spotlight, the incentive program is not based on the number of followers or celebrity status of a user, but rather on the engagement received on a snap.

He likened the incentive program to a football tournament. “It’s like the World Cup of content. At the group stage that they (users) start off in, they compete against each other and the snaps that are the most engaging and get watched through will unlock more distribution, where they will go against other content, which has gone through that previous stage.

“And then the most engaging piece of content in that subset will unlock more distribution with the ones that get the most (distribution), earning money directly from Snapchat.”

Spotlight sounds and feels quite similar to platforms such as TikTok, as several users have pointed out. However, the spokesman said there was a “huge difference” between the type of content that did well on Spotlight versus TikTok. “You can accidentally create an amazing Spotlight, but I don’t think you can accidentally create an amazing TikTok,” he added.

“Most content creators (on other platforms) rely on sponsorships from brands and huge follower counts. It’s a closed circle to most people, so we wanted to open it up to more people.”

However, Snap is continuing to develop new creator tools for more professional creators, and “they will have really good opportunities to earn money on Spotlight as well,” he said.

Spotlight was launched in 11 countries in November and has been slowly introduced to other markets since then. The reason for the slow rollout, the spokesman said, was the moderation of each piece of content before it appeared on the platform – especially in local languages.

It is now available throughout the MENA region in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, the UAE, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Palestine, Libya, and Iraq.

“Looking ahead, we’ll continue to learn from our community as we continue to evolve Spotlight and see what resonates among Snapchatters,” said Freijeh.


Blinken has not seen evidence Hamas operated from bombed Gaza media tower

Blinken has not seen evidence Hamas operated from bombed Gaza media tower
Updated 17 May 2021

Blinken has not seen evidence Hamas operated from bombed Gaza media tower

Blinken has not seen evidence Hamas operated from bombed Gaza media tower
  • Israeli attack on building housing foreign media, other businesses has drawn global condemnation
  • Associated Press calls on Israeli govt to ‘put forward the evidence’

LONDON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday said he has not seen any Israeli evidence that Hamas was operating from a tower block housing foreign media that was destroyed in a targeted airstrike.

The Associated Press and other media companies, as well as various international businesses including consultancy Ernst & Young, had offices in the tower block.

The Israeli military said the attack on Al-Jalaa tower, which has sparked significant backlash from global media and human rights groups, was due to it housing Hamas military intelligence officials. But Blinken said he had not yet seen evidence to support this claim.

The Associated Press, a large US media agency, has called on the Israeli government to “put forward the evidence.”

The company’s President Gary Pruitt said: “AP’s bureau has been in this building for 15 years. We have had no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building. This is something we actively check to the best of our ability. We would never knowingly put our journalists at risk.”


Will truth become a casualty of the Israel Gaza war?

Will truth become a casualty of the Israel Gaza war?
Updated 18 May 2021

Will truth become a casualty of the Israel Gaza war?

Will truth become a casualty of the Israel Gaza war?
  • Israeli government under fire over destruction of building that housed offices of AP and other media outlets
  • Attack in Gaza City is the latest in a long line of events when the media has found itself in the line of fire

DUBAI: Amid the scenes of horror and human suffering unfolding in the Gaza Strip in recent days, one series of images stands out.

Shortly after 3 p.m. local time on Saturday, a salvo of rockets fired by Israeli drones struck a high-rise in central Gaza City. Five minutes after that first strike, heavier missiles fired by Israeli fighter-bombers slammed into the 12-story building, witnesses said, causing the structure to collapse in a cloud of dust and debris.

Israel has flattened other buildings in Gaza over the past week — just as it did during its 2014 ground incursion — and destroyed tunnels and houses said to be used by leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the territory. But this attack was different.

The tower was home to the offices of Associated Press, the American news agency, the Qatar-funded Al-Jazeera media network and local news outlets.

In a tweet, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said it was “striking Hamas weapons hidden inside civilian buildings in Gaza,” but the claim has yet to be proven. The AP said it had “no indication” Hamas was in the building, something which would have been “actively checked” so as not to put journalists at risk.

Last week’s events in Gaza are hardly the first time that the media has found itself in the line of fire during a Middle East conflict. (AFP)

The AP also said a dozen of its staff members and freelancers were in the building at the time of the IDF warning. All seem to have escaped unhurt. Al-Jazeera has also reported no casualties although it says valuable equipment and footage have been lost.

Information warfare has long been at the heart of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Both sides understand that powerful and simple imagery and story-telling can sway international opinion in a way that months of formal diplomacy or conventional military action cannot. Often outcomes are contested, while underlying events and motivations are hard to discern, emerging only after months and years of inquiry.

That said, last week’s events in Gaza are hardly the first time that the media has found itself in the line of fire during a Middle East conflict. In 2019 a US court found Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government liable for the death of American war correspondent Marie Colvin, 56, in February 2012 in the besieged city of Homs. She and French photographer Remi Ochlik, 28, died when the building they were in was shelled.

In 2003, a shell fired by an American tank at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad killed two journalists, a Reuters cameraman and a Spanish television anchor. The hotel had been a favorite of journalists and media personnel covering the US-led invasion.

Then there was the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident, when six boats manned by mainly Turkish pro-Palestinian supporters tried to sail to the Gaza Strip, only to be stopped at sea by abseiling Israeli commandos.

