Newsweek Middle East aims to be the insiders’ voice

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It’s been just five months since Newsweek’s Middle East edition launched, but Deputy Editor Habiba Hamid can already reel off a list of favorite features. From a profile of the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood to a look at religious influences in Jordan’s school curriculum, the newsroom, as she says, is “pulling no punches.” Some 40 writers who are new to Newsweek have been featured in the first 21 issues, or about two to three a week. Most come from the countries they’re reporting on, and are based in the region.

All that momentum makes Newsweek Middle East stand out in a part of the world where the press has lately been in retreat. Syria, Yemen, and parts of Iraq are off limits to most major news organizations, and local reporters live under constant threat. In Egypt, reporters face sharp penalties for running afoul of the government line. Newspapers in Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, and elsewhere have been shut down—temporarily or permanently—over controversial coverage.

Those challenges, however, are exactly why the opportunity was ripe for good local journalism, Hamid says. Newsweek Middle East is the flagship publication’s eighth regional edition (others include Latin America, Japan, and the United Kingdom) and part of its relaunch into print after going digital-only from 2012 to 2014. With a Dubai-based editorial team, the magazine has ambitions to be the voice of a region whose stories increasingly resonate around the globe, but are often told by outsiders. Hamid spoke to CJR about what’s next. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why launch Newsweek Middle East now? What are you hoping the magazine will bring to the table?

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We’re the only internationally branded magazine with an editorial team based in the region that does strictly news. There have been cutbacks elsewhere, and a lot of the other outlets are fantastic, but there’s also been a tightening of the space in terms of what they are able to say given their affiliations. That creates an opportunity for us to do reporting that is independent of any government—reporting that is non-partisan, in-depth, and investigative.

What differentiates us has mainly to do with angles. The Middle East is usually covered by reporters who fly in and out, using fixers to operate wherever they go. They cover the region with a very Western perspective, and often [miss] out on the local nuance that those who are invested in the region can offer. That’s our key value added: to bring out local journalists, analysts, and reporters, and to tell the story from the angles that speak to the concerns of people living here. We’re also the only international magazine with a locally-based editorial team, so that’s a very key thing. Often, the editorial decisions are made from abroad and don’t necessarily reflect the interests and aspirations of people on the ground.

Because the Fourth Estate is under so much duress throughout the region, there’s also an obligation for us to step in and do what we can. In the absence of something like a freedom of information act in the Middle East, we can’t hold governments to account by other means. There are no ombudsmen, no detailed reports or data being released by governments—or they are very difficult to get a hold of. Given this, the role of the media in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia is even more important. It’s a very lofty aspiration, but in the last few months we were able to publish more strident pieces on Egypt, for example, than other publications in the Gulf had been able to. They seem like small wins, but I think over time it can free up space for other magazines to say something as well.

You alluded to the differences in perspective between a Western reporter and someone from the Middle East or based here permanently. How might those differences change the way a story is told?

One key difference is that, as much as possible, we don’t rely on fixers. Instead, the journalists are based in the countries they are working on, or immersed in the politics there, or they are a thought leader who is very invested in the subject.

We did two cover stories on Saudi Arabia with reporters on the ground. Saudi is somewhere that is covered extensively from outside, by people who don’t necessarily live there and understand the nuances of life. We are including numerous perspectives, and we have quite a variety of views on the editorial side. Hopefully, that’s reflected in the work as well. We’ve had pro-Gulf guys, atheists, contributors across the sectarian and partisan divides. Some of the leading writers on Shia thought have been able to publish with us, for example. We had Gideon Levy, the Israeli writer, published from [our base here in the UAE], so that is fantastic. And remember we are also focusing on South Asia. Because there’s a significant expatriate population from [countries such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, those countries] are of great interest to the communities here.

Tell us about how your coverage breaks down. What areas and types of stories are you hoping to focus on?

Half of the content comes from the US publication, and we curate that and tailor it to the region. The other half we are commissioning directly from here. That mix varies week to week. The first section of the magazine is the most current, so usually one or two thousand words on hot button issues. Then we have features and longform that take a deep dive into issues that are of interest to the region. There are four or five issues that the region is facing right now that we won’t shy away from, including the economy, the Syria issue, and Yemen.

I am working to develop sections for the back of the book on science, arts, and book reviews. It’s very easy to just focus on politics, but we need to broaden and focus on human interest, with politics acting almost as the backdrop. It’s about tackling difficult subjects and telling them in a sensitive way that reflects as accurately as possible the reality.

Other regional publications have had difficulty in the past writing on politically sensitive subjects. How do you plan to navigate red lines, if and when you run across them?

Redlines are almost cyclical. Before the Arab revolutions, it was not exactly a heyday, but publications were much more open in terms of editorial restrictions. When I worked at [UAE-based newspaper] The National, we were publishing content that was quite strident. Now, for a multitude of reasons, often self-censorship, publications in the region are not getting the full range of opinions across. But we’re consistent and very clear about wanting to take on issues. Plus, the big stories aren’t really things that we need to censor ourselves on. We’re based in the UAE, but we don’t necessarily want to be UAE-centric, because there’s not that many stories coming out [the UAE]. It’s more Libya, Yemen, the refugee issue, the economy.

There has only been one case in which we wanted to check on legality, when Gideon Levy published with us. He’s a prominent Israeli writer and in doing our diligence, we were ensuring that it would be legally proper to run Israeli writers, given that Israel and the UAE do not have full diplomatic relations. There was absolutely no problem. We haven’t faced any criticism or concerns yet, but we haven’t published pieces that would give the UAE cause for concern.

We’ve published a number of interesting pieces on Bangladesh on some shocking issues which haven’t received coverage in the wider region. We just had a piece on Iraq that took a closer look at the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], which was very strident. If one publication moves forward and says we’re not afraid, it can make progress. Right now, it’s sort of like “You first. No, you first.” I’m talking to editors in the region, and I know they can’t publish pieces that are as strident for example on Egypt, so in that sense we’re very fortunate that we can do so without worrying.

Dubai-based Pakistani medial mogul Mohammad Salman Iqbal owns Newsweek Middle East via ARY, his media company, which runs the world’s most-watched Urdu-language television network. Many publications are limited in their coverage by the views of their ownership. What influence does Iqbal have on Newsweek Middle East’s content?

The only thing he gets involved with at all is the look of the cover images. We’re lucky that he’s given us free rein to learn and grow and adapt to this market. It’s just down to the editorial team and learning one another’s rhythms of working. We’re all new to each other. We still need to make a couple of hires; so we have about 80 percent of our foundational structure in place, and the rest we need to work on.

One great thing about the brand is that it opens doors and lends credibility to what we are doing. And we then have a responsibility to make sure we do raise the bar and bring something to the table—to give a voice to people who maybe can’t get their foot in the door, or can’t make headway with international magazines. We’re very open to publishing people who have been either marginalized or whose voices haven’t yet received that much prominence. We keep our ear to the ground in terms of what people are saying about themselves in the region.

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Elizabeth Dickinson is a Deca journalist based in the Arabian Peninsula. Follow her on Twitter @dickinsonbeth.