Guest Post: Jackie Spinner Reflects on Efforts to Launch Independent Student Newspaper in Oman

Former Washington Post staff writer Jackie Spinner has become a force within student journalism circles in the Middle East.  Over the past two years, she has helped launch pioneering independent student newspapers in both Iraq and Oman.

Her most recent efforts in the Oman capital city of Muscat centered on Al Mir’ah. The student news outlet recently premiered at Sultan Qaboos University, where Spinner also taught digital journalism as a Fulbright Scholar.  In the fall, she begins work as an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.

Jackie Spinner, teacher, adviser, Fulbright scholar and journalist extraordinaire

Below is a piece by Spinner reflecting on Al Mir’ah and the Omani media culture it operates within.  Enjoy.

By Jackie Spinner

MUSCAT, Oman— Within hours after the new student newspaper at Oman’s flagship public university went live, the new editor-in-chief frantically called me. A bus had crashed carrying students from the College of Agriculture and Marine Science. Three students and a technician from Sultan Qaboos University had been killed.

Abdulrahman Elhadi, a journalism student from Libya, wanted to break the story on the newspaper’s website but had no idea how to report or write about the crash. Would I take a look at what he had cobbled together, Elhadi wanted to know. How fast could I get edited and back to him?

A screenshot of the top portion of the Al Mir’ah homepage in late April.

I immediately logged on to my computer to read the draft. He had reached one witness, and although the story had spelling and punctuation errors and was poorly organized, the basics of a news story were there, in a run-on paragraph, asking for Allah’s blessings for the departed at the end.

His enthusiasm to break news that he had verified with reporting, with facts was exactly why I had started this student newspaper in Oman as part of my Fulbright. My students were studying journalism in a country that too often relied on rumor and second-hand information sent by text message or shared in passing.

When I had first arrived at SQU in October, students told me about another bus accident that had killed 12 girls. No, seven. Actually it was 15. No, it was 20. No, someone else insisted. Only four died. How can you not know the number, I implored my students. And then I’d go on to describe how we’d often arrive at a body count when covering a suicide bombing in Iraq, where I had been a reporter for the Washington Post in 2004 and 2005. “You check with the U.S. military because they often send soldiers to secure the scene,” I explained. “And then you call the health ministry in Baghdad because they coordinate with the hospitals. Of course you talk to witnesses, but they’re often emotional and not always objective. You can go to the hospitals yourselves, although if it’s a large bombing, you may have to go to four or five, and the streets might be barricaded. But if you really want to know, you go to the morgue and you count the bodies.”

Few reporters metaphorically count the bodies in Oman. They too often rely on press releases, official statements, anonymous sources. Witnesses, if they have them, are rarely identified, making the credibility of the report suspect. During a riot in the northern Omani port city of Sohar on Feb. 27, where I had gone to report and take pictures, I was the only reporter in the street, cowering behind a bush, choking on tear gas but trying desperately to remain an observer, a reliable source, a witness. “That how I know what happened,” I told my graduate students in class that night after I had returned to Muscat. “You have to go to the story. You have to see for yourselves. You have to count the bodies.”

SQU was the first university in Oman when it opened in 1986. Since then it has grown to a thriving institution of 12,000 students. And yet it never has had a student newspaper. When I initially asked my students to help start one, they were reluctant. They weren’t interested for many of the same reasons they aren’t eager to go into the field of journalism after they graduate.

They sense that the government will control what they write, which has been partially true. Oman’s Ministry of Information certainly influences what issues are covered in Oman, although the press has exploded with “real news” since civil unrest broke out in the sultanate this spring. It wasn’t until the students started to write about topics they chose for a newspaper that they had named, with editors whom they had selected that they realized I meant what I had promised. I was setting up a student newspaper with no prior review from the administration, with no censorship.

Although it would be officially based in the school’s mass communication department, Al Mir’ah, which means “mirror” in Arabic, would be editorially independent. As long as student followed the policies I had established for ensuring accuracy and credibility, as long as they followed a basic code of ethics and promised to be fair, they could write whatever they wanted. And they have. The lead story in the first issue, which is published weekly on-line, was about student protests at SQU.

The newspaper’s launch on April 16 was months behind schedule and yet paradoxically right on time. In the old Oman, in the Oman before Arab Spring, in the Oman before the press spoke of anything out of the ordinary because every day in Oman was supposed to be ordinary, this venture might not have succeeded. But after the people of Oman rose up to ask for jobs, for political reform, for rights denied to Omani women with children born to foreign husbands, the new Oman emerged, an Oman with a vibrant press.

In the new Oman, Al Mir’ah was able to set sail with news by students and for students at SQU, Al Mir’ah‘s motto. I had started a similar student newspaper last year at The American University of Iraq—Sulaimani. Like Al Mir’ah, the AUI-S Voice was Iraq’s first independent student newspaper. And yet the experiences in establishing the two newspapers were quite different. It was one thing to start a newspaper at a university where the concepts of an independent student press were not unique to my American administrators.

My colleagues in Oman were supportive, and no one stood in my way, but the newspaper wasn’t a priority. It was baffling to me, a product of American journalism schools, that you would teach students about journalism and not offer them a way to practice it. Most of the journalism classes at SQU are in Arabic, and students don’t get practical training, even in the classroom, until their last year in school. And yet, in the end, Al Mir’ah, which is published in both Arabic and English, came into being. The people responsible for that happening are seven students who walked into my office and accepted the challenge to be founders of a unique media project in Oman, a newspaper that aims to deliver accountability and the truth without interference from the authorities.

As Abdulrahman told me, “I think it will require a lot of work in order to get out there and earn readers and followers and actually reflect student opinions and voices. But we’re young, we’re excited and we’ve already got the ball rolling.”

Comments
2 Responses to “Guest Post: Jackie Spinner Reflects on Efforts to Launch Independent Student Newspaper in Oman”
  1. joey vaz says:

    the omani way of life can be surprising to us folks,and for jackie to incorporate real journalistic education in thier system is marvelous.I have lived there one year and let me say that its quite a feat..

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