The activists were trying to illustrate that Gaza was (and is) closed to the outside world, that Israel controls access and that Palestinians living in the territory are under siege with few, if any, economic opportunities. The activists claimed to be simple humanitarians, albeit ones supported by professionally equipped TV crews and other media.

Israel said that hard-liners intent on confrontation had joined the more peaceful protesters. These agitators massed on one of the six boats and sparked the ensuing violence by trying to seize soldiers’ weapons. At least nine people died in the incident.
To Israel’s supporters, the actions of the commandos showed military skill and bravery.

To detractors they came across as trigger-happy troops intent on defending an illegal blockade.

On this latest occasion, Israel said that along with the journalists and residents who lived there, the high-rise in Gaza City also housed a Hamas intelligence unit. Israel often accuses Palestinian militants of using civilians and civilian buildings as shields for their activities.

“It is a perfectly legitimate target,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday in the wake of the tower’s destruction. Defenders of his stand quickly pointed to an article by Matti Friedman, a former AP journalist, published in The Atlantic magazine in 2014 after Israel’s bloody incursion into the Gaza Strip. Friedman wrote that he had seen that the building was also being used by Hamas.

“Hamas understood that reporters could be intimidated when necessary and that they would not report the intimidation. The AP staff in Gaza City would witness a rocket launch right beside their office, endangering reporters and other civilians nearby — and the AP wouldn’t report it, not even in AP articles about Israeli claims that Hamas was launching rockets from residential areas,” Friedman wrote.


That interpretation is contested — strongly. AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement on Sunday that his agency had operated in the Al-Jalaa Tower for 15 years. “We have had no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building,” he said, adding: “We would never knowingly put our journalists at risk.”

The building’s other tenant, Al-Jazeera, has long been the Israeli government’s bete noire. In 2017, Israel said it was banning the news organization on the grounds that it was too close to Hamas.

At the time, Avigdor Lieberman, then Israeli defense minister (and a political hard-liner), described some of the outlet’s coverage as “Nazi Germany-style” propaganda. Other Arab states have often accused the TV station of propagating the views of Qatar as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is close to Hamas.

Al-Jazeera’s defenders say that the channel tells the story from both sides of any conflict and takes care to obtain comments from spokespeople in Israel. It has also pioneered coverage in previously obscure and dangerous locations, such as Gaza and Afghanistan, and provides a voice for those previously neglected.

The truth, according to Al-Jazeera’s supporters, is that the nationalist Israeli government, led by Netanyahu, is trying to suppress inconvenient truths and deflect attention from its own activities such as settlement building, which almost all of the international community views as illegal.

What the world does know is that journalists have often been caught in the crossfire, both literal and metaphoric, of these divergent views. (AFP)

However, speaking to Arab News on the condition of anonymity, a former Al-Jazeera journalist said: “If anyone has followed Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Middle East upheavals through the decades, be it the Iraq invasion and insurgency, the overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist government or Israel’s wars with Hamas and Hezbollah, they will be in no doubt about the network’s editorial agenda.

“During the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, this overtly hostile approach of a TV network financed by a strategic ally left US administration officials so frustrated, angry and powerless that President George Bush reportedly considered bombing Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha in 2004.

“Israeli officials probably experience the same disappointed rage at the network’s aggressive coverage every time conflict erupts in Gaza, which could well be the reason behind incidents like the attack on the high-rise — unless, in each case, the Israeli government knows something that the rest of the world doesn’t know.”

What the world does know is that journalists have often been caught in the crossfire, both literal and metaphoric, of these divergent views.

The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedom, a think tank, claims that between 2000 and September 2018, Israel killed 43 journalists in the West Bank and Gaza. And on Monday, Ignacio Miguel Delgado Culebras, the Middle East and North Africa representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said that over the past week the CPJ has documented the bombing of three buildings housing 15 media outlets.

“Local journalists have also been injured covering the airstrikes and many lost their equipment in the bombed outlets. Journalists are also being hurt and arrested while covering protests in the West Bank. There is no indication that these violations of press freedom will subside any time soon,” Culebras said in a statement to Arab News.

“The IDF had known the locations of the buildings and warned residents to evacuate shortly before the airstrikes. They also claim that those buildings housed Hamas intelligence and military offices or some sort of Hamas’ presence, even though AP has said that they had no indication of such presence.

“These bombings and the fact that no foreign journalists are being allowed in Gaza raise the suspicion that Israel is trying to prevent coverage of the airstrikes and military operations in the Gaza Strip.”

Finally, some experts say, events in Gaza and elsewhere in the West Bank and Israel illustrate the growing dangers to journalists operating in conflict zones where front lines are often difficult to discern.

According to Aidan White, founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, the destruction of media assets in Gaza City is serious but by no means unusual. “If one looks back over the past 25 years, the targeting of media institutions and journalists themselves has increased dramatically,” he told Arab News.

This is happening “not least because the capacity of the media to report from war zones — and to be able to report wrongdoing and inappropriate behavior or war crimes — is greatly enhanced, and changing technology has had a lot to do with it.”

The phrase “truth is the first victim of war” could not ring more true now amid Israel’s campaign in Gaza. But then again, the truth rarely is told during times of war. History is written after the battles have taken place, the truces are signed and the fighting has ended.

It is the facts gleaned during moments of crisis and violence that are pivotal to this writing of history.

Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor