Raed Othman is creating the first non-profit news media network in the Levant that strengthens civil society through monitoring governmental institutions, localizing ownership of the news, and facilitating informed public debates around human rights, gender equality, and public policy. By using his own work as a model for transparency and ethics, Raed is enabling both the news media sector and civil society to hold the government more accountable.
The New Idea
Raed is creating an independent news media space in the Levant that builds public awareness regarding social, political, and economic issues, including gender equality, human rights, and good governance. Raed is developing an inclusive and credible platform for open dialogue with the government because his news network is built on a foundation of transparency, credibility, and non-biased reporting.
Recognizing that media is central to a public dialogue, Raed is creating a regional network of news organizations that pools together resources and supports each other in skills-building, collaboration, and independent news coverage. This network uses a number of mediums to access all members of society, from paper and web news, to television and radio programming.
Raed founded Ma’an Network in 2004 to enable the people of the Levant to have access to full information citizenship. Through the Ma’an Network, Raed has begun to realize his vision of a robustly independent, world-class Palestinian media source, which is centered on democracy, good governance, gender equality, and human rights.
Ma’an Agency, which is the largest media program in Ma’an Network, consists of a trilingual online independent news agency, twelve local radio stations, eight local television stations, an in-house Research Unit, and a partnership with international satellite channels to broadcast across the Arab world. Through this media network, Raed has successfully become a market leader, creating a new benchmark for independent news reporting in Palestine. According to the Ma’an Network’s 2010 annual survey on media and governance in Palestine, 75 percent of Palestine’s population ranks the agency’s website as their main news source.
The Levant sub-region in the Arab world (Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) suffers from weak democratic processes and government accountability, and an absent forum for national dialogue.
Stemming from the government’s lack of accountability, social issues such as human rights abuses and gender inequalities are prevalent in the Levant. This is illustrated in the UNDPs Human Development Report, which places the Levant’s women as far less literate, educated, politically represented, and supported than their male counterparts. With limited access to education and health services, women face gender-based violence and discrimination. In Palestine for example, laws that protect women from domestic violence are not in place. A 2006 Palestine Bureau of Statistics survey on domestic violence states that 60 percent of women had been psychologically abused by their husbands, 23 percent had been beaten, and 11 percent had experienced sexual violence. As the majority of media outlets in the Levant are partisan, state-controlled, or self-censoring, they rarely broach issues of government accountability, human rights abuses, and gender inequalities.
In Palestine official broadcasting is run by the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, which operates Voice of Palestine radio and Palestine TV. These outlets came under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian president in early 2006. The majority of available media sources are state controlled, such as the Voice of Palestine, Palestine Television, and semi-governmental newspapers such as Al Hayat, al-Jadidah, and the Palestine News & Info Agency-WAFA. Additionally, Palestinian media lacks national reach and general public interest as local media networks are not connected to one another and have limited reach beyond audiences only within their towns. As a result, they must rely on featuring biased national media sources for news outside of their specific reporting areas.
Palestine’s neighboring countries, Lebanon and Jordan experience the same problem of strong state control over media outlets. For example, the two main stations in Lebanon are overwhelmingly supported by politically controlling institutions or government factions. Future TV is owned by the family of the former Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri and LBC-Sat is owned by Saudi Arabian Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. In Jordan, The state also remains a major shareholder of newspapers, such as al-Ra’i, Jordan Times, and al-Dustour. Though independent print media exists in Jordan, they are required to obtain licenses and, according to the U.S. State Department, the Jordanian government influences the appointment of editors-in-chief at some major publications. Often even independent journalists in the Levant are subject to intimidation, detention, and physical threats by the governments—thus making self-censorship ever more prevalent.
Confronted with a clear need for an independent credible regional news network, Raed is implementing institutional safeguards through his Ma’an Network to ensure that the network can and will honestly and transparently inform the public on the government’s activities. By keeping its roots grounded in society, through creating an independent board of directors, and filing as a citizen organization (CO), the network eschews all influence and funding from governments, political parties, and powerful individual investors. Ma’an has already spawned smaller-scale imitators such as Jordanian news agency Al-Amoun.
The use of media as a tool for peacebuilding and democratic consolidation is well established by such international media players as UNESCO, BBC World Service Trust, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. However, the development actions of international organizations have tended to focus on the prevention of conflict, and media frameworks that support the basic characteristics of a free media environment: Independence, pluralism, and journalists’ safety. Raed’s idea will instead use targeted media strategies to reach concrete social goals, particularly improving government accountability to the people, exposing gender inequalities, and human rights abuses.
Raed’s strategy is three-pronged: He has localized the ownership of news by partnering with and supporting small independent news sources, he has centered his coverage around specific topics he wants to change, such as gender inequality, and he uses his organization as a model for transparency and increased accountability, for example, by publically publishing his budget and internal assessment reports.
