Mnar Muhawesh was nine years old when her family moved to Jerusalem from Minnesota. But even then, Mnar quickly realized she had moved into apartheid.
“I saw road blocks, checkpoints, the building of the wall and families being separated from each other” she says from her meeting room in Minneapolis, Minn.
A year later, when her family returned to Minnesota, Muhawesh was shocked to learn that no one understood what was happening in Palestine and throughout the Middle East. “I turned to the media for answers. But all I saw was fear mongering or people being labeled from a religious and orientalist perspective.”
Already traumatized from her time in Palestine and soon after diagnosed with PTSD, the 9/11 attacks occurred a few months later, further inciting the fear mongering Mnar witnessed in the media. “An entire faith of Muslims was demonized to get people to support wars for oil.”
Convinced that the media needed new voices, Muhawesh started a career in journalism that led her to become the first woman journalist wearing the hijab on air in US TV journalism. Wearing the veil came with much resistance—“Because there were no hijabi news anchors in the media, many told me, including one of my professors at college that I could never be a successful journalist while wearing it.”
Today, she is founder and editor in chief of Mint Press News, a successful independent journalism organization which provides investigative coverage on local and global issues through the lens of social justice and human rights –“I started MPN because I wanted to provide accurate and full coverage to people which was truly independent, free of influence and sensationalism.”
MPN has quickly risen to become one of the leading watchdog news outlets in the US, with two million unique visitors per month and its partnership with Free Speech TV which will reach over 38 million households. But it wasn’t always this popular; its growth was slow and came with its own set of challenges.
“Our work at MPN is quite difficult because most people read and watch corporate news which feeds off ignorance and fear. People don’t want to be bothered by the truth because they think they have freedom to make choices, so issues like phone tapping aren’t a big deal” says Muhawesh.
This makes audience growth for MPN slower because independent journalism has a set audience, those that actively seek the truth and alternative perspectives. Although their goal is to reach a broader network and eventually compete with corporate media, they don’t mind getting there slowly.
“We want quality over quantity. We know the people we are reaching and educating is creating more of an impact than those who get their news from mainstream media.” A symbiotic relationship, MPN works closely with activists to portray their causes whilst empowering them with knowledge.
A first year undergraduate student at George Washington University, Lujain Al-Khawi began following Mint Press News last year.
“What drew me to MPN was their angle on Syria” says Al-Khawi.
Having worked at Threesixty Journalism for two years, a student focused newspaper in the Twin Cities area, Al-Khawi followed news and politics on a daily basis.
“Being a fluent Arabic speaker, I saw a lot of disparity between what American mainstream media was reporting and reporting from other countries. I began noticing a trend in the media catering to the interests of the Saudi government and gulf monarchs and I grew frustrated. Mint Press News provided me with real and accurate coverage, even though they became largely controversial in corporate media.”
In 2013, when the US had plans to invade Syria, MPN talked to people on ground who confirmed that the August 1st chemical attacks killing hundreds was Al Qaeda’s doing, not Assad’s. “We reported what we found and the story went viral, finally reaching the Whitehouse. This stopped our war with Syria but the praise was short lived” says Mnar. “Ad hominem attacks were made especially towards me and I became the ‘Muslim’ treated as suspect especially in neo-conservatist media.” The more popular MPN grew, the accusations and threats did too.
“Whenever you call out oppression, it’s easy to make a lot of enemies. The hardest thing about Mnar’s work hasn’t been the long hours or the traveling, but the attacks that come with it” says Amir Muhawesh, Mnar’s husband and father of their six year old son Hamooda.
“Because her intentions are sincere, it’s difficult when people attack her or say she has a bias. People also use the internet as a mask and allow the worst in them to come out; Mnar has had a lot of death threats and threats made towards our family. I always try to be her shoulder to cry on especially when it comes to our safety and I remind her that for every oppressor she has offended, she has enlightened thousands.”
After the personal allegations that followed the story on Syria in 2013, Mnar saw a large drawback from colleagues. “I lost a lot of people who didn’t want to work with me because they were afraid it would ruin their reputations.”
But instead of taking a step back or giving up altogether, she decided to do quite the opposite.
“I went in head on, addressed the issues and attacks, talked about my motivations and tried to be very open about Mint Press because its very purpose was to provide truthful coverage.”
The rough patch soon cleared—“it eventually turned out to be a positive thing, because in the process, I gained so many loyal and dedicated people.”
MPN’s daily staff writer Kit O’Connel says the best part about working there is the streamlined communication. “I always feel like I’m part of the team and I’m valuable to the organization.”
Assistant Editor Mikala Reasbeck agrees—“The internet gives us an opportunity to work with everyone from everywhere. I’m always being challenged by our content at MPN and have to be one step ahead of the game.”
Because MPN covers local and global issues that shape policies, the range of topics vary greatly. “Mnar’s the hardest working girl in the business, the James Brown of independent media” says Reasbeck. “I don’t think the notion that we can’t do something has ever occurred to her. She decides she wants to do something and it happens. We find that super refreshing and challenging.”
The privatization of media by six corporations, says Mnar, has changed the face of news today—“Profits supersede truth; media nowadays entertains rather than informs,” alluding to the fact that sixty percent of Americans do not trust the media according to the latest Gallup poll.
“Although a lot of corporate media like the New York Times and Washington Post have good coverage, specific issues that drive the US economy and foreign policy get gag orders as many reporters are working with or for the government.”
Since ten years old, Mnar Muhawesh has demonstrated that people actively seeking truth and justice can have a powerful voice.
“Every day is fulfilling at MPN,” says Mnar. “I want everyone to recognize the truth, look at alternative perspectives and connect the dots.”
For journalists, her words tread on caution– “Do not become a journalist for money or you’ll end up compromised or in PR for the government. Be a watchdog, uphold the first amendment and no matter what challenges arise, always remember your purpose.”