Fez, Asharq Al-Awsat- Samir Aita is an economist and editor-in-chief of the Arabic edition of “Le Monde Diplomatique”. He also runs the consultancy company Mafhoum [Concept], founded in 2005, which has so far provided financial expertise for international organizations, Arab governments and industrial firms. In 2009, he became head of the “Cercle des Economistes Arabes”, a French think tank specializing in the economic and financial issues facing Arab states.
“Le Monde Diplomatique” is a monthly current affairs newspaper based in France. It was founded in 1954 and has maintained a predominantly left-wing stance. As of 2012, the newspaper boasts 51 international editions in 30 languages. The Arabic edition is published in coordination with local newspapers in the Middle East, and enjoys a circulation of 160,000 in Saudi Arabia alone.
Asharq al-Awsat met with Samir Aita in the Moroccan city of Fez, on the sidelines of the eighth session of the International Fez Forum on Youth and the Challenges of Globalization. During the interview, Aita gave his assessment of the state of the media industry in the 21st century, and the printed press in particular. He touched upon technological advances and the impact of the internet, with reference to the Arab world. He also elaborated on the relationship between politics, finance and the media, and the dangers of such a relationship.
The following is the text from the interview:
[Asharq al-Awsat] Let us begin by asking how do you envisage the future of print media?
[Aita] Before talking about the subject of media development, there is a fundamental point I would like to make. The media is a strange profession, and its strangeness stems from the fact that it sells what it does not produce. It sells advertising while producing articles, investigations, reports and news. The media profession is not like any ordinary industry that sells what it produces. It is a profession that produces media material, and on account of this material, it sells advertisements. This is a strange affair because whoever controls the advertisement flow can, in one way or another, control the output of media material.
[Asharq al-Awsat] How?
[Aita] The media’s problem lies in its funding. Where does it come from and why? Funding raises another question relating to the objectivity of media outlets, if we assume that their role is to convey information to the people. Up until the recent past, governments monopolized this medium to only convey their point of view. Today, giant companies and corporations have become the monopoly, and the News International is a glaring example. The link between the means, the state and capital has developed alongside economic growth and technological advancement.
This situation is completely different from the very beginning, even in the Arab world. At the start of the 20th century, there were around 100 newspapers published in Damascus alone. However, in the age of authoritarianism and state capitalism, only three state-owned papers remained. The situation is not much better in Arab countries dominated by capitalist monopolies, where only a handful of newspapers operate.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Does this mean that tyranny has created the conditions for the current Arab Spring passing through Syria?
[Aita] Generally speaking, we should regard the Syrian spring – with its own characteristics – as the crossroads of the Arab Spring.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Why is that?
[Aita] If the Syrian spring succeeds in instilling humanistic values, the Syrians will be able to build a state of citizenship for all; a state of freedoms, justice and dignity for everyone, including the freedom of thought and belief. However, if the Syrian spring fails, autumn shall prevail over the entire region.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Let us return to media outlets in the Arab world…what is your opinion on the current state of affairs?
[Aita] In some Arab countries, there are a greater number of newspapers, but they all belong to giant financial groups and are directly financed by them. This is because the economic model of these papers does not allow them to cover their costs. The source of such funding then determines the orientation of these media outlets and their approach. This does not only apply to newspapers, but also to radio stations and television channels – especially satellite channels, as well as the internet. The advancement of communication and information technology has opened the door for unprecedented interaction and has created fierce competition among different media outlets. Nevertheless, all this has increased the importance of the monopolies. This is very clear where the internet is concerned. Today the internet is controlled by giant companies like “Google” and “Facebook”. These entities, just like many others, sell what they do not produce, i.e. they sell advertisements.
Technological advancements have also created new phenomena that did not exist before. Take for example the phenomenon of satellite television channels in Arab countries. Many channels have now been established, and cannot be stopped. These channels have improved levels of interaction among the Arab people, and have broadened cultural horizons, but they are certainly not ordinary companies. This is because they are either funded by states like Qatar and France, as we see in the examples of “Al-Jazeera” and “France 24”, or by giant financial corporations. Thus, these channels serve those who fund them, and to be more precise, they serve their political aims. A real problem arises when you discover that the sponsors of such channels are not very democratic themselves, especially when their media outlets talk about the propagation of democracy.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Can you explain the impact that the internet has had on the printed press?
