Dutch pull the plug on website

strange announcement has appeared on the Beirut-based Menassat website under the by-line “Robin Hood of Arabia”. It seems that all nine editorial staff were sacked at less than 24 hours’ notice, pending the site’s closure.

Menassat was set up to promote free speech and improve the quality of journalism in the Arab countries – and in some ways it has been quite innovative, reporting at length on stories that got little coverage elsewhere.

It has been funded indirectly by the Dutch government via Free Voice, an advocacy group which organises “professional training sessions for Arab journalists, as well as activities aimed at improving the legal protection of journalists and the promotion of press freedom in general”. 

The Beiruter blog suggests political pressure lies behind the withdrawal of funding. In July, Menassat carried an article that was highly critical of the UN’s latest Arab Human Development Report and ended up saying that the two main threats to security in the region were public debt and “Israeli aggressions”.

A few days later, this was attacked by an editorial in the Jerusalem Post which said: “Thank you, taxpayers of The Netherlands. Your money is being used to perpetuate Israel as the opium of the Arabs.” The writer of the original Menassat article then 
hit back under the headline: “Mind your own occupation – I'll mind my own development”.

Possibly this was a factor, but I doubt it was the main reason for pulling the plug. Menassat’s continued funding had been in jeopardy for some time, and according to al-Akhbar (in Arabic) there was a problem last May over payment of wages. Anyone who can cast further light on the closure, please send me anemail.

The “About Us” section on Menassat’s website says its primary goal is “to expose the problems and challenges that journalists in the Arabic-speaking world face on a daily basis, and to help overcome them”. Through its own example it has certainly done the former, if not the latter. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 September 2009.