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The Media Is Half The Battle: Screening Inflated And Partisan News Coverage

15 March 2013

By Mshari Al-Zaydi

In an interview with the Saudi-based Al Eqtisadiah newspaper, Nabil al-Hamr, media advisor to the King of Bahrain, spoke about the influence of the media in shaping public opinion in Bahrain, and particularly whether the opposition's narrative or the alternative is dominating the scene.

It is good that Hamr—who has a strong media background thanks to his long career as a journalist and government official—acknowledged that the media is facing a major problem in this regard.

Interviewer, Mukbil Al-Sa'iri, asked him whether he was of the view that half the battle was decided in the media, Harm answered: "There is no battle in the real sense of the word, and if we said that there was a battle in Bahrain, we would be acknowledging that there is a crisis," He added, "All means should be used and exploited, and the media has a primary role, as does politics and diplomacy, while citizens also have a role in reversing the crisis. There was a form of default and this was addressed, not just via the media, but also through diplomacy and communication."

Hamr referred to the partisan media activities of the opposition, particularly the Bahraini opposition abroad. He said that Bahrain—as a nation—must pay attention to this imbalance, particularly after many western media outlets and civil institutes, and even some in the Gulf, relied on the story being circulated by Bahrain's opposition abroad. He asserted that this represented the firing of the start gun, with the media battle escalating in the wake of this.

Hamr, based on his post and position, objected to the term "battle" in this regard, but the reality of the situation indicates that this term is accurate and there truly is a media battle raging. This conflict is evident in the attempts, by both sides, to win over the general public's hearts and minds, turning them into ardent supporters of their cause, or at least ensuring their neutrality.

This is something that is not unique to Bahrain. In fact, this mad rush to contend over the media and use this to win political battles and social confrontation is nothing new. This is something that has existed since traditional Arab poetry was used to praise or satirize public figures. Following this, we saw the phenomenon of "talk shows" being broadcast on air, not to mention internet news campaign, and even the twitter hashtag, while nobody knows what the future will bring.

Since humanity drew crudely on cave walls to the era of iPads and iPhones, media formats—in all their diversity and variety—have represents nothing more than a means to promote specific content. This is the hard truth.

We do not know, in any accurate or quantifiable manner, the size of the role that the media has played in the changes that have swept across the Arab world. We are now entering an era of chaos and nobody knows where this will end. This stage had initially been greeted and supported by most, if not all, of the Arab media.

Therefore we cannot deny the media's role in influencing the course of events, and rallying supporters. This is something that we can see with our own eyes, while the impact of this is all around us. As for claims that any one party is dominating the media, the reality is that the media scene is a chaotic mixing bowl encompassing the left-wing, moderates, and right-wing; government supporters, revolutionaries, and the ambivalent; the wise and the ignorant; wolves and lambs. These are all present in one place, with the wolves growling in hunger at the loss of importance of traditional media, and the lambs reveling in new media. However the wolves are waiting to pounce on this and take this over as well.

Those who want to revolutionize Arab and Islamic societies have always been well versed in the importance of winning the media battle. Here we recall the message sent by Ayman Al-Zawahiri to former Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. In this message, which dated June 2005, Zawahiri advises his Al-Qaeda colleague on the importance of the media. He says: "We are in a battle and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media." In this message, Zawahiri also stressed that driving American forces out of Iraq was just one battle in the war and that this must serve as a jumping off point for further action, rather than a final objective. He added that Al-Qaeda's final objective would be to establishment an Islamic caliphate across the Levant, Iraq, and Egypt.

There can be no doubt that Zawahiri, his leader Osama Bin Laden, and Al-Qaeda in general, have made good use of the media weapon. They have used this to promote their cause, bringing their views and ideology to countries and people far removed from them.

This was all before the existence of smart phones and direct mass media interaction, such as via Twitter and YouTube. At this time, Al-Qaeda's main media platform was Al Jazeera, along with some internet websites affiliated to the terrorist organization. As for today, the entire scene is open to Al-Qaeda and other such organizations, with mass and escalating support available to them online, from the youngest teenagers to the most senior citizens.

This brings us to Ibrahim Al-Rubaish, who is wanted by Saudi authorities for his ties to Al-Qaeda. During a media interview conducted a few days ago from Yemen, Rubaish commented on the so-called Qassim protesters, who are calling for the release of detainees. These detainees are being held on security charges, in other words cases relating to extremist or jihadist groups, not freedom of opinion. In this interview, Rubaish described himself as a "spokesman" and "member of the Sharia and judicial committee of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula." While the interview itself was carried out by Malahim Media Foundation, which is the media wing of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Speaking about what is happening in Saudi Arabia, Rubaish said: "The question that we must ask is, what have these [detained] sisters done wrong? If we look at their cases, we find that their only guilt is that their husbands, or relatives, are mujahedeen, or that they supported the mujahedeen."

He then highlighted the role of new media in promoting his Cause, saying: "In the past, domestic issues were hidden from the people, however thanks to God Almighty and modern communication; the domestic issues have become more circulated."

That's right, "circulation": this is what is important to these groups. The most important thing is increasing awareness and supporter, for this is "half the battle", as Zawahiri himself acknowledged. It is a victory in itself that we are talking about such figures, even if we are opposing or rejecting them. What is important is that we are contemplating their vision, views, and Cause, while some in the media will no doubt fear to oppose this, or at the very least tone down their opposition. This is all about one thing, circulating and promoting such aberrant views, and with time this inevitably creates, sympathy or understanding. According to the current wave of change, and the never-ending nature of media content on sites like twitter, those who rush after what is "trending", will be embarrassed by what they find there. This will most likely take place under an attractive modern and humanitarian "cover", such as human rights.

I am not talking about the need to impose legal guarantees, nor the need for speedy and transparent trials; this is obvious and legitimate. However I am talking about this sense of media amplification and exploitation which allows a satellite television channel affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood abroad—broadcast from London—specialize in screening inflated and partisan news coverage for hours in a blatant and transparent manner.

Although we have been looking at the media in general, this leads to a specific question—inspired by Bahraini royal adviser Nabil al-Hamr—about the role of the Saudi media in all of this?

Here, we are not asking about for the usual proselytizing discourse, but a real view regarding what is happening, so that we can uncover what to do and know exactly how to deal with this.

This is the only thing that is absent from the entire debate.

A Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism as well as Saudi affairs. Mshari is Asharq Al-Awsat's opinion page Editor, where he also contributes a weekly column. Has worked for the local Saudi press occupying several posts at Al -Madina newspaper amongst others. He has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic.

 

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