Al-Akhbar newspaper: the voice of the community or the editor?

Elie Georges
May 8, 2017 · 6 min read

Burbank–CA

Burbank city has an unofficial vista locally called by its residents as the “Belair view.” This spot, known for its gorgeous sunsets, sits on a hill, overlooking the eastern side of the San Fernando Valley. The Belair View is a meeting place for the young, a hiking destination for the neighbors, and a great place to watch the 4th of July fireworks– it also happens to be Nadia Massoudi’s place to seek some peace from her daily routine.

Massoudi, 38, is a Syrian American housewife who has been living in the United States for about 20 years. She fell in love with her husband- who has lived most of his life in the US- when she was 18, and got married in her native Syria. After coming to the US, the Massoudis settled in their home, a couple hundred feet away from the Belair View.

At the time of the interview, Massoudi was reluctant to the refugee situation of her fellow Syrians. It was January, and President Trump had just signed the first version of the Travel Ban, an executive order that forbid immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries entry to the United States; including Massoudi’s family.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening. My family had just gotten their papers finalized, their flights were booked, and I was excited to welcome them in my home. Then I wake up one day, and as I was having my morning coffee, I saw the news on AlArabiya TV. I felt like the whole world became dark,” Masoudi recalled.

For Syrian Americans, the consensus was against the Travel Ban. Whether they are Christian or Muslim, they felt the ban was unfair. Although places of worship maintain their identities, Syrian Americans view them as places for connecting with the community rather than organized religion. The LA/OC-area Syrian Americans are mainly concentrated in Burbank, Anaheim, and Glendora, with one publication that claims dominance of presence, Al-Akhbar.

“We suffered a lot because of no internet. I would get faxes from my sources about news. Now we just send a PDF file to the print shop and they print the newspaper,” said Samer Saba, editor in chief of Al-Akhbar.

When Saba first started Al-Akhbar in 1995, his goal was to provide quality journalism to the community. He had witnessed how other Arabic publications relied on advertisements for content. Hence, Saba opened Al-Akhbar to report on the Arab American community for immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. The paper reaches about 40,000 readers with the majority in Southern California (70 percent) and the rest in Northern California, Nevada, Arizona, and Virginia, according to Saba.

Al-Akhbar contains reports on the Arab community’s major events in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas; however, it provides a plethora of opinion pieces on news such as world and US politics.

“I’ve seen Al-Akhbar at church [St. Ephraim Syriac Orthodox Church in Burbank] by the announcements board. I do not read it because we get our news about Syria from TV and the community news we just hear about them at church,” said Massoudi.

For many Syrian Americans, social media is not only the major platforms Facbook, Twitter, and Instagram. These immigrants use the app WhatsApp to connect with their families and friends outside of the US, in addition to receiving news, videos, and updates about their hometowns.

“I skip the news and opinion sections when I get my hands on Al-Akhbar, I just go directly to the Syrian drama and arts news. I like to know which Syrian celebrities are in LA and what they do,” said Zeina Elias, a recent Syrian Immigrant.

Elias has a been living in the US for over five years. She is a manager at a Golden Farms supermarket in Glendale, where the majority of customers are those immigrants and descendant of Armenian, Persian and other Middle Eastern groups. Al-Akhbar reaches the supermarket, and Elias reads it on her lunch break.

Besides its focus on the Syrian community, a reader can find opinion pieces about issues relevant to other Arabic-speaking communities on Al-Akhbar. This is when the question of whether this publication is an immigrant or an ethnic medium.

The Syrian community is dominated by Arabs, but there are many other ethnicities in Syria. Arameans (Syriacs, Assyrians, and Chaldeans), Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians, and Yazidis are the other ethnic groups of Syria along with Arabs. However, for Saba, he is a firm believer of Pan-Arabism, an ideology that constructs the building block of Bashar Al-Assad’s political party Al-Ba’ath.

“We are all Arabs, so I want to keep that in my newspaper,” said Saba.

Al-Akhbar’s reporting and opinion pieces on the Syrian Civil War is clearly in favor of the Syrian regime. In the April 12 edition of Al-Akhbar– amid the April 4 Sarin gas raid by the Syrian regime on Khan Shaykhun– Saba denied the chemical weapons attack ever happened and then claimed that the intention was for Trump to bomb Syria.

“I do not read the news, they are not real news. It is just his [Saba’s] opinions. He [Saba] is brainwashed by the {Syrian] regime,” said Elias.

Al-Akhbar is the only Arabic active print newspaper in Southern California, yet it dominated by its Editor-In-Chief’s political views. In fact, Saba said on his interview that he does not have staff for the paper; only a part-time secretary who does office work. Bylines other than Saba’s are contributed by those whose political views align with Saba’s.

In the March 1 edition of Al-Akhbar, Dr. Marian Tadrous, an Egyptian media professional, contributed an article titled “Is America A Country of Immigrants or Refugees?,” in a conservative tone that projects her preference for keeping refugees out of the US. In the article, Tadrous installed stereotypes on refugees by referring to them as lazy, uneducated, and hard to adapt in their new communities.

When asked if he ever received any threats, Saba confirmed.

“I got threats from those against Assad. They think I’m with Assad but I am with Syria, and Assad is our president. Before the Syrian conflict I used to write about the corrupt Syrian government in Al-Akhbar; but now after seeing ISIS and terrorism, I am with Assad, ” said Saba when asked if Al-Akhbar’s content is in favor of the Syrian regime.

Nevertheless, a rare journalistic-quality articles can be found on Al-Akhbar such as the opinion piece by President of the Arabs American Institute James Zogby titled “The Trump Divide” in the April 12 issue. The article provides information and insight from the Arab American communities’ fears of Trump’s policies.

Samer Saba holds a Bachelor’s Degree of Arts in Architecture from Damascus University. He immigrated to the United States in 1987 and opened Al-Akhbar in 1995.

Al-Akhbar has a Facebook page that posts links to the HTMl version of the paper frequently, along with advertisements. The page amassed 1725 likes as of May 2017.

“This [Al-Akhbar] comes from my nationalism. I do this because I love my country, and nobody is paying me from Assad or the regime,” said Saba.

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