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  30 January 2009
Elaph: the Number Online Newspaper in the Arab World, launched in May 2001 by Saudi journalist and businessman Osman el-Omeir, is the most widely read news website in the Arab world not associated with any established print or broadcast medium. In an interview with the APN, Elie Hajj, one of Elaph's senior Lebanon correspondents, noted, "Elaph is not afraid to take risks in putting out its news stories. Because it is based in London, it does not face the same censorship as other media in the Arab world, and is even banned in certain countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Syria."

By Patrica Khoder

Every morning at 9:00 am (GMT), Elaph's senior correspondents, department heads and editors-in-chief meet simultaneously in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They don't leave the house; instead they sit in front of their computers, logged onto MSN. The editorial meeting lasts exactly 40 minutes. Each person gives a brief account of the situation in his country, provides an opinion, offers his ideas, and advises the others of the story he plans to cover.

Elaph is the brainchild of Saudi journalist and businessman Osman el-Omeir, former editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab, London-based Al-Shark Al-Awsat daily. When Arab print and broadcast media outlets began launching their own websites, el-Omeir was the first to conceive of an news website not associated with an established print or broadcast medium. The idea turned into an adventure; Elaph, which started out with rather limited means, quickly grew into an important player on the Arab news scene. Osman el-Omeir wanted the website to be "a bridge linking Arab people around the world," and maintains that the site has no political or partisan affiliations.

"Everything up for discussion"

The same idea is expressed by one of Elaph's senior Lebanon correspondents, Elie Hajj. "We're liberals. We have no taboos, whether religious or social. Everything is up for discussion and everyone is allowed to express themselves. For example, on the website, there are sections entitled 'Our Writers' and 'Elaph's Views', where writers and journalists can express their opinions. Also, readers can post comments on each article published on the site. These comments allow us to gauge public opinion. But they do not dictate how we cover a story," Hajj is quick to add, highlighting the importance of this "interaction with readers."

"Our information is accurate and neutral," he says. "We publish our own opinions too, because everyone is entitled to their opinion, as long as you don't attack someone's reputation, or incite violence or go after anything sacred," he says. "We also denounce any position or event that violates human dignity, equality or democracy. We always defend religious and ethnic minorities, including the Kurds, the Copts and the Christians in Lebanon, because we believe that new democracies must respect their minorities," he says.

"Elaph goes far in its coverage... The site is not afraid to take risks by putting out certain stories. We are also quick when it comes to publishing rectifications of persons implicated in a particular news item," he adds. "It's the only media in the Arab world - with the exception of the Lebanese press - where everything is open to discussion." If Elaph is free to express its opinions, it's because the site is based in London. "We do not face the same censorship as newspapers and media outlets based in the Arab world. In fact, in certain countries in the region - in Saudi Arabia and Syria, for example - Elaph banned."

The site boasts a number of sections - politics, economics, health, sports, technology, music, cinema, style, miscellanies - and offers online broadcasts where one can watch the news stories of the day. There is also a section featuring articles from Arabic-language newspapers as well as articles from foreign newspapers translated into Arabic.

In 2008, to mark its 7th birthday, Elaph launched two new sections. The first, "Digital Elaph", spent two years in the beta stage before its official launch. It is accessible only by subscribers, offering them a preview of investigative reports and special features several days before they are uploaded to the regular site. "Elaph's Bloggers", the other feature launched in 2008, was created for bloggers, enabling them to publish their texts via the Elaph website. The section has grown quickly: today it hosts one of the largest blogger communities of all Arabic language websites.

Internet advertising

For Hajj, online news sites such as Elaph offer proof of the efficiency of Internet. "A site like this," he says "is more important than any print-based newspaper in terms of speed. It is also more important than television, which relies on image. With a global network of correspondents, Elaph publishes its news online and follows up on its stories from every angle. It does not rely solely on image," he explains.

"Like an agency, Elaph is a go-to source for news, particularly for its interviews and in-depth reports. Sometimes, the site features news that would go unnoticed in the regular media," he adds.

Elaph employs about 90 Arabic-speaking journalists in cities across the globe. "Each section is responsible for the content they publish. Editors from London to Marrakesh work on the layout of the day's stories. To update news around the clock, a shift system has been set up in the Arab capitals, much the same as the one used in news agencies, except that at Elaph, journalists work from home," Hajj explains. "Whatever the news, Elaph's site cannot go more than an hour without being updated. The home page may be changed as often as every ten minutes. A story's position on the home page will change constantly until it eventually ends up in one of the features pages or in the archives. It all depends on the news that day."

As for funding, Hajj notes, "Clearly, running a round-the-clock news website does not require the same level of funding as publishing a newspaper or running a television station, for example. Also, most of our journalists are freelancers. The site is funded by 'Digital Elaph' subscribers and by advertisers, although for the moment there is not really a culture of Internet advertising in the Arab world."

Elaph readers can be found in Egypt (11.4%), Saudi Arabia (8.3%), the United States (8.0%), Iraq (6.8%), the United Arab Emirates (6.4%), Libya (5.0%), Kuweit (4.9%), Algeria (4.8%), Lebanon (4.6%) and Qatar (4.0%). A significant number can also be found in Germany, Sweden, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, France, Finland and Switzerland.

In 2008, the number of visitors to the Elaph site rose by 15%, with more than 56 million people visiting the site that year. In that year, the number of hits reached 13 million a day, while the number of readers hit 5 million a month. On 5 November 2008, the day following the US Presidential elections, Elaph hit an all-time record high of 18 million hits.