War on words. Arab media on Obama’s speech in Cairo..and the winner is: Twitter!

Just finished a couple of hours marathon split between TV and computer screen to follow Obamas first live speech addressed to the Muslim world from a Muslim-majority country, Egypt. I’ve tried to follow the speech live on the Internet, through the WhiteHouse’s YouTube channel , following at the same time reactions on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

Of course the two most important Arab media have a very different view on President Obama‘s words, even if it’s not always through words that they express this view. Take Al Jazeera for example:  since the very end of Obama’s talk in Cairo has started broadcasting two different feature stories. First one is what’s now happening in Qalqiliya. While Obama was mentioning Palestine and Israel and  the right of both to leave in peace and  have each one its own state, the reality of Palestine is that Palestinians are killing each others in internal fights. Al Jazeera did not say openly that this internal fights are US (and Europe)’s fault, cause they have never recognised Hamas‘ right to govern Palestine after they won the elections.   But the mere fact of showing the images of what’s happening in Palestine, right after Obama spoke of Palestine and peace, is eloquent and doesnt’ need more words to be said. Also right now, in the news bullettin, Al Jazeera is presenting as headline news Obama’s speech in Cairo as first, and Qalqiliya as second. Do we need more words than those justaxposed images to understand what Al Jazeera thinks about Obama?

On the other hand, Al Arabiya. They have a very different tone from Al Jazeera, quiet and very analytic. However, all the analysis are positive. The sheikh who spoke from Saudi Arabia was very optimistic and labelled Obama’s language as “new language” (at the same time, an Egyptian guest on Al Jazeera was saying exactly the contrary: “same old language” used by Bush, words like “civilization”). Generally speaking, even after Obama’s speech was over, Al Arabiya went on (and it’s still going on) with analysis, collecting different views, etc. Do you remember who was the first Arab channel to get an interview with President Obama? Well, that’s the answer to Al Arabiya’s coverage of today.

Obama mentioned many points in his speech, but which ones are picked up by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, even if with different angles? Number one, the Palestinian issue. Reasonable. Without finding a solution to this, the other points are useless for the Arabs. Number two,  religious tolerance and minorities. Number three, women issue. Somebody on Al Jazeera also remarked the importance of the educational point mentioned by Obama. Good. But who between them would have stayed a bit more on democracy in the Arab world? Obama mentioned the need to open to democracy, not through wars -but not even with internal coercion-. He was not that bold and didnt’ give the names, but -guess what- this is a whole chapter rather than a simple point for Arab media to open the discussion. I am hoping that at least Faysal Qassem will pick up this point and make a whole episode on this! If not him,  then who?!

While zapping in between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya during Obama’s speech and trying to pick up the nuances in their coverage, I had hundreds of Tweets pulling out from my computer screen. Including people watching the speech from Israel, giving their opinions, translating things from Hebrew.  Twitters written by Elizrael were very helpful.  Neither Al Jazeera nor Arabiya were ready to pick up this energy and different views coming from Twitter live. Projects like Meedan of live translation Arabic-English and viceversa were helping. People were helping to understand, through Global Voices community. An incredible compilation of information, discussions, live translation, different opinions.

Obama spoke, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya listened. Twitter (and the Internet) won.

First theatre play hold yesterday in Saudi Arabia after 50 years

A real revolution was happening yesterday in Saudi Arabia. A theatre play was represented in the Saudi capital Ryad for the first time after 50 years in front of government authorities.  Religious ulama consider cinema and theatre to be against Islamic sharia law.  Prince Waleed Bin Talal, the media moghul who owns stakes in global media organisations like Murdochs NewsCorp and controls the successful  Arab tv network Rotana, has proposed several times to open a movie theatre in the country but never succeeded in this.

Yesterday event is unprecedented and very interesting in the perspective of the evolution of modern Saudi societies. Lorenzo Trombetta from Italian news agency Ansamed reports about the event here:

