Middle East Media defends Islam

The six states that make up the Gulf Co-operation Council [GCC] have agreed to launch a media campaign to combat the perceived spate of Anti-Arab sentiment in the wake of September’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The plan is to establish an English language satellite television channel, which will promote a better image of Islam and Arabs to viewers in the west.

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By  Daniel Anderson-Ford Published  December 4, 2001

Media defence of Islam|~||~||~|The six states that make up the Gulf Co-operation Council [GCC] have agreed to launch a media campaign to combat the perceived spate of Anti-Arab sentiment in the wake of September’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The plan is to establish an English language satellite television channel, which will promote a better image of Islam and Arabs to viewers in the west.

The idea came from the GCC information ministers at their meeting in Manama in late October. Bahrain’s Information Minister, Nabil al-Hamer said, “We are putting our efforts together as ministers to reach all media in the western world to explain our position that all Muslims and all Arabs are against terrorism.”

Lofty ideals, but what’s the point? That message is exactly what the collective western leadership has been trying to promote since September the 12th. As one who has been monitoring the story throughout every working day, and my weekends, I think I am safe in saying that Britain’s leadership alone is getting millions of dollars worth of airtime to promote that very fact.

Hardly a day passes without Messrs Blair, Straw, Hoon, Blunkett, Hain et al appearing on TV and radio to report some new development in the so-called ‘war against terrorism’.

None of them ever misses an opportunity to deliver the pro-Islam message just as strongly as they speak of their determination to destroy Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and other terrorists. In the UK, the Foreign Office is constantly reminding those who write or broadcast on its behalf that the pro-Islam message is as important as the anti-terror message.

Even the British Royal family has joined what I would like to call the ‘friendly crusade’. Prince Charles is well known to several members of Arabic Royal families, counting them among his closest friends. Both he and his mother, Queen Elizabeth (the head, incidentally, of the Christian Church of England) have gone to great lengths to publicise those friendships, their respect for Islam and their Arab friends.

What would a new satellite channel add to this wealth of PR, especially if it is set up specifically for PR purposes? Don’t forget that news is more powerful than paid-for information.
OK, we do understand that when the GCC Information Ministers made their decision there were stories circulating about Muslims in the US and Europe complaining of being made the victims of a backlash in the west to September the 11th.

Let us be frank about it. When something as dramatic, and cold-blooded as the suicide hijacks happens, when the perpetrators are all identified as belonging to a particular religious group from particular countries in a particular, and high-profile, region of the world, it should be expected that there will be a backlash from a certain sector of the community.

I am speaking, of course, of that section of society – any society, including Arabic society – which will never look closely at any issue, the bigoted, probably racist, purposely ill-informed people who will always try to label a whole ethnic group for the actions of a few individuals.

I have to admit I believe that the strength with which the pro-Islam message is being delivered has softened the attitudes of potential anti-Islam feelings. The strong imagery of Blair with Musharraf, Bush with Musharraf, Bush with Arafat, the Queen with King Abdullah, Blair’s whirlwind tour of Middle East diplomacy - they are all part of the conscious attempt to put a lid on potential ethnic unrest in the USA and Europe. The leadership knows and they are trying to take all moderate indigenous groups with them.

I believe it is working because feelings remain high against Osama bin Laden, Al Qa’eda and the Taliban and I cannot now remember the last time I heard of an overt anti-Islam action or sentiment.

I read with interest recently that the assistant secretary-general of political affairs for the GCC, Hamad Ali al-Sulayti, accused the western media of connecting Islam with terrorism. I would like to ask him to provide the evidence because I have been working in that media during the crisis and can testify that all three organisations to whom I contribute are going to great pains not to make that very connection.

I am also constantly monitoring the ‘opposition’ channels and have to say that, following some really ignorant reporting and speculation in the couple of days after September 11th, they too have been doing all they can to separate the terrorists from the religion the terrorists claim to represent.
However, if Mr al-Sulayti’s view is the rationale for the call to establish an English language satellite channel to promote Islam, then I have to suggest that the GCC takes a step back and asks again whether, in the light of the past month, it really is needed?

