US begins court battle against publishing giants’ merger

A book published by Simon & Schuster is displayed on Saturday, July 30, 2022, in Tigard, Ore. The government and publishing titan Penguin Random House are set to exchange opening salvos in a federal antitrust trial Monday. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 02 August 2022
Follow

US begins court battle against publishing giants’ merger

  • The Justice Department has sued to block the $2.2 billion merger, which would reduce the Big Five US publishers to four

WASHINGTON: The government and publishing titan Penguin Random House exchanged opening salvos in a federal antitrust trial Monday as the US seeks to block the biggest US book publisher from absorbing rival Simon & Schuster. The case comes as a key test of the Biden administration’s antitrust policy.
The Justice Department has sued to block the $2.2 billion merger, which would reduce the Big Five US publishers to four.
The government’s star witness, bestselling author Stephen King, is expected to testify at Tuesday’s session of the weekslong trial in US District Court in Washington, D.C. King’s works are published by Simon & Schuster, but he has expressed unease with the merger.
At Monday’s opening session, attorneys for the two sides presented their cases before US District Judge Florence Pan.
Justice Department attorneys charged that the merger would shrink competition and, inevitably, the vital public discourse that books help spark. Penguin Random House countered that the new company would enhance competition because the combined company could turn out books more efficiently.
The DOJ and the publisher are jousting over a central part of the government’s case: whether the merger will lower advances for the most popular authors, those receiving advances of $250,000 or more. Government attorney John Read said “competition results in authors being paid more” and outlined in depth how joining the two largest publishers would lead to fewer bidders for high-profile books.
But Penguin Random House attorney Daniel Petrocelli, who in 2018 successfully represented Time Warner and AT&T when the government attempted to block their merger, responded that the $250,000 benchmark was an artificial standard that does not reflect how the industry works. The publisher contends that the merger will have at worst a minimal downward effect on advances, for a tiny percentage of book deals.
“The government created an artificial market to create artificial concentration to create artificial harm,” Petrocelli said.
The government contends that it would hurt authors and, ultimately, readers if German media titan Bertelsmann, of which Penguin Random House is a division, is allowed to buy Simon & Schuster, the fourth-largest publisher, from US media and entertainment company Paramount Global. It says the deal would thwart competition and give Penguin Random House gigantic influence over which books are published in the US, not just how much authors are paid, but giving consumers fewer books to choose from.
The publishers counter that the merger would strengthen competition among publishers to find and sell the hottest books, by enabling the combined company to offer bigger advance payments and marketing support to authors. It would benefit readers, booksellers and authors, they say.
The merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster would form by far the biggest publisher in US and reduce by one publishing’s so-called Big Five, which includes HarperCollins Publishing, Hachette Book Group and Macmillan.
Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch was called by the government as its first witness. He expressed concern about the consequences of a “super dominant” publisher, one that could control half the overall market, with outcomes including the shutting down of imprints the new company deems redundant and outsize advantages in the terms it could offer booksellers.
At the same time, Pietsch acknowledged that he had hoped his parent company, the French publisher Hachette Livre, had bid for Simon & Schuster and would welcome acquiring it should the deal with Penguin Random House fall through.
“It is my belief that they (Hachette Livre) would” be open to buying Simon & Schuster, he said.
Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster already have two of publishing’s most impressive lists of blockbuster authors. Penguin Random House’s includes Barack and Michelle Obama, whose package deal for their memoirs totaled an estimated $65 million; Bill Clinton, who received $15 million for his memoir; the late Nobel laureate Toni Morrison; John Grisham; and Dan Brown.
Simon & Schuster counts Hillary Clinton, who received $8 million for her memoir, Bob Woodward and Walter Isaacson. And King.
Bruce Springsteen splits the difference: His “Renegades: Born in the USA,” with Barack Obama, was published by Penguin Random House; his memoir, by Simon & Schuster.
The Justice Department contends that as things now stand, No. 1 Penguin Random House and No. 4 Simon & Schuster, by total sales, compete fiercely to acquire the rights to publish the anticipated hottest-selling books. If they are allowed to merge, the combined company would control nearly 50 percent of the market for those books, it says, hurting competition by reducing advances paid to authors and diminishing output, creativity and diversity.
The Big Five are the dominant presence in US publishing, always on top of agents’ minds when submitting proposed works. They make up 90 percent of the market for anticipated top-selling books, the government says.
The Biden administration is staking out new ground on business concentration and competition, and the government’s case against the publishers’ merger is an important test.
President Joe Biden has made competition a pillar of his economic policy, denouncing what he calls the outsized market power of an array of industries and stressing the importance of robust competition to the economy, workers, consumers and small businesses. Biden, a Democrat, has called on federal regulators, notably the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission, to give greater scrutiny to big business combinations.


