Media and Development Conference III: Menassat: Digital Platform for News, Trends and Media

 By Lejo Siepe


BEIRUT - “There are more websites than just this one on freedom of the press in the Arab world. However, most of them have been created from a Western perspective. We work exclusively with Arab journalists, who have difficulties publishing their material because of censorship or restricted press freedom. We offer them a platform”, says Belgian journalist Gert van Langendonck, cofounder of www.menassat. com. In September 2007 he and Lebanese photographer-journalist Samer Mohdad started this digital platform. Van Langendonck was a journalist for the Belgian daily De Morgen (The morning) before moving to Beirut to cover the Middle East for various Western media. Right now he dedicates himself to the development of Menassat.


 Menassat, meaning ‘platforms’ in Arabic, is based in Beirut. Of old, Lebanon is a country in the Arab world where media have a little more freedom of movement than elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. “However, it would be an inappropriate choice of words to call it press freedom, because also in Lebanon political parties control newspapers, radio and TV stations. Lebanon is extremely politicised and this is reflected in media”, says Van Langendonck. “Over here, journalists are working for political parties like soldiers at a front. Usually they aren’t objective observers applying the principles of adversarial hearing, check/double-check and balanced reporting. Journalism in countries like Syria and Egypt boils down to the same thing.” Arab journalists whose press freedom is limited a bit too often in their own countries can call on Menassat to publish their articles and photographs.“We are working with a network of correspondents spanning 22 countries. Around 50% of them are bloggers, the other half journalists.”



Especially in Egypt bloggers play a key role. “It’s bloggers who are taking risks nowadays. Journalists often apply self-censorship. In most countries they know exactly what they can and cannot write about. Occasionally the rules are altered and someone ends up in prison, but most of the time journalists do observe the unwritten rules. You have to be able to read between the lines.” The bloggers are the ones breaking free of this pattern, writing down truthfully what they observe. “However, we do check all the information before publishing it on the site”, stresses Van Langendonck.


Usually Arab journalists don’t communicate with one another. Van Langendonck: “Journalists working in the Maghreb region for example, have little or no contact with Middle Eastern countries, while censorship and restrictions occur just as often.” Syria for one, is a country restricting Menassat: the provider is blocking the site. “Still, we get a lot of positive response from Syrians who want to write for us, often on topics like censorship, media and activism.” Menassat intends to be a platform where Arab media professionals can offer and exchange views and information free of censorship and political or sectarian agendas. The objective is the promotion of freedom of expression throughout the Arab world. To achieve this Menassat - in co-operation with other organisations - is developing legal support. Support for journalists who are in danger and get into serious trouble with the strong arm of the law. “Lawyers are trained in the case law of freedom of speech.”


Menassat is a bilingual website with the entire content available in both English and Arabic, receiving around 3000 hits per day from BACKGROUND Menassat: the digital platform for news, trends and media around the globe. “We work in two directions: Westerners can form a better idea of the Arab media community and vice versa. There’s a big difference between Arab and western journalism, which relates mainly to the mixture of opinion and facts. People here talk in very general terms, using difficult quotes from important officials. Relating a story to a real person is far from common practice. At Menassat we try to find a language in the middle, between Arabic and English.” Van Langendonck is not satisfied until Menassat attracts 40.000 visitors a day.


Free Voice

Through its platform, Menassat tries to get a debate up and running and to raise journalistic standards in the Arab world. The site constitutes the digital service hatch of Investing in the Future, a program launched by Free Voice and the Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists. Free Voice is devoted to increasing press freedom and the free flow of information in Third World countries. To achieve this goal, the Investing in the Future program offers training sessions in the Middle East on a regular basis. Arab journalists learn how to write a feature on a certain topic, using common journalistic standards: adversarial hearing; study of primary sources; reflecting correctly what has been said; and reporting objectively, independently and without bias.


Freedom of speech

 Writing such a feature can turn out be a pretty difficult assignment, as became clear last summer during a workshop with around 20 Lebanese journalists from various Lebanese newspapers, radio and TV stations participating. The workshop was led by Froukje Santing, who used to write for the quality Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, and Free Voice trainer Petrus Schothorst. The participants had to write a story on child labour. During the evaluation, journalists acknowledged the difficulty of obtaining the correct information on good authority. Little could be expected from the government and the journalists were mostly dependent on information coming from NGOs. Besides this external problem, they lacked the necessary skills to make proper inquiries. However, Western funding of a workshop to learn those techniques was seen by some Lebanese journalists as a shame. The country itself – in this case Lebanon – should be organising and financing this kind of trainings, they argued. On the other hand participants admitted sectarianism in Lebanon still influenced the level of freedom of speech. “There is little self-reflection among Arab journalists”, observes Lebanese photographer and Menassat cofounder Samer Mohdad, “we need more self-criticism.”


He hopes Investing in the Future will change journalists’ attitudes, but there’s still a long way to go. Anyhow, Menassat wants to contribute its bit to a more democratic and open society. “We need our intellect to reach citizens, instead of sectarianism. Through Menassat we try to change the Arab world from within, not from the outside. We fight for freedom of speech and to inform the public objectively using traditional journalistic standards.”