Abdul Rahman al-Rashed is the general manager of the all-news Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya. He came to Al Arabiya from Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, where he served as editor in chief. Prior to that he was editor in chief of the weekly newsmagazine al-Majalla. TBS senior editor S. Abdallah Schleifer met with al-Rashed in Dubai in April.
Schleifer: It's been about one year since you assumed the leadership of Al Arabiya. Do both the problems and the possibilities look different now from when you took over as general manager?
Al-Rashed: I think it's best to tell you about my perception of Al Arabiya, and the perception of others, at the time I joined the channel: that Al Arabiya was very politically involved in covering the news, that Al-Arabiya was not detached but was taking political positions in its news coverage. One year ago, the insurgency in Iraq was rising, perhaps at its peak, and there was the Intifada in Palestine with very violent attacks and counter- attacks going on at that time. Covering Iraq was an issue of intense interest for every single Arab in the region - whether politicized or not - and television news was shaping Arab popular opinion rather than necessarily always informing it.
So when I joined Al Arabiya, I insisted we pay more attention to the technical side of reporting. I stressed that to all the editors and reporters and to the various producers.
I spent about three months devoting my thought to critical analysis -- closely watching what we were putting on air, particularly in Iraq, and engaging in constructive critical analysis. The focus was on our Iraq coverage because it in turn would provide a model that would open the door, so to speak, for dealing with our reporting everywhere, since Iraq was the dominant concern and the most dramatic model for all coverage.
I felt the three months were extremely important to exchange opinions with my colleagues, rather than to impose any sort of dictate as a manager. During that ongoing exchange, my colleagues stressed a few points that had complicated or even compromised our coverage, such as the lack of safety for journalists on the ground, the difficulties involved in gathering information, and finally the competitive problem of getting scoops and finding exclusives, which of course are essential and yet at same time dangerous because that search for scoops provides opportunities for the players -- the news makers -- or other forces to manipulate the press.
The solution was to go back to the basic texts, and play it professionally by the book. Luckily, all of our senior editors accepted that criteria of going by the book. Prove to me, I said to them and to our reporters, that everything on the ground that we are covering we are covering by the book, and I'll go along with it.
In the summer of 2004 our office in Baghdad was targeted. A clear message. It was a car bomb, or perhaps a suicide bomber. We are not sure, but a group claimed responsibility, and in their statement said they had done it because of our coverage. Experts felt this was the work of the Zarqawi group. But that group denied responsibility later on, so until this moment we don't know who was behind it. As a result of that, we became collectively more insistent on going by the book and to protect both our reputation and the lives of our people (and) to say to everyone, "This is the way we do things. Coverage must be balanced to reflect both sides, and this approach should be understood by everyone."
Since then, we have followed these rules. I have documents in my possession from groups claiming Al Arabiya is no longer exclusively showing their side of the story. Now when we approach different groups on the ground, we tell them, "You can go to Al Arabiya and say what you want, but you must understand we will report on the other side as well." Today we can look back and recognize we have influenced the nature of coverage inside Al Arabiya and inside other Arab news organizations. They have been influenced by our approach, and have tilted more towards this approach
Schleifer: Perhaps there are two reasons why your own staff and other Arab news organizations, particularly Arab satellite television news organizations, have turned out to be open to this approach. First of all I sense a general reaction among Arab journalists against the excessive emotionalism that characterized the coverage of the invasion of Iraq and a certain acknowledgement that Arab satellite television, including Al Arabiya, was in part feeding the hysteria rather dispelling it, with facts from the field -- something I noted in TBS about six months ago as a post-invasion concern shared by nearly all the satellite news channels who began calling for more professionalism. And the other reason is that the level and nature of the terrorism practiced in the name of resistance, of an initially highly romanticized resistance, has been horrendous and so obviously dictated by the nastiest sectarian or communalist considerations masquerading as patriotism and/or piety.
Al-Rashed: Yes, in the beginning of the insurgency there were many highly vulnerable, even easy, US Army targets and attacks on those US military targets could be justified by many people as attacks against an occupying force. When the US military either hardened its defenses or withdrew from the most confrontational street situations, the insurgency became a terrorism targeting civilians -- those you don't like for whatever sectarian reasons. It has become difficult to ignore the ugly face of terrorism. Many people have come to see this ugly face as the reality, a reality that had been romanticized by the idea of a resistance.
You know after the defeat - the collapse of the Baathist regime - many people had the sense of having to take a second look. That sense was brought about by their disappointment, but initially, in that disappointment, they still didn't get the point. However, that widespread disappointment did enable people like myself, writing opinion columns, to analyze events and make the points that had to be made.