Lebanese photojournalist, wounded in Israeli strike, carries Olympic torch to honor journalists

Updated 38 sec ago
Follow

Lebanese photojournalist, wounded in Israeli strike, carries Olympic torch to honor journalists

VINCENNES, France: A Lebanese photojournalist who was severely wounded during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon carried Sunday the Olympic torch in Paris to honor journalists wounded and killed in the field.
The torch relay, which started in May, is part of celebrations in which about 10,000 people from various walks of life were chosen to carry the flame across France before the Games opening ceremony on July 26.
Christina Assi, of Agence France-Presse, was among six journalists struck by Israeli shelling on Oct. 13 2023 while reporting on fire exchange along the border between Israeli troops and members of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group. The attack killed Reuters videographer Issam Abdallah. Assi was severely wounded and had part of her right leg amputated.
AFP videographer Dylan Collins, also wounded in the Israeli attack, pushed Assi’s wheelchair as she carried the torch across the suburb of Vincennes Sunday. Their colleagues from the press agency and hundreds of spectators cheered them on.
“I wish Issam was here to see this. And I wish what happened today was not because we were struck by two rockets,” Assi told The Associated Press, struggling to hold back her tears. “I wish I could have honored journalists this way while walking and in my best health.”
AFP, Reuters and Al Jazeera accused Israel of targeting their journalists who maintained they were positioned far from where the clashes with vehicles clearly marked as press, while international human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said the attack was a deliberate attack on civilians and should be investigated as a war crime.
“This is a chance to continue talking about justice, and the targeted attack on Oct. 13 that needs to be investigated as a war crime,” said Collins.
The Israeli military at the time said that the incident was under review, maintaining that it didn’t target journalists.
While holding the torch, Assi said participating in the relay “is to send a message that journalists should be protected and be able to work without fearing that they could die at any moment.”
In late November 2023, Rabih Al-Maamari and Farah Omar of the pan-Arab television network Al-Mayadeen were also killed in an apparent Israeli drone strike in southern Lebanon while covering the conflict.
Assi doesn’t believe there will be retribution for the events of that fateful October day but hopes her participation in the Olympic torch relay can bring attention to the importance of protecting journalists. “For me, justice comes the day I can stand up again, hold my camera, and get back to work,” she said.
The watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists, in a preliminary count, said at least 108 journalists have been killed since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, the majority in the Gaza Strip.
The war was triggered by the Palestinian militant group Hamas’ sudden attack on southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and abducting 250 others. Israel says Hamas is still holding about 120 hostages — about a third of them thought to be dead. Israel retaliated with an offensive that has killed more than 38,000 people in Gaza, according to the territory’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.
Hezbollah militants have traded near-daily strikes with the Israeli military along their border over the past nine months.

Israeli Channel 13 News ‘axed show for PM Netanyahu,’ UK protesters say

Updated 21 July 2024
Follow

Israeli Channel 13 News ‘axed show for PM Netanyahu,’ UK protesters say

  • Group plans protests on Sunday at 2 locations in UK  

LONDON: The second wealthiest man in the UK is facing protests following claims that his TV network is undermining press freedom in Israel.

Leonard Blavatnik has a majority stake in Channel 13 News in Israel and owns most of Warner Music Group.

Channel 13 News, which is known for its criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its onslaught on the Gaza Strip, canceled its popular program “Warzone” last week.

The decision came after a leadership shake-up in June, which saw Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich, reportedly an ally of the prime minister, appointed as chief executive, The Guardian reported.

The popular investigative news program “Warzone” was hosted by the journalist Raviv Drucker, who had exposed a series of scandals about Netanyahu.

The channel’s staff slammed the move as “political meddling,” and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz described it as “purely a political decision, contravening all financial and journalistic logic.”

Britons claiming the show was axed for the Israeli prime minister announced plans to protest on Sunday at the Tate Modern’s Blavatnik wing and the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government.