“For the first time in almost 50 years a theatre play was performed in front of government officials in Saudi Arabia: on Friday in Riyadh the Theatre Festival was opened in the presence of government members, while the supreme religious authority of the country continues to stigmatise film and theatre as ”breaking Islamic law”. For World Theatre Day, in which Saudi Arabia is participating for the first time, the curtain of the Saudi-Arabian Culture and Art Association (Asca) were raised for the first time in 49 years in the presence of a mixed audience, men and women, including ”high representatives of the Culture Ministry” reported the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, published in London and owned by Saudi prince Khaled bin Sultan, on its front page. The play was performed by the actors of Diadema (al-Iklil), preparations have been in the news in the past days ”after threats and attempts to sabotage” preparations ”carried out by unknown persons against the theatre group”. The religious authorities in Saudi Arabia oppose artistic expression: Grand mufti, Abd al Aziz al Shaykh, called theatre an activity that ”breaks Islamic law”. Two years ago a fight broke out between viewers and actors during the performance of a comedy which showed ”the contradictions of a society which is considered to be moderate by the West, but which in fact is subjected to religious extremists”. The few (film) theatres that are tolerated are still rigorously divided into stalls for men and a balcony for women and the performance of comedies, usually by men only, is only allowed during Ramadan. Last year, seven of the ten theatre plays on the bill were performed and directed by men, two by children. Women appeared in just one play according to Najah al-Usaymi of the local on-line daily Arab News. The last show performed in Riyadh in the presence of authorities goes back to 1960. Since then only small private cultural circles and universities organised shows. ”With this event we want to re-launch Saudi theatre” said the vice director of Asca, Muhammad Rassis, adding: ”We are children of today and we talk about today. We have nothing to do with the past”. (ANSAmed).

Arab media battle over Gaza summit(s)

What we saw yesterday on Arab satellite TV screens reflects the chaos which reigns in Arab streets and the controversy who rules all the current relations amongst the Arab countries. Yesterday Doha summit was boycotted  by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two very important players in the Gaza crisis. And not only: two of the top media “owners” of the Arab world. The third is, of course, Qatar, the country who hosted the summit hoping to play the same diplomatic role it played in the Lebanon crisis coming out with the “Doha agreements”. But this time, Qatar was not able to present itself as the mediator. Egypt and Saudi Arabia didn’t go to Doha, and Saudi controlled media -like Dubai based Al Arabiya- were focusing much more on the importance of the Arab foreign ministers meeting to be held in Kuwait next monday. While, of course, Al Jazeera was covering extensively the summit -and often splitting the screen in two, the Doha summit on one side, the Gaza chaos on the other side- focusing on its relevance, as underlined by the BBC monitoring.

And while Al Jazeera was giving lot of relevance to the fact that Qatar has suspended economic and political ties with Israel -being before one of the few Arab countries to have an official Israeli representative  in Doha- , the rival Al Arabiya called this suspension as “temporary”. The relations between Saudi and Qatar, which a while ago seemed to have been restored and improved, now seem to be back to the past. And media are reflecting these divisions once again.

Arab media coverage of Israeli attacks on Gaza

Watching today different  Arab Tv stations coverage of Israeli attacks on Gaza could give us a completely different idea of the crisis. Al Jazeera has got correspondents everywhere, from Gaza to Ramallah to Jerusalem to Beirut where lots of “action” was happening. Screen was divided into four smaller windows and the correspondents live and in parallel were asked questions by the presenter from Doha, Qatar. Most of them were wearing war helmets and the atmosphere was very dramatic. Emotional participations, lots of words referring to “martyrs” (sorry for this translation, which I am sure doesn’t reflect the exact meaning of the original Arabic word “shuhada”), lots of pics featuring children blessed, deaths, blood everywhere. A promo, edited by the Doha headquarters, “advertising” the war coverage as it was the latest war movie coming from Hollywood. But these are not special effects, this is the real tragedy happening live in Gaza.

On the other side, Al Arabiya, broadcasting from Dubai, was also talking about “martyrs”, but in a colder, more “neutral” way as it was something more distant (nobody here in the Arab Region could prevent himself to use this word, it’s not a matter of “being professional” as we wrongly believe in the West, it’s a matter of belonging to a culture and speaking the local language). Al Arabiya also has got a “promo” of its own war coverage, like Al Jazeera. But more as a “European movie” rather than Hollywood, something more sober in way. Still lots of deaths, but lin a way,more aseptic. The real paradox is that, while Al Jazeera shows correspondents with helmets, Al Arabiya’s cameras are focused live on Muscat, where the Gulf summit is going on (being originally something planned for economy, then turned urgently in a debate about a common Gulf position to be taken before the Arab League summit to be held after tomorrow in Cairo). Cameras are following the king of Saudi Arabia (Al Arabiya belongs to a prince businessman who is a member of the Saudi royal family), walking silently in Muscat followed by courts dignitaries dressed in the traditional Gulf long dresses. They walk in a perfect silent, live on Arabiya cameras. And there is nothing more paradoxical that this silent compared to the noise of the war happening live just on the other side of the Arab remote control.

Public discussion on Creative Commons just started in Jordan

The public discussion of the first Arabic Creative Commons (CC) 3.0 license draft started yesterday. Jordan will be the first Arab country to discuss version 3.0 which is a major step in the diffusion of the CC philosophy across all the Arab world. Creative Commons is an international non profit organization founded in 2001 by Larry Lessig professor of Law in Stanford and author of many important books about the sharing of creativity on the Internet. CC provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry.

