CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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FRANCE: The Rise and Fall of the Arab Press

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There was a time when visitors to Paris could buy a wide variety of Arab newspapers published in France: Al Watan al Arabi, Al Youm al Sabia, El Mustakbal, Al Fursan, Al Moharrer, Kul Al Arab, Al Talia al Arabia and some lesser publications. In the 1980s Paris was regarded almost as the capital of the Arab press. But, by the beginning of the 1990s, they had all vanished without trace, leaving resident and visiting Arabs alike shrugging their shoulders and asking: “What happened”?

Clearly, the history of the Arab press in Paris follows the course of events in Lebanon. Many Lebanese journalists fled the civil war that was raging in Beirut in the late 1970s and settled in Paris: an obvious destination for many Lebanese of those days who spoke French fluently, and had business interests in Africa. At the same time Arab-owned advertising agencies and publishing companies mushroomed in Paris. But all these enterprises had the same shortcoming: they were non profit-making.

“The newspapers were largely a showcase for various Arab regimes”, claims Khemaïs Kheyati, a Tunisian journalist who wrote film reviews for Al Youm al Sabia and who is now working at the “Institut du Monde Arabe”. “There was never any marketing survey for any newspaper. Economics and profit were deliberately set aside”...

Al Watan al Arabi, the first of all these newspapers, was almost cartoonish in the way it opportunely changed its political line. Founded in march 1977 by Walid Abou Zahr, a Lebanese businessman whose brother owned several hotels and restaurants in Bagdad, the weekly magazine was directly financed by Iraq. “The first year, I had no economic relations with the Iraqi leadership”, says Walid abou Zahr.  “After.. I co-operated with Saddam Hussain and Tarik Aziz. Each week I sent nearly 60.000 copies to Bagdad, and they transferred the money to our account in Paris. I made a lot of money”.

Al Watan was, at the time, considered a semi-official Bagdad propaganda tool, so much so that its premises in rue Marbeuf were the target of a car bomb in april 1982, which partly destroyed the building.  After the invasion of Kuwait, Walid Abou Zahr radically changed his stance and became totally pro-Saudi. “If your friend wants to jump from the seventh floor, you tell him he is wrong. If he does it anyway, what can you do?”, comments Walid Abou Zahr.

Were the readers surprised by this U-turn? “The newspapers owners couldn’t care less about their readers”, claims Khemaïs Kheyati. But Walid Abou Zahr had lost a big market. In spring 1992, he moved part of his organisation to Cairo, where the magazine is now printed. Today, Al Watan al Arabi has lost much of its past splendour, and sells 105.000 copies compared with 250.000 a day at its peak, claims its owner.

Al Youm al Sabia was created in march 1984 by Bilal al Hassan, who had been one of the editors of Al Safir in Lebanon, the brother of Hani al Hassan, Yasser Arafat’s senior political adviser. Al Youm al Sabia was widely regarded as little more than a mouthpiece for the PLO, explains Fayçal al Jalloul, who wrote for Al Safir and the daily Beirut before joining Al Youm al Sabia.

Most of the journalists who worked for these newspapers were unaware of their circulation figures or how they were financed. They all received advertisement revenue from the Gulf states, Libya and Algeria, but this money was not the main source of income. Al Youm al Sabia apparently got most of its money from advertising deals with companies linked to the PLO.

The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the second Gulf war (1990-1991) spelled the end of Al Youm al Sabia. Almost overnight the PLO, which supported Iraq, was flat broke and could not finance a costly newspaper.

Al Mustakbal has a somewhat similar story. The first issue of this weekly was published in April 1977. Al Mustakbal was published by Fayçal Abou Khadra, a Palestinian businessman living in Saudi Arabia who had made a small fortune in food distribution and construction. After three or four years, it was taken over by its editor, Nabil Khoury, former editor of Al Hawadess. Some of its former journalists claim that Al Mustakbal was the first Arab newspaper not directly linked to an Arab government or ministry of information, and that it was an Arabic version of le Monde, the newspaper of France’s leading executives, politicians and intellectuals. Others say that it was indirectly financed by Saudi Arabia.

With more than 40 employees in its main office at Paris, Al Mustakbal was the first Arab magazine to have an international network of correspondents in 13 different countries, including USA, USSR, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria. It was also the first Arab magazine to earn serious money: “We sold 1.500 pages of advertisement a year, at 1.500 dollars a page”, says Assad Haidar, former deputy editor of Al Mustakbal.