WeDemocracy, the group organizing the protest, said in a post on the social platform X that it was staging the event as a “solidarity move with News 13 journalists and (the) defense of press freedom in Israel.”

The protest also aims to put pressure on Blavatnik to “change the improper appointment of Yulia Shamalov-Berkovic as chairman of the channel,” the group added.

Netanyahu’s government, in retaliation for a deadly Hamas attack on Oct. 7, launched a deadly bombing campaign on Palestine’s Gaza Strip, killing over 38,800 people, according to the health authority in Gaza.

Ukraine-born Blavatnik is worth £29.24 billion. He was brought up in the US, where his parents emigrated when he was a child.

He has received a knighthood in recognition of donations to British institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and the National Portrait Gallery.


Russian court jails US reporter Gershkovich for 16 years in spying case his employer calls a sham

Updated 19 July 2024
Follow

Russian court jails US reporter Gershkovich for 16 years in spying case his employer calls a sham

  • Gershkovich and his employer say he did nothing wrong, Kremlin says he was caught ‘red-handed’
  • The decision is likely to heighten the already tense relations between Russia and the West

MOSCOW: A Russian court found US reporter Evan Gershkovich guilty of espionage on Friday and sentenced him to 16 years in a maximum security penal colony in what his employer, the Wall Street Journal, called “a disgraceful sham conviction.”
Gershkovich, a 32-year-old American who denied any wrongdoing, went on trial in the city of Yekaterinburg last month after being accused of trying to gather sensitive information about a tank factory.
He was the first US journalist accused of spying in Russia since the Cold War, and his arrest in March 2023 prompted many US and other Western correspondents to leave Moscow.
Video of Friday’s hearing released by the court showed Gershkovich, dressed in a T-shirt and black trousers, standing in a glass courtroom cage as he listened to the verdict being read out in rapid-fire legalese for nearly four minutes.
Asked by the judge if he had any questions, he replied “Nyet.”
The judge, Andrei Mineyev, said the nearly 16 months Gershkovich had already served since his arrest would count toward the 16-year sentence.
Mineyev ordered the destruction of the reporter’s mobile phone and paper notebook. The defense has 15 days to appeal.
The White House and State Department had no immediate comment.
“This disgraceful, sham conviction comes after Evan has spent 478 days in prison, wrongfully detained, away from his family and friends, prevented from reporting, all for doing his job as a journalist,” the Journal said in a statement.
“We will continue to do everything possible to press for Evan’s release and to support his family. Journalism is not a crime, and we will not rest until he’s released. This must end now.”
Gershkovich’s friend, reporter Pjotr Sauer of Britain’s Guardian newspaper, posted on X: “Russia has just sentenced an innocent man to 16 years in a high security prison. I have no words to describe this farce. Let’s get Evan out of there.”
Friday’s hearing was only the third in the trial. The proceedings, apart from the sentencing, were closed to the media on the grounds of state secrecy.
Espionage cases often take months to handle and the unusual speed at which the trial was held behind closed doors has stoked speculation that a long-discussed US-Russia prisoner exchange deal may be in the offing, involving Gershkovich and potentially other Americans detained in Russia.
The Kremlin, when asked by Reuters earlier on Friday about the possibility of such an exchange, declined to comment: “I’ll leave your question unanswered,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Among those Russia would like to free is Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a life sentence in Germany for murdering an exiled Chechen-Georgian dissident in a Berlin park in 2019.
Officers of the FSB security service arrested Gershkovich on March 29, 2023, at a steakhouse in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles (1,400 km) east of Moscow. He has since been held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.
Russian prosecutors had accused Gershkovich of gathering secret information on the orders of the US Central Intelligence Agency about a company that manufactures tanks for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
The Uralvagonzavod factory, which he is accused of spying on, has been sanctioned by the West. Based in the city of Nizhny Tagil near Yekaterinburg, it has publicly spoken of producing T-90M battle tanks and modernizing T-72B3M tanks.
Earlier on Friday, the court unexpectedly said it would pronounce its verdict within hours after state prosecutors demanded Gershkovich be jailed for 18 years for spying. The maximum sentence for the crime he was accused of is 20 years.
Russia usually concludes legal proceedings against foreigners before making any deals on exchanging them.

