Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Beacon No. 77: Al-Qa’ida Leaders’ Ratings Drop


John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for January 19-20 highlights two complementary stories.

The first is a BBC News article headlined “Arab media shun al-Qaeda message.” While there have been recent messages from Osama bin Laden, his purported number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa’ida’s operations in Iraq, Arab coverage of their audio and video escapades has lately shrunk, the BBC says:

Both [al-Zawahiri and al-Zarqawi] have released communications this month and both have received short shrift in much of the Arab media, giving a sense that they may be losing ground in their propaganda struggle.

Their communications were also both broadcast on al-Jazeera, which remains the most watched Arab news station. Al-Jazeera broadcast Zawahiri's latest video as an exclusive on 6 January.


It ran several excerpts, though not the full video, and hosted a discussion programme on its importance.

The station also picked up the audiotape purportedly by Zarqawi from the radical Islamist website where it had been posted and broadcast excerpts on 9 January.

In the following days, a number of newspapers and commentators across the Arab world attacked and even ridiculed the two statements.

The BBC takes this as evidence that violent, radicalized messages may be losing ground to voices preaching more political, participatory forms of Islam. The organic evidence for this is that increasingly competitive, ratings-sensitive Arab media now pick and choose what to show, rather than letting 7th-century infomercials run full length—rather like the U.S. networks’ skeletal coverage of 19th-century American political conventions.

The Arab media are also bracketing these messages with extensive discussions, call-in shows and editorials.

It seems like it’s newly empowered Arab politicians who are pushing back hardest against bin Laden et al.:

TV stations in Iraq ignored them almost completely. The criticism directed by Zarqawi at Iraqi Sunnis who participated in the recent elections drew strong criticism from Sunni politicians.

Leaders of the main Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, issued denunciations of Zarqawi's call for Iraqi Sunnis to side with the insurgency and not the political process in the international Arab media, such as the Dubai-based TV station, al-Arabiya, and the influential pan-Arab newspaper, al-Hayat.

There was similar reaction from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which was attacked by Zawahiri in his latest video for taking part in Egypt's recent parliamentary elections.

The organisation's deputy leader, Muhammad Habib, warned on the Muslim Brotherhood website that Zawahiri's violent tactics would "open the doors to evil and create total chaos".

Note Habib’s expressed fear of Iraq-style chaos, which in Egypt would work against the Brotherhood’s recent electoral gains. Sunni Iraqi politicians, too, now have a vested interest in their own system; while they have no love for American occupiers, they have much to lose from any al-Qa’ida gains in Iraq.

The second piece that caught my eye is Alvin Snyder’s “Al-Jazeera’s Middle East Popularity Wanes as Its North American Sibling Wants to Leave Home.” Snyder’s got access to ratings figures that show Al-Jazeera’s share of the Saudi audience dropping in favor of the Saudi-government (and more moderate) al-Arabiya:

[Middle East TV survey organization] IPSOS-STAT says that the weakening viewership of Al Jazeera is not confined to Saudi Arabia, which is inhabited by some 18 million persons, "most of whom are wealthy with high purchasing power." The trend shows a weakening of Al Jazeera's former lead throughout the region, with Al Arabiya getting stronger, although Al Jazeera is still leading in Kuwait, for example.

Could it be that some Middle East viewers are tiring of Al Jazeera, which is often perceived as a more "radical and Islamic" network? This image of Al Jazeera as a conduit for terrorist videos is currently being reinforced with the video obtained from kidnappers showing Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor reporter who is being held hostage, and the Osama bin Laden audio tape threatening another attack on the United States.

Al Arabiya's content is seen by IPSOS-STAT as more moderate and seemingly more in tune with what viewers want to watch, and Al Arabiya's management is given credit for being "more enlightened and visionary."

Crucially, al-Arabiya also broadcasts its signal so that rooftop antennas and regular TVs can pick up its signals, as opposed to al-Jazeera’s satellite-only broadcasts, making al-Arabiya’s potential influence on the millions who can’t afford satellite TV more profound.

Continuing to broadcast videos of terrorists and hostages—like the Christian Science Monitor’s Jill Carroll—is also handicapping al-Jazeera’s efforts to establish its upcoming English-language in the U.S., Snyder writes:

Because Al Jazeera International is scheduled to officially launch its service to the United States and Australia in March, it is hurrying to persuade cable television systems to carry its program service and get commercial sponsors to pay the bills at a time when its parent channel is hawking a kidnapper video. The controversial cable channel reportedly is not succeeding in lining up cable channels or advertisers in the United States, the world's largest commercial market.

Failing in the U.S. would further damage al-Jazeera’s prestige and might vault al-Arabiya and even younger competitors past it for good. If the Arab media really are veering toward more moderate programming, al-Jazeera will have to decide quickly what it’s worth to continually be first with news from kidnappers and caves.

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