It’s a major shift from the copyright “All Rights Reserved” philosophy to the more flexible “Some Rights Reserved”. This shift is not simply concerning the juridical sphere of legal rights. It goes towards the empowerment of users and creators, educators and artists, individuals and communities of individuals that want to share and learn one from each other in a legal way.

The copyright as a method to protect information goods (video, books, music, etc) was born in a “analogue environment” marked by scarcity of production and difficulty in the distribution process. These material obstacles have been clearly removed in the “digital environment” which is on the contrary marked by the abundance of information goods and by a very easy process both in production and in distribution. But the legal obstacle of “all rights reserved” remains within this changed framework preventing many new subjects to use this huge amounts of information goods to learn, create by themselves and share with the others.

In this perspective, the battle for knowledge sharing is key in the Arab world as it is in Europe and in the US.

Copyright might seem not a big issue in the Arab world, where piracy is widespread and openly tolerated (and many more urgent problems have still to be solved). But, indeed, Arab media is booming thanks to Gulf investments and cash: the Gulf itself is setting the trends and standards for the future of the media all across the Arab region.

Having a closer look to what is currently happening in that part of the Arab world,  we will see that restrictions and persecutions on piracy issues have started, both in Saudi Arabia and in the UAE.

Copyright law is going to be enforced also in the Gulf, and this trend will go soon towards the Arab Mediterranean region.

So it is very key to start a debate on those issues right now. This is not a “technical” discussion happening among lawyers or geeks communities. It is very key for all the communities of individuals, particularly those who believe that the future of humankind lies in the sharing of knowledge and experiences. And the sharing of knowledge and creative works is the only antidote that we have against the alleged “clash of civilization”.

Mabrouk to Ziad Maraqa of Agip organisation, CC Jordan lead, and to all the others in the Arab team, for this first great achievement. Everybody in the Arab world is invited to join the discussion and to contribute to the debate at:


You Tube and Kuwait: much ado about nothing?

Two days ago the news about Kuwaiti Ministry of Communications blocking You Tube for carrying offensive content provoked a certain turmoil on the Arab media. Issues were raised as those of censorship, freedom of expression, etc. Blogger communities had felt of course very attacked.

The origin of all this “ado” is believed to be some videos posted on You Tube, one of them featuring a man signing verses from the Quran while playing oud (a traditional Arab music instrument) and another showing caricatures of the Prophet.

The content was judged offensive, expecially during the holy month of Ramadan (in traditional Gulf countries having music played together with holy Quran could be interpreted as offensive to religion).

But, according to Global voices and other sources like Itp.net, the ban should be lifted soon as the Ministry of Communications decided yesterday to revoke the decision.

“To ban or not to ban”, this is the question.

But at a deeper look it could be a “much ado for nothing” issue, as Gulf countries are used to be supportive of media revolution while banning it at the same time.

It happened with Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the satellite era when, while banning dishes at home, the country was financing the boom of satellite networks abroad, opening Arabic tv stations in European countries like Italy and UK.  Movie theatres are still banned throught the country, while Saudi capitals are heavily financing the still developing but promising movie industry all across the Arab region. And, now that Wall Street and hedge funds are facing the economic crisis, US companies are making deals to produce English language movies in the Gulf with local funds plenty of pocket money not to be found in Western countries.

UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait itself are at the forefront of the Internet revolution in the Middle East. They are financing big projects -like the Internet City in the Dubai area-, inviting web investors, sponsoring high level conferences on telco and IT issues, opening first class training courses for enterpreneurs and trying to support innovation and digital creativity.

At the same time, Skype is banned in the UAE as it is in Kuwait (even if people largely use those services), probably just for telcos monopoly reasons, not for the censorship or freedom of expression argument.  Liberal Dubai also does censor contents on the popular photo sharing web platform Flickr.

Is it possible to support innovation and digital revolution while at the same time putting limits and conditions to it? Is this the new model that will take place in the rich Gulf states that now control many key sectors of world economy? A “walled garden” innovation, under certain conditions and constraints?

Or is it simply the “Arab way” to do things? Which is: a “much ado about nothing” strategy.

The Saudi Arabian grand mufti in July released a fatwa on Turkish soap operas, followed by millions of Arabs, just because they are considered to be immoral and “evil”.  It happens that those soaps operas are distributed on MBC screens, a very influencial tv network based in Dubai but backed by Saudi Sheikh Walid Al Ibrahim‘s capitals. The Sheikh is a relative to the ruling family, so everything happening seems to be an “internal discourse” among the country different establishments.

On the one hand there is a push to change and invest in the new; on the other hand, a pressure to block it which is coming from the same – or very much related- internal powers. Is it a real struggle happening among different powers going in opposite directions, or is it just the way things progress in the Middle East? By being banned formally to “keep the facade” while in reality everybody is doing the contrary and being tolerated?