Certainly the events of the past two months have created a real Iinterest in Islam. People in the west surely are interested in learning more, but it would be wrong to go ahead just because it is perceived that it’s getting a bad press. It is not.
||**||BBC and Orbit|~||~||~|
BBC Arabic Radio has signed a three year deal with the struggling satellite broadcaster Orbit to carry its radio channels. This means that, as well as AM, FM and television transmissions, the BBC’s voice will be heard in digital form on the Orbit platform. BBC Arabic Radio will be available on Nilesat, Arabsat and now Orbit.And it’s not just the Arabic language that will be heard. Its English service will also be available. Transmissions begin in a little over a month at the start of 2002.

BBC Arabic Radio’s spokesman, Hassan Abu Ela, told me that things are currently going well for the corporation and that the troubled times we live in are attracting a significant new audience to the corporations’ trusted reportage of regional issues.

I was more interested in the fact that they have jumped back into bed, so to speak, with Orbit. Do you remember the ill-fated venture of BBC Arabic television, which was closed down with unseemly haste when they aired a documentary on Saudi Arabian dissidents of which the Saudi government disapproved? I was working for BBC World Service television at the time, practically back-to-back through a glass partition on the seventh floor of Television Centre with my Arabic colleagues, and I have never seen a plug pulled so fast.

If memory serves me well, Orbit was the partner in that ill-fated venture. Hassan bears that out when I remind him that the carrier seems to be haemorrhaging content at an unseemly rate to Showtime and the fast-growing ADD.

Isn’t he nervous of getting together with them again after the bitterness of 1996? He says, “Orbit reaches a quality audience. Through them we will reach decision makers and opinion formers so we are happy to co-operate with them again. We are with the main Arabic players now. We will be doing 24 hours a day of Arabic and English together and we also have a UK-based digital system, plus FM and AM transmissions in the Gulf so we cannot be more extensive.”

Of course he dodged the question, but I don’t blame him. There remain issues surrounding that fall-out that have not come to light. Not least among them is the financial outcome of the law suit brought by the BBC, claiming millions of dollars in compensation for Orbit’s breach of contract.

I checked with his boss, Barry Langridge, head of the BBC’s Middle East and Africa region. He confirmed that the law suit had been “allowed to die.” No money had changed hands. Both parties had agreed to walk quietly away from the confrontation.
I suggested that the new deal was the payoff. “No,” he said, “it is very different this time. Back in the nineties Orbit was funding the BBC to run the television service. This time we are simply using them for distribution purposes.”

Onwards and upwards … I asked Nigel Chapman, the deputy director of BBC World Service, if this radio venture was likely to be the forerunner of a return to an Arabic TV service.

He told me: “People around the Corporation do look at the success of Al Jazeera, especially since the start of the allied bombing in Afghanistan, and say ‘wouldn’t it be nice if they had some competition’, but as far as I know there are no plans yet to go any further in our new relationship with Orbit. I am also not aware of any approaches being made to the Foreign Office (who, under the BBC’s world service rules, would fund such a venture - ed) or of any proposals being prepared.”

Talking of the rationale of promoting radio over television he said, “We are concentrating on the Internet activity just now. We had around ten million hits during September. That’s a two-fold increase over the previous month and there’s no sign of the audience dropping off. That tells us that people have discovered it, tried it, liked it and decided to stay with it.”

Barry Langridge is even more enthusiastic, saying, “The real battle is now on for the Arabic online listener. This is the next big international media battle. The Spanish sites in the USA are reaching full growth. English in the US and Europe is in the same position. Now we see CNN starting CNNArabic.com [or whatever it will eventually be called – ed]. Al Jazeera is already online in Arabic with plans to start an English language service.”

But why are the websites the battleground? Says Langridge, “In the Middle East they and the radio networks really are where the decision makers get their news. Go into any office, any business lounge in any airport and you find all the online terminals in use – all the time. There’s also money in online sites, through advertising and other income generators.”

And where is it all going? “We all think Al Jazeera has done really well, especially since coming to the world stage as a result of the terrorist crisis. But we still believe they are a bit soft on some of the Middle Eastern regimes. We now see them and ourselves very much as complimentary services. Since the week before October 11th we have developed a huge coverage in the region. BBC World is on television 24-hours a day. BBC Arabic is online with text and audio in both English and Arabic 24-hours a day via Arabsat and Nilesat with the Orbit channels to follow in the New Year. Oh yes, now the war – the media war - is well and truly on!”
||**||Al Jazeera connection|~||~||~|
It’s interesting to observe just how closely entwined are the fortunes of the BBC and Al Jazeera. They are the main competitors for the Arabic news market but both are now beginning to compete in English too, destined to become the dominant competitors for the regional news and current affairs market. Al Jazeera is, of course, staffed to a large degree by former employees of BBC Arabic - something comprehensively reported elsewhere in this and previous issues.

