Arab media on hard times

Arab media on hard times

Lebanon-based Menassat, which launched in September 2007 with much fanfare, but abruptly ended publishing on September 1, shocking the region’s journalists who had seen the company grow over the past two years into one of the staples of Arab media coverage. The circumstances surrounding the closure have been highlighted in regional press in recent days, but the picture remains murky as the responsible parties are leveling accusations over who is at fault.

It appears, from sources within Menassat and those familiar to the situation, that there was a conflict with Samer Mohdad, the project manager and manager of Arab Images Foundation, under which Menassat was published with Dutch-based Free Voice as the main funding source.

The end of Menassat comes as the company had expected to be independent of Arab Images Foundation by the end of September, a process that began in May, staff told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Nader Sabbagh replaced Mohdad as interim manager to coordinate this transition, but it fell through. According to Managing Editor Walid al-Houri, the editorial staff of Menassat was not involved in the discussions and had been expecting the issues to be resolved in a timely fashion. They were not.

Speaking from the Netherlands, Free Voice’s head of Middle East Projects Jan Keulen, says Mohdad’s ownership of AIF and his demands on Free Voice are to blame for the company’s end.

“We set up a foundation and registered Menassat as an NGO to widen ownership. Of course, Mohdad said yes and we signed an agreement with him in May,” Keulen said in a phone conversation on Wednesday, adding, “it was not forced upon him” as Mohdad has argued in press reports.

The goal was to transfer Menassat from AIF to Menassat as a new foundation, with Mohdad as a board member. “We offered him a sum of money; a one-year contract as director of Menassat,” Keulen revealed.

Mohdad was pushed aside after the agreement became tenuous between the sides and was replaced as director by Nader Sabbagh, after Free Voice felt “Mohdad was not there and had no direct role in Menassat.”

Free Voice says this is when it got tricky. Mohdad began demanding after the May contract signing, a three-year salary deal, which was not included in the agreement. Then, he refused to follow through on the agreement to transfer ownership from him to a board of directors.

“In general, the structure [of Mohdad’s style] was difficult to work with. There was no transparency,” Keulen argued.

In the end, all sides tend to agree the dissolution of Menassat was a result of money. As part of Free Voice’s original deal to launch Menassat in late 2007, the company was not supposed to be funding the project in 2009, but a deal was brokered to allow the Dutch-based NGO to maintain funding through September 1.

When the first of the month came around, Free Voice ended its relationship with AIF, as the issues above were not solved. Mohdad refused to transfer power and did not let go of the copyright over Menassat’s name and logo. Free Voice was fed up.

“We had sent one consultant to Lebanon,” Keulen said, denying Mohdad’s argument that lots of money had been spent on consultants.

“We did spend a lot of money on Menassat, on its site and staff and the consultant came in because funding was a problem,” he added.

Mohdad and AIF did not go after proper funding ahead of the September 1 deadline. Without a transfer of power in the near future, or ever, Keulen argued, it was time for Free Voice to pull out and let Menassat go its own direction.

“One day Mohdad claimed one thing and then another thing another day, so we just said no more,” said Keulen.

This is not the first time Mohdad finds himself under threat. According to Tamara Sawaya of Arab Image Foundation – not the missing “s” – Mohdad is embattled in a lawsuit over name rights. According to her email, the former World Press Photo judge, left the Arab Image Foundation “a few years ago” and subsequently opened Arab Images Foundation, “which has pushed us to take legal action against him for using the same name as ours. This legal procedure is still in process.”

For Menassat the direction of the company was going nowhere and the managing editor knew this well, deciding to throw in the towel, resigning his post as the management knew the future of Menassat was over.

“I will really miss the team and the beautiful spirit we had in the office. I will miss the laughs, the screams, the coffee, the cigarette breaks and mostly the team work and the discussions we had every day,” Houri says of Menassat.

According to Menassat statistics, the closure does not appear to have been warranted. In October 2008, the site received around 1,000 visitors daily, but that number had jumped in recent months, with August’s average at over 4,500.

It doesn’t matter, says Houri, who does not believe the organization will be relaunched in its previous form, “but I do think there will be perhaps a similar project to be launched again.”

Houri and others from Menassat’s editorial team are in the beginning stages of developing another, different, project for the future. He says they are still simply brainstorming ideas, but hope something will come from the terrible news in recent weeks.

“We want to try to achieve something of a higher quality and more specialized nature,” he reveals.

Other Menassat editorial staff members did not reply to emails sent by Al-Masry Al-Youm to comment on these developments.

As whole, Houri believes Menassat was a good idea, and despite the abrupt end to the online publication, he hopes people will see it for what it was.

“I think Menassat was a good insight into what written media can be in the Arab world and I hope that more similar projects will surface in the future.”

For now, Houri and others from Menassat are out of jobs, forced to play the waiting game to see what their future brings. Either way, the Arab world has lost a leading source of news on Arab media.

Keulen does say that they are looking into helping launch a new version of Menassat, although under a different name and logo due to Mohdad’s ownership of the name rights.