’WRONGFULLY DETAINED’
Gershkovich, his newspaper and the US government all rejected the allegations against him and said he was merely doing his job as a reporter accredited by the Foreign Ministry to work in Russia.
State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel on Thursday declined to speak publicly about negotiations on a prisoner exchange, but said Washington was seeking the release of Gershkovich and another jailed American, former US Marine Paul Whelan, as soon as possible.
President Vladimir Putin has said Russia is open to a prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich, and that contacts with the United States have taken place but must remain secret.
Friends who have exchanged letters with Gershkovich say he has remained resilient and cheerful throughout his imprisonment, occupying himself by reading classics of Russian literature.
At court appearances over the past 16 months — most recently with his head shaven — he has frequently smiled and nodded at reporters he used to work with before he himself became the story.
Since Russian troops entered Ukraine in 2022, Moscow and Washington have conducted just one high profile prisoner swap: Russia released basketball star Brittney Griner, held for smuggling cannabis, in return for arms dealer Viktor Bout, jailed for terrorism-related offenses in the United States.
Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, said he believed Gershkovich’s conviction would encourage the few Western journalists still in Moscow to leave.
“The 16-year sentence...is a very heavy one,” he said. “Now many Western journalists will want to leave Russia for fear that they may become victims of a hybrid war between Russia and the West.”


Majarra acquires Arabic AI startup Lableb

Updated 19 July 2024
Follow

Majarra acquires Arabic AI startup Lableb

  • Startup’s solutions embraced by a diverse clientele

DUBAI: Arabic digital content provider Majarra has announced the acquisition of Lableb, an Arabic language artificial intelligence solutions startup.

The transaction makes Majarra the majority owner of Lableb, enabling a more complete integration of the two entities.

It also aligns with Majarra’s vision to enhance the utility of Arabic online through reliable content, advanced user experiences, and Arabic language technologies.

Lableb’s AI and neuro-linguistic programming technologies power content discovery and personalization software products, including enterprise search and recommendation engines.

The startup’s solutions have been embraced by a diverse clientele, including online stores, government platforms, news websites, and enterprise software providers, where nuanced and accurate Arabic language processing is crucial for success.

Lableb has previously collaborated closely with Microsoft and AWS, in addition to leading e-commerce platforms, including Zid, Salla, and Shopify, and content management system software providers like NVSSoft.

As one of Lableb’s earliest clients, Majarra has firsthand experience of Lableb’s Arabic technologies.

Manhom.com, which is powered by Lableb’s named entity recognition technologies, has become the region’s premier Arabic source for professional information.

Lableb’s innovations have also driven search and content discovery across all Majarra platforms, including the flagship Majarra app.

Lableb will maintain its operational independence under Majarra’s ownership, focusing on addressing the unique challenges machines face with Arabic language processing.

The language’s rich morphology, diverse dialects, complex syntactic structure, and context-dependent meanings have long posed significant hurdles for machine understanding and processing.

Abdulsalam Haykal, Majarra’s executive chairman, and CEO Ammar Haykal said: “Majarra and Lableb share a common foundation and vision.

“Kinda’s (Lableb’s CEO Kinda Altarbouch) leadership and the team’s unwavering commitment to the transformative power of Arabic AI/NLP for regional businesses have consistently delivered exceptional product quality.

“Through Lableb, we see immense potential in bringing real-life applications to large language models, some of which have emerged from our region.”

Altarbouch, who is also Lableb’s co-founder, said: “Joining Majarra marks an exciting new chapter for Lableb. Our shared vision of advancing Arabic AI and NLP will drive innovation and deliver significant value to online businesses and their customers.

“Lableb’s tools are robust, ready to deploy, and capable of handling millions of queries weekly.”

Marcus Brauchli, the managing director of North Base Media, said: “This acquisition is timely and demonstrates Majarra’s agility in responding to market evolution.

“By incorporating AI products into its portfolio, Majarra adds a crucial technology dimension to its offerings. While LLMs are transformative, their true potential can only be realized through AI agents like those Lableb provides.”


Advertising group Dentsu committed to growth in Saudi Arabia, says new regional CEO

Updated 19 July 2024
Follow

Advertising group Dentsu committed to growth in Saudi Arabia, says new regional CEO

  • Tarek Daouk tells Arab News about company’s plans, including its new sports agency and initiatives for talent-building, empowerment of women, gender diversity and youth development
  • Dentsu has had a presence in the Kingdom for 17 years, with an established office in Jeddah, and this year opened a regional headquarters in Riyadh

DUBAI: International advertising group Dentsu this week named Tarek Daouk as CEO of its newly created Middle East, North Africa and Turkey operation.