[Aita] When the internet first began to spread, the printed press faced a real problem with regards to its economic model. Newspapers were already complaining about low revenues because over two-thirds of the retail price was offset by distribution costs and raw paper purchasing. Hence, the profit generated from sales was extremely modest, and maybe even close to a loss if unsold returned issues were large in number. The prestigious and long-standing Lebanese press experienced this predicament in a cruel way. Now, the most celebrated of all Lebanese newspapers does not circulate more than 10,000 copies, and by only selling this quantity it is impossible to talk about an economic model for the paper.
With the advent of the internet, the owners of such newspapers were initially hesitant to post their content for free online. But what happened in the end is that the circulation of those newspapers via the internet brought them greater notoriety and even boosted the print edition’s circulation a little, as well as advertisement revenues. This does not mean that the print edition became economically worthwhile; on the contrary the cost price increased. However, the newly earned fame attracted the interest of the state and financial corporations, which then exploited this to serve their own aims.
Despite this, we must remember that a certain type of specialized printed press still enjoys tangible economic revenues. An example of this would be specialized magazines circulating by way of subscription, like some economic, technological or scientific periodicals. Skilled professionals often desire these periodicals and subscribe to them. In most cases, the publications are expensive yet necessary.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Are there any other types of the printed press that weren’t affected by the internet boom?
[Aita] Indeed, other types of printed publications still sell well, like “Paris Match” in France, “The Sun” in Britain, or some magazines that cover social events and celebrities. This is because many people live vicariously through these magazines, something that the internet cannot substitute for. And generally speaking, there is a difference between what is posted on the internet and what is published in the printed press. For example, when a piece of news is reported on “Facebook”, “Twitter” or “YouTube”, often no one takes responsibility for its credibility. It might not even be correct in the first place. On the contrary, news published in the printed press is subject to professional rules, ethics and legal regulations.
[Asharq al-Awsat] How do you perceive the relationship between money, politics and the media?
[Aita] There is a strong relationship between the three. It is a relation of influence; the controller and the controlled, whether this concerns the printed press or television channels. In some Scandinavian countries, and even in Germany, the law forbids economic groups controlling the press and media outlets. In return, the state partly funds these media outlets and earmarks a specific budget for them to ensure a diverse market. This encourages the emergence of small newspapers that are not widely circulated. If the country in question is a democratic one, we can consider support given to media outlets by the state – on a fair basis – to be a method of liberating those outlets from the hegemony of politicians, businessmen and lobbyist temptations. But generally speaking, and since the prevalent thought today suggests that the market regulates itself, no one really tries to underscore the necessity of codifying the relation between money, politics and media outlets, especially in Arab countries. Such an idea would be hard to implement due to the expansion of media outlets beyond national boundaries.
[Asharq al-Awsat] What is the current status of the monthly “Le Monde Diplomatique” [Arabic version] with you as editor-in-chief?
[Aita] The Arabic edition of “Le Monde Diplomatique” is a small in terms of financial revenues, but its impact is huge. This Arabic edition was established on an economic model which addresses the difficulties of publishing newspapers in Arab countries, and tries to maintain independence. This economic model benefits from the existence of 22 Arab countries, instead of having such a large number stand as an obstacle in the way of newspaper circulation. In each Arab country, we agree with a local newspaper to circulate “Le Monde Diplomatique” as a supplement. This way the local paper makes more profit because what it pays to “Le Monde Diplomatique” is far less in cost than buying a large batch of syndicated articles from independent writers or other national and international newspapers. So both parties win here, the local paper in the Arab country and “Le Monde Diplomatique” too, with regards to the number of countries in which it is circulated. Consequently, the distribution of the Arabic edition of “Le Monde Diplomatique” across the Arab world has exceeded 800,000 copies, that is, more than the French edition of the paper. But “Le Monde Diplomatique” remains an exceptional case in the media realm, because the Arabic edition of the paper does sell what it actually produces, i.e. its own articles.