In 2004 Raed registered Ma’an Network as a non-profit association with the Palestinian Ministry of Interior. In 2006, eight local Palestinian radio stations joined the network, making Ma’an a significant presence across the regional media spectrum. In 2009 the in-house Research Unit was founded at Ma’an headquarters to strengthen the input of impact assessment into all programs and activities. Ma’an Network is now a network of 18 local television stations in towns and cities across the West Bank. Ma’an News Agency, the largest initiative within the Ma’an Network, is the first trilingual (English, Arabic and Hebrew) independent online Palestinian news agency. Founded in 2005, it is the leading source of online news in Palestine, and a major resource for international journalists, academics, and diplomats. In 2010 Ma’an finalized a broadcast partnership with Haifa-based satellite channels Mix TV, in addition to the current Ma’an programming broadcast on satellite channels ON TV (Egypt) and Palestine TV. This brought Ma’an’s public interest programming to the vast Arabic speaking satellite TV audiences in Palestine and throughout the region.
To work more effectively toward good governance in Palestine, in 2008 Ma’an initiated a three-year project funded by the U.K. Department for International Development to strengthen independent secular media’s role as a catalyst for governmental accountability and responsiveness in Palestine. With this support, Ma’an is building investigative and participatory journalism, television, radio, and online reporting as the pillars of a new media sector that increases public access to information, institutionalizes dialogue between Palestinian citizens and decision makers, and gives a voice to marginalised groups.
Human rights have been a key topic for Ma’an Network’s programs. Currently Ma’an produces a weekly show discussing the death penalty, called “The Right to Life” (Alhak Fel-hayat) and a call-in radio program, “Police at your service” (Ashorta fi khedmatek) which scrutinizes the conduct of the police in relation to citizens. In 2011 Ma’an commenced a project to mobilize media to empower citizens and civil society for human rights, democratic reform, and intra-Palestinian reconciliation. With support from the European Union, Palestinian journalist’s trained in human rights reporting, with blogs, feature stories, a radio quiz show, and televised town-hall style meetings broadcasted to increase citizen access to information and engagement in human rights.
Ma’an Network has also undertaken various steps to address gender concerns in its own workplace, including recruiting a special consultant to conduct a gender audit of Ma’an’s programming and promoting equal opportunities within the organization. Additionally, Ma’an programs regularly address gender issues, such as the weekly radio talk show “Listen to Us” (Isma’ouna) focusing on women’s rights, and daily lifestyle TV show “Our coffee” (Qahwetna) with a focus on family, women, and youth. In addition, Ma’an News Agency’s coverage of gender issues in Palestine has filled large gaps in public discourse, specifically through highlighting honor killings and the inappropriate laws that fail to address them.
In Palestine, Ma’an News Agency is the most visited website after Google, Windows Live, YouTube and Facebook. With readers in over 170 countries, Ma’an News Agency receives 4 to 4.5 million visits per month and 11 to 12 million pages viewed per month (Google Analytics). With these ratings and this level of outreach, Ma’an News Agency has become the market leader for independent news reporting in Palestine.
Over the next four years (2012 to 2016) Raed plans to build the capacity and training of civil society groups to effectively communicate with the marginalized and vulnerable groups in their communities (their target audiences). Furthermore, Ma’an plans to strengthen the responsiveness of Palestinian public authorities to the media. This will be done through trainings and joint sessions among Ma’an’s communication department and relevant public authorities. Raed will continue to invest in impact-rich media skills and tools by establishing a documentary unit, an investigative reporting unit, and a program that will train in directing, script-writing, and sound and lighting often used by news organizations.
Already working with partners in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, Raed plans to scale his model by partnering with civil society groups and growing his presence in Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel by doubling his current number of partnerships in these countries. Raed intends that these partnerships will no longer be exclusive to simple media organizations; rather they will also include leading organizations working on human rights, gender, and education.
While attending high school in Bethlehem, the first resistance in Palestine dramatically affected Raed’s vision about how to achieve peace in his country. Watching conflict erupt around him, Raed realized that the only way to foster a sustainable resolution is by informing the public about mutual non-violence.
An early entrepreneur, he graduated at the top of his class in both elementary and secondary school and was heavily involved in the Student Council while he was at university. To pay his university tuition, Raed used a small studio to produce wedding films and photography, in addition to selling crayons and eye shadow on the street. He also became involved in marketing the family business, Natco, which grew to become one of the biggest distributors of medicine in Palestine.
Inspired by the power of media, Raed worked for local TV stations in Bethlehem after he graduated. He realized that media offered a real opportunity to challenge the power of authorities, and expose significant sociopolitical problems to the general public. However, with the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Raed witnessed how media can also be exploited by irresponsible, unprofessional reporting. Many of the media professionals who controlled the networks were in fact politicians.
Raed decided to pursue his idea to create an independent media network in Palestine. He had previously conducted visits abroad and studied how other media models in different countries successfully brought change to their societies. Raed realized that respect for ethical integrity, credible reporting, and evidence-based reporting is the best means to influence, and ultimately challenge, existing sociopolitical injustices.