It is a pleasure, therefore, to note that the BBC has got one back. Salah Negm was part of the team that built BBC Arabic television, but before that he had also enjoyed a distinguished career at World Service radio. Now he is Senior Editor at Al Jazeera, but as we go to press the BBC is preparing to announce that he is returning to Bush House to the core BBC Arabic operation as head of Current Affairs and Newsgathering.
The management is delighted. Gamon McClellan, head of the Arabic service and a man highly familiar with the Gulf Region told me,

“We are delighted to have him back at the BBC. He has proved over many years that he is an extremely capable journalist and manager. He will bring with him considerable experience in radio, television and new media.”

Salah is also a broadcaster of some note, having been a presenter at Cairo Radio and Radio Netherlands. He joins the BBC at an important time, with a huge expansion into the Arabic language and the Middle East region under way.

The BBC will be delighted at the military progress in Afghanistan in the middle part of November. The rapid progress made by the Northern Alliance and swift retreat of the Taliban means that Kabul is no longer ‘off limits’ to all the world’s news media except Al Jazeera Television. My informants within the BBC had been telling me that there was great concern about Al Jazeera cashing in on its exclusivity. I could not get it confirmed, but the word around Television Centre is that the charge for footage is around $3,000 a minute.

I can quite believe that the BBC’s editors would blanche at that, being more used to paying around $200-$400 a minute for that material they cannot get for free.

Who can blame Jazeera though? They are a commercial operation and from the end of this year, when the Emir’s commitment to spend some of his millions to under-write the operation ends, they have to stand on their own commercial feet. As I reported last month, the station is encouraged about its future prospects by the extra advertising and sponsorship revenues, which have been building up all year and particularly since it burst onto the world scene in September. With their logo daily on the screens of virtually every television station in the world, they must have been making good money if indeed the $3,000 a minute story is true.
||**||Jazeera heading for a ban|~||~||~|
Al Jazeera television could be banned from broadcasting in Britain if its transmission of Osama bin Laden’s video statements, which the Doha-based operation usually broadcasts unedited, are judged to incite racial or religious hatred. If this were to happen it could be one of the first such bans under European legislation. It would also fit snugly with the new legislation being rushed in as part of the UK government’s anti-terrorism policy.

The Independent Television Commission (ITC) is monitoring Al Jazeera’s output and has been examining the content of bin Laden’s videos. One is causing particular concern.
It was broadcast on November 4th and in it bin Laden urged Muslims to wage religious war on the “infidel”. On the ITC’s advice, the Government can proscribe any channel that is guilty of incitement to hatred.

The Qatar-based Arabic language network has been available free since August in the six million British homes that subscribe to BSkyB Digital. That provides a potential audience of 10 million people. Al-Jazeera is licensed by the French broadcasting authorities, allowing it to screen its output anywhere in the European Union.

The CIA fears that bin Laden’s statements may contain coded messages to terrorists and Downing Street asked news broadcasters last month to exercise caution when reporting al-Qa’eda videos.
Short extracts of the video were shown on BBC, ITN and Sky news programmes with editorial comments. The entire video, lasting several minutes, was shown on al-Jazeera. In his broadcast, bin Laden sought to characterise the war on terrorism as a “fundamentally religious” conflict.

Britain’s culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, revealed that the ITC is monitoring al-Jazeera’s output to see if it breaches the EU ‘Television Without Frontiers’ directive, which requires EU states to “ensure that broadcasts do not contain any incitement to hatred on grounds of race, sex, religion or nationality”.
Mrs Jowell said: “It is open to the Government, on the advice of the ITC, to proscribe (ban) a television broadcaster which transmits from another member state where the broadcasts contain material which manifestly, seriously and gravely infringes this prohibition, on at least two occasions in a 12-month period.”

The ITC had been monitoring Al Jazeera before the weekend of 3rd November, when the crucial video was broadcast, and the organisation said that up until then its “monitoring of al-Jazeera has not led it to conclude that proscription would be justified”.

Sky says it is legally required to allow al-Jazeera to broadcast and had no power to control its output.
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