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Global publications target Middle East.

Pamela Ann Smith reports on media moves which could have far reaching ejects in the region.

Two of the West's most prestigious publications - the Paris-based International Herald Tribune and the American Newsweek - are setting up joint ventures in the Middle East that could help to create a more open press in the region. However, both may face difficulties in convincing governments to allow them to circulate freely and will need deep pockets to survive the initial period financially.

The IHT is joining the Beirut-based English-language newspaper, the Daily Star, to create a publication that is to be distributed throughout the Arab world. It will consist of the entire editorial coverage of the IHT each day plus two inner sections, one devoted to Lebanese news and the other to regional current affairs, business and culture.

"The idea is to offer local news together with the IHT to complement the international news," commented Paris-based Didier Brun, circulation and development director for the IHT, which draws on news provided by the two prestigious US publications, the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as a host of its own correspondents and writers. "We should do what we do best, and work with a quality local daily," he told The Middle East. No date has been set for the official launch, but it is expected to take place in the second half of this year.

Newsweek's partner is the Kuwaiti Arabic-language daily, Al-Watan. Its editor, Mohammed Al-Jassem, has agreed to act as editor of the Arabic Newsweek, whose first issue is due to appear in April or May. It will run to 64 pages and include translations of the international English-language edition of Newsweek. However, Jassem says that it will also incorporate other material written by Arab journalists which will be "edited according to Newsweek's style".

The IHT's move has been long awaited, news of the intended move having first emerged more than two years ago. However, according to media analysts in Beirut, it was delayed by disagreements among local Lebanon-based publishers who have been mounting an increasing campaign to open up the country's tight licensing system to more Lebanese newspapers and periodicals, as well as to additional satellite and terrestrial-based television and radio stations.

Many opposed the granting of a licence to an "outsider", pending the demanded reforms, the analysts noted.

The IHT's latest alliance will also go some way to restoring the Arab world's importance in its overseas publishing plans, which have already seen the establishment of other joint ventures in Israel, Greece and Italy. Launched in September 1997, the Israeli version, also published in English, incorporates an eight-page second section consisting of articles translated from the Hebrew daily, Haaretz. On Fridays, the section is expanded to 16 pages in a tabloid format.

The joint publication has been highly successful in Israel: circulation has risen, Brun revealed, from 700 a day, prior to the launch, to about 8,000 copies by the end of last December.

However, some media buyers in the Gulf states say the Israeli launch has adversely affected the IHT's ability to draw advertising from the Arab market, a region which has traditionally supported the IHT's respected special supplements on countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

More problematic has been the fact that both the IHT and Newsweek, along with other Western publications specialising in current affairs and business, such as The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Le Monde and Business Week have often been subjected to severe scrutiny by local censors anxious to preserve what they call "the cultural norms" of the region.

Readers and, increasingly, Arab organisations abroad, have expressed concern that while few readers in the Middle East would disagree with policies aimed at avoiding the publication of sexual and violent material that appears in many media outlets, such censorship procedures can be used to prevent open discussion of vital political, economic and cultural issues.

The death of King Hussein in Jordan in February was a case in point, analysts say. Many in Jordan had to turn to Western television to find out how seriously ill the King was on his arrival back in his kingdom and were unprepared for his sudden departure.

Others argue that with the spread of the Internet and satellite TV stations such as CNN, Future TV, LBC and Jazeerah, attempts to control the press are increasingly futile, serving only to limit access to unbiased news to the wealthy. This, they add, simply serves to prevent states in the region from modernising and developing their economies to the fullest.

For new ventures such as the IHT's and Newsweek's, the issue is also one of crucial financial importance. Delays in reaching the newstand because of over-enthusiasm or neglect by customs officials, as well as censors, adversely affects circulation revenues, advertising and sponsorship.

In the case of the IHT, which is seeking up to two additional printing sites in the Gulf states, a failure to pass muster with local officials could also hold up the distribution of the paper to other countries in the region.

The editors of both publications will also have to deal with the vexed question of how to treat Israeli affairs. News about peace negotiations with the Palestinians and with Arab regimes, as well as thorny matters such as succession questions in the Gulf states, the performance of the stock and currency markets and local corruption will also prove sensitive issues to handle. In the case of Israel, much of the Beirut press, including the Daily Star, has demonstrated a considerable degree of impartiality over a long period of time.

However, in Lebanon, as well as in the Gulf, some critics maintain that because many English-language publications rely heavily on American wire service copy, the news leans unfairly towards a version of events that is more advantageous to Israeli interests. This, they add, is even more evident in their choice of pictures, which frequently show Arab leaders unfavourably or which focus on outmoded stereotypes of Arab politics and culture.

The IHT and Newsweek ventures will therefore have to prove themselves as if they were completely new publications, maintains one advertising executive in the Gulf. While officials of both publications stress that they intend to remain faithful to their traditions of a free press and impartial editorial, the risks of running foul of the censors means that both will need to be prepared to wait some time before they can become financially self-sustaining.

Nevertheless, readers, as well as investors, will be hoping that the new ventures succeed. Just as the launch of CNN in the region after the Gulf war paved the way for the proliferation of international satellite channels, the new ventures could help to open the region to a broader, more diversified press.
COPYRIGHT 1999 IC Publications Ltd.
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Comment:Two popular Western-based publications have entered the Middle East through separate joint ventures.
Author:Smith, Pamela Ann
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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