Assad Haidar claims circulation went up to 125.000 copies and the magazine sold 10.000 in Algeria and 5.000 in Egypt. It also sold well in the Sudan. But the money earned in all these countries could not be transferred outside in foreign currency. Like all Arab newspapers, Al Mustakbal was also living on the proceeds of multiple official subscriptions  from various Arab governments, some of whom were paying the full price for as many as 1.000 copies of the magazine.

Politically, Al Mustakbal was nationalist and pan-arab until the Iran-Iraq war. From 1981 Al Mustakbal was forbidden in Iraq. After reaching its zenith in 1983-1984, the magazine was struck by the global crisis. Advertising declined. Some countries, including Libya, did not pay their debts and pressures continued to increase. At the end of April 1989, the magazine went bankrupt. The title was bought by Rafiq Hariri, now the prime minister of Lebanon and something of a media mogul, who closed it down.

Several other magazines had a more or less ephemeral existence during the 1980’s: Al Moharrer, a satirical weekly, was published for four years by Nabil Moghrabi, a former editor-in-chief of Al Watan al Arabi, then by Ghassan al Rifai, who afterwards worked for the Syrian news agency SANA in Paris. Later, Al Moharrer was bought by Nabil Abou Jaafar and eventually disappeared.

Al Fursan was financed directly by Rifaat al Assad, brother of Syrian President Hafez al Assad, and remained more or less confidential. It closed down in 1992.

Kul Al Arab started in 1982. Its editor-in-chief, Yasser Hawari, a well known Lebanese journalist who had founded Al Ousbouh al Arabi,was quite ambitious. He wanted to create a new type of magazine which gave prominence to the pictures, with short and concise articles written in a personal style. Kul al Arab was financed by Iraq. But, unlike Al Watan al Arabi, which was a  crude propaganda tool, shamelessly  glorifying Saddam Hussain and attacking virulently his ennemies, Kul al Arab was more moderate and sophisticated. Printed in Paris and in Bagdad, it sold about 80.000 copies, claim its former journalists. Like all these newspapers, its cultural section was much freer than the political one. Alhough, according to Salwa al Neimi, a Syrian-born journalist who wrote for the cultural section, “there was always some kind of self-censorship, as there usually is in the Arab press: there are limits that one cannot cross over”. In 1986, Yasser Hawari left Kul al Arab and started Arabie, a monthly magazine published in French. Kul al Arab, edited by Samir Khairy, an Iraqi, last until 1990, when it was outlawed by the French government after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

What’s most surprising is that the closure of all these newspapers did not prompt any publisher to consider launching a single new one. In fact, most former contributors to these different publications agree no market exists in France today: “First-generation immigrants from North Africa know very little Arabic, or are totally illiterate”, observes Khemaïs Kheyati. “If they buy a newspaper, it is a French tabloïd, to gamble at a horse race. And the second generation is almost totally French-speaking. So the only outlet for an Arab newspaper printed in France would abroad, in the Arab world”.

Sherif al Shubashi, chief Paris correspondent of Egypt’s daily Al Ahram, confirms the smallness of the local French market, although there are around 10.000 Egyptians registered at the two Egyptian consulates in France and probably as many unregistered illegal immigrants. The prestigious Al Ahram (the international edition, printed in Frankfurt), sells only between 1.500 and 2.000 copies in France, a figure that could be exaggerated, according to observers. Sales fluctuate according to the season, increasing slightly in the summer, when there are many Egyptian tourists holidaying in France. “It is bought mainly by executives and the intelligentsia”, says Sherif Shubashi. “Egyptian workers are not interested, or they are repelled by its cost” (Al Ahram sells for 9 Francs, about £1).

Al Hayat (which is said to loose huge amounts of money) probably sells a little over this figure, between 3.000 and 5.000, say journalists linked to the company, while Al Wasat claims to sell around 1.500 copies. Censorship has always been a huge problem in the Middle East because of the political divisions of the Arab world. A newspaper financed by one country is frequently banned in a neighbouring one. And there are many taboos, such as sex and religion. “If one wants to please everybody, one must write less frankly, and the readers object to a guarded approach”, observes Fayçal al Jalloul, who adds: “Thirty years ago, If Heikal wrote an article, everybody wanted to read it. And if Nasser made a speech, everybody wanted to read it. But today, who wants to read a speech by Assad or Mubarak”?

But it is not only the readers who are disaffected. Few Arab countries today have the financial resources to invest in propaganda although some journalists say as soon as Iraq comes back into the oil market for good, it will resume launching magazines. Private businessmen are also unattracted by the idea of investing their money in the press: “No businessman is interested in investing several million dollars in a newspaper”, concludes Assad Haidar, “nowadays, they want to buy a radio or a television station”.

(The Middle East magazine, April 1997)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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