Daouk, who previously served as CEO of Dentsu MENA, will now also lead growth strategy and business execution for Turkey, where the group has “reorganized its operations,” the company said.

He has also been appointed president of Southern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey for its technology and data-driven customer experience management company, Merkle.

Dentsu has had a presence in the Kingdom for 17 years, with an established office in Jeddah. This year it opened a regional headquarters in Riyadh. The aim was to “provide a locational and cultural hub connecting East and West, with both the opportunity for local clients to expand globally, and international clients to engage with the growth opportunities within the Kingdom and beyond,” Daouk told Arab News.

“The opening of our regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia marks a significant milestone for Dentsu MENA and underscores our commitment to driving growth and innovation in the Kingdom and beyond.”

Brands and agencies must offer “tailored solutions” to clients in response to the “rapid shifts in culture and society” in Saudi Arabia, Daouk said.

“Saudi is in a unique position and the speed of transformation here means you need a unique response. A one-size-fits-all approach for MENA is no longer fit for purpose.”

One of the ways in which Dentsu tailors its approach, he added, is through its global data, identity, and insights platform, Merkury, which combines proprietary and partner data with more than 10,000 consumer-data attributes.

“Saudi was among Dentsu’s leading markets, globally, to launch this technology, so it was a significant milestone for us in leveraging the power of data to reach audiences in a much more targeted way in the Kingdom,” Daouk said.

In May, the company announced the launch of a dedicated sporting agency, Dentsu Sports International, for the Middle East and North Africa region, with its headquarters in Riyadh and offices in the UAE. The decision to have the head office in Riyadh was a strategic one that “demonstrates our belief and commitment in the sports agenda of Vision 2030,” said Daouk.

One of the pillars of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan for national development and diversification is the goal of creating a vibrant society that offers “world-class entertainment, a thriving sports agenda and investment into gaming and esports,” and Daouk believes this presents significant opportunities to “create value with sports, film and music content.”

The demand for sports marketing in the Kingdom is at an all-time high and engagement from sports fans is strong, he added. A study conducted by Dentsu Sports International found residents of the Kingdom spend more time and money on live events than their international counterparts; for example, Saudis attend an average of six events a year compared with the UK average of two.

The company’s commitment to the Kingdom is also reflected in its investment in talent-building initiatives, Daouk said. It is “committed to accelerating Saudi talent recruitment, learning and development of knowledge and skills” through the implementation of its global programs in the country, he added.

The group is also investing in gender-diversity and youth-development initiatives in the Kingdom and has introduced its global “Path of Tabei” program to recruit Saudi women to leadership roles and develop their leadership skills, he added.

Named after Junko Tabei — who in 1975 was the first woman to climb Mount Everest, and in 1992 became the first woman to complete the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on every continent — Dentsu’s “Path of Tabei” is a yearlong program that provides training for selected high-potential women to support their advancement within the company at the senior leadership level.

It has also formed partnerships with Prince Sultan University and other higher-learning institutions, and takes part in local employment fairs and university career days “to find and train the best talents of tomorrow,” said Daouk.

As part of its investment in the Kingdom, Dentsu organized its first “Now to Next” event in Riyadh last year, which brought together global and local experts to discuss industry challenges and plan for future opportunities in the Kingdom and wider region.

This year, worldwide advertising expenditure is expected to increase by $35.8 billion to $754.5 billion, according to Dentsu’s latest Global Ad Spend Forecasts.

“This is not only a 5 percent increase, year-on-year, but is also outpacing global economic growth, (and) MENA, particularly Saudi, is one of the fastest-growing markets,” Daouk said.

This projected growth, combined with “the ongoing digital transformation, significant changes in the ad landscape presenting new routes to market, and the continued investment in gigaprojects building a thriving sports agenda and a cultural hub for gaming and e-sports,” means the “potential and opportunities in Saudi are endless,” he added.

“Our aspiration is to leverage Dentsu’s global expertise and local insights to support Saudi Arabia’s economic-diversification efforts, foster entrepreneurship and innovation, and empower local talent.”