Arab newspaper widens reach

Al-Hayat: The respected daily, often a conduit for international diplomacy, ventures into TV to inform the masses.

October 05, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - In the early days of August 1998, the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat published a news article conveying a warning from an obscure group called the Islamic Army, known to be linked to a well-born Saudi named Osama bin Laden. U.S. embassies, the warning said, were about to be bombed.

A few days later, on Aug. 7, nearly simultaneous explosions occurred at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224.

From that same platform - Al-Hayat, published daily in London since 1988 - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has appeared in recent months using interviews with the newspaper to explain U.S. policy to its 200,000 or so readers, many of them policy-makers in the Middle East. Egyptian and Syrian leaders have taken to the newspaper's pages to explain their foreign policies to the world's diplomats.

The range of views appearing in Al-Hayat - from terrorists and diplomats and heads of state - has solidified its position as the most influential Arabic newspaper, a platform for countries to announce foreign policy initiatives and for opposition groups to promote agendas of their own.

"It has access to an enormous field of contributors," said Paul Lalor, Middle East research fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "It's as good as any newspaper published in the English language, and it's enormously important in terms of the intellectual debate and with people who have direct effect on policy."

What the newspaper lacks is influence on the broader Arab public, much of which gets its news from Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language television station based in Qatar. Because of coverage that tends toward the sensational, the station is often blamed for appealing to - and encouraging - anti-U.S. sentiment.

Now, though, Al-Hayat is taking its first steps into television, by combining forces with Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. International. The network, based in Beirut, reaches most of the Arab world and is enormously popular for its entertainment programming.

Al-Hayat's television programming is expected to provide an outlet where U.S. diplomats can explain the country's foreign policies not just to an elite, but to the masses.

By month's end, Al-Hayat will use members of its 300-person staff to provide live reports from around the world, bringing stories from its grainy black-and-white pages to the screen 3 1/2 hours a day.

180,000 circulation

With editions printed in London, New York, Frankfurt, Cairo, Beirut, Bahrain, Dubai and Saudi Arabia, Al-Hayat has a circulation of about 180,000 copies a day. Recent front pages included these headlines: "Israelis Break Into Arafat's Compound"; "Saddam Confirms Iraq Has No Weapons Of Mass Destruction - Rumsfeld Advises Him To `Exile Himself'"; "German Justice Minister Compares Bush To Hitler."

Al-Hayat's editorial page has often been critical of what it calls American hypocrisy, citing the United States' tacit approval of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Al-Hayat's columnists have warned that the bombing of Afghanistan will do nothing to diminish terrorism. And the paper garnered attention this summer by publishing a poem praising Palestinian suicide bombers by Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Great Britain.

"We've never tried to be popular," said Robert Jureidini, director of Al-Hayat's news and business operations. "We've tried to be serious, we've tried to include everyone's points of view, but we've never tried to keep this point of view down or that point of view down to be popular with this group or that group."

The views that have appeared in the newspaper, in fact, have sparked attacks by militants. In 1966, an assassin shot and killed Kamel Mroue, who founded the newspaper in 1946 in Beirut, giving it the Arabic name "life." According to Lebanese investigators, he was killed because of criticism of the regime of Egypt's then-president, Gamel Abdel Nasser.

Thirteen bombing attempts were made against the paper before it was forced to shut down in 1976 because of the civil war in Lebanon. It reopened in London in 1986, taking advantage of the presence of exiled Arab journalists.

Since then, the paper has thrived politically, if not financially. Financed by Saudi Prince Khaled ibn Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, a nephew of King Fahd and commander of Saudi forces during the Persian Gulf war, the paper has lost an estimated $160 million since its relaunch.

"London is expensive, but what we get out of it is basically being in a country where there is no interference on our freedom to publish what we want to publish," Jureidini said.

Reported invasion

Al-Hayat is hesitant to criticize Saudi Arabia, and Jureidini acknowledges that the paper will often withhold relatively unimportant news that might get it banned in certain countries. But Al-Hayat has at various times been banned in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere. "We only hold off on the little things," Jureidini said, "so we can print what is truly important."

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