YouTube offers Arab writers a censorship-free platform, wide audience

“On my channel, I have the freedom to choose the topic and the freedom to speak as well as the space I deem appropriate,” says widely-followed writer Abdel Bari Atwan.

Wednesday 23/09/2020
People are silhouetted as they use mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Youtube logo. (REUTERS)
People are silhouetted as they use mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Youtube logo. (REUTERS)

LONDON - YouTube channels have become host to Arab writers and journalists looking for an independent platform that reaches a large-audience base without intermediaries or censorship, and away from the trends of traditional media platforms that are affiliated with particular political currents and where some writers refuse to appear or publish their work.

Through YouTube, journalists have been able to overcome barriers imposed by many countries on traditional platforms. They have creased their own channels that allow them to produce high quality journalism which cannot be produced on regular channels. Good content on YouTube imposes itself. It is in fact the only criterion that draws audiences, which in turn are interested in independent media instead of agenda-driven journalism outlets.

“The Arab reader is very intelligent and cultured, has awareness and can identify the editorial policy of any media platform, its political agenda and its affiliation, through what it presents; and it is difficult to deceive him,” said journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of Rai Al-Youm.

Abdel Bari Atwan – YouTube channel
Abdel Bari Atwan – YouTube channel

YouTube channels offer many advantages for journalists in addition to their broad reach. Videos on Abdel Bari Atwan’s channel, through which he comments on the latest Arab and international political developments, can reach up to 2 million views depending on their topic and duration.

Atwan told The Arab Weekly: “The main characteristic of these channels is that they do not lie, as the viewership statistics are verifiable, unlike those of satellite TV channels. They reach the audiences directly without an intermediary or censor who deletes what does not fit his political line. One of the reasons that prompted me to choose YouTube is that some satellite channels have imposed a ban on my views, and there are other Arab channels where I do not want to appear nor do I want to submit to their political agendas. On my channel, I have the freedom to choose the topic and the freedom to speak as well as the space I deem appropriate.”

He noted the existence of Saudi, Emirati and Qatari media empires that allocate millions of dollars to trying to dominate the scene. Viewership statistics on YouTube channels do not include videos or clips that users circulate on their personal pages, as well as Arab media that publish excerpts of the videos on TV channels or social media accounts, which means a much wider audience for the creator.

The primary goal for many writers is to reach Arab audiences anywhere, regardless of some of the financial returns that are lost due to the videos being shared through users’ personal social media pages.

One of the main reasons journalists turn to YouTube is that the basic rules on this platform are the same for all authors and visual content creators everywhere in the world. It also gives journalists an opportunity to make good money from popular videos that are widely viewed.

Some argue that there is no competition between the written article and a video essay, but rather an evolution with the spirit of the times, as both are important to readers. A segment of readers still prefers written articles while others are interested in both types.

Abdul Razzaq Al-Rubaie, an Omani poet and journalist of Iraqi origin, says, “We are all living today in a phase of transformation accelerated by the pandemic, especially since the world is moving today to the visual and audio modes through social media, and within this transitional phase, I have resorted to the audiovisual medium in order to keep pace with the times. Note that I am still working in both modes. Writing is indispensable because I am primarily a writer, and I deal with the written text.”

Al-Rubaie presents the “Open Book” programme that draws a large audience. He believes that “new media have a larger exposure than traditional media, and the writer must keep pace with the age.”

Observers see that video articles, which are attracting growing audiences, confirm the public’s appetite for independent media, despite difficulties because of lack of funding. But the continuity of these media outlets depends on the confidence and loyalty of the public.

Atwan is optimistic about independent press in the Arab world. For him, the large number of channels and platforms affiliated with political parties is not a bad thing.

He explained, “I published in many Western newspapers, and dealt with international media such as the BBC, CNN,  France Presse and even channels in Asia; and I felt the level of awareness and culture of the Arab reader who is looking for an independent platform that helps him express himself and not for agendas that are imposed on him.”

“We depend on loyal readers, 80% of our readers are permanent,” he said. “Today’s new generation in particular is very educated and has a wide knowledge of technologies and technical know-how, and 80% of our readers follow us on smartphones.”

He pointed out that “premium content imposes its presence and success, and because of the newspapers’ large readership on the internet, we were able to rely on advertising revenues to maintain our presence and continue, since digital advertising is determined by the number of visitors.”

A  webcam is positioned in front of YouTube’s logo. (AFP)
A webcam is positioned in front of YouTube’s logo. (AFP)

Despite the media crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, quarantine measures have increased the number of followers and visits to internet sites, thus increasing advertising revenue.

Atwan says he is too busy to voice-record articles that he has written and which have drawn the attention of Arab readers, in order to put them on podcasts, especially as he maintains a weekly appearance on YouTube to discuss developments in the Arab political scene. But in the event of exceptional events, such as the recent Arab peace agreements with Israel, he does not mind breaking the rule.