Let me mention something that is particularly important, that illustrates changes over the past year: the issue of tapes, both video and audio. They became the center of controversy. For me as a manager of a channel with a large audience watching the channel, I had to argue two points, no more, no less. I was lucky; we have sensible people in our news room, we can talk things out. I did not force my opinions, I didn't press a button and say, "Stop the tapes, that's it." I had to convince people in the newsroom. In the end, we agreed on two principles: if you want to run a tape, then show that part which is pure information. Anything that is rhetoric should not go on the air as news. Going by the book again. For instance, a hostage is shown on a tape identifying himself as a Turkish driver, saying where he was taken, how he was taken, and who he wants to send a message to and then the message. Everything else -- the invocation of the Qur'an, rhetoric, or faceless people making rhetorical statements -- we will not show.
Schleifer: In other words, you will report that which is news in the tape, but you will not provide a platform or serve as an unwitting agent for the propaganda implicit in the tape.
Al-Rashed: Right. And if you watch other Arab TV stations, they are now doing the same. On top of that, one further step: it is good to follow up the tape with an interview or report with someone opposed to the insurgents who took the hostage and produced the tape, to balance. So that's an example of what's happening on the editorial level.
Schleifer: What sort of feedback are you getting from your audience? And have you lost audience because of these policies?
Al-Rashed: Our tools to determine audience reaction and impact on market share were surveys conducted by a consortium of advertisers, and not just for us. It showed our news audience rising in three different quarters of the year; I'm referring to share of audience for the news bulletins. This is the most important indicator of overall audience attitudes because individual programs could reflect the popularity of the host rather than response to the content, so I think it was a success and the fact that others are following suit indicates it's the correct way.
Schleifer: Shortly before you assumed the leadership of Al Arabiya you wrote a very candid and courageous piece in Asharq al-Awsat that began, in effect: "Surely most Muslims are not terrorists but most terrorists are Muslim," and then went on to raise basic questions about the sort of culture that has fostered terrorism and apologetics for terrorism over the past few decades. Aside from a scholarly group I happen to be connected with, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), which had circulated a declaration that unambiguously condemned terrorism, you were very much alone at the time because many of the condemnations of terrorism coming from the region or from Muslim leaderships anywhere were conditional - it was terrorism to kill American civilians in the World Trade Center or Iraqi civilians praying at a mosque or a church in Baghdad, but it wasn't terrorism to kill a bunch of Israeli teenagers sitting in a pizza parlor in Tel Aviv. Now we have the Madrid Declaration of Spanish Ulama condemning all terrorism, and the much broader American Muslim petition "Not in our name" that doesn't differentiate between civilians, and we have a new Palestinian leadership that has both implicitly and at times explicitly condemned Palestinian terrorism. Are we at a turning point and what sort of flack did Asharq al-Awsat, and later Al Arabiya take from your Saudi audience over your rather historic column?
Al-Rashed: Obviously the statement was meant to shock, to shake people out of their moral complacency and at the same time it was accurate. It wasn't politely put, but it was the only way to create debate, and it did. And to my surprise, when I was reading the responses coming in from readers on websites of Asharq al-Awsat and other Web sites, the responses written in Arabic were more supportive than the responses from Arabs writing in English. Indeed most of the responses written in Arabic were absolutely supportive, and that surprised me.
Schleifer: Well that doesn't surprise me, because your reader or viewer who doesn't know English, or doesn't know it well enough, probably having a more traditional education has a firmer grasp of traditional Islam, precisely because he has been less exposed to Westernizing culture. In traditional Islam, there exists an entire corpus of law, not to mention Qur'anic and Hadith passages, condemning terrorism -- the conscious, intentional targeting of non-combatants. Too often it's the Westernizing yet pious person who is uneasy, defensive, and in denial and buys into apologetics in the worst sense of the word.
Al-Rashed: Arab News in Jeddah published the article in English and the feedback from their readers, which was published in English, was extremely negative. I found that interesting. But what mattered was to stimulate debate. I exchanged correspondence with a lot of readers and submitted the issue to statistical analysis. The analysts confirmed that the majority of terrorist acts in that period which was from 9/11/2001 until 9/11/2004 were committed by Muslims, unlike the 1970s, when there was an outbreak of global terrorism, but very few Muslims at that time were engaged in it.
Schleifer: Right now, both Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera have a very strong commitment to field reporting, which is the heart and soul of television journalism, in contrast to Western television news channels, which have increasingly abandoned field reports and instead favor instantaneous live responses from a stationary journalist fielding generally stupid or insipid off-the-cuff questions by anchors instead of being out in the field trying to get answers. Is this commitment by Al Arabiya to field reporting a firm commitment or simply that you don't have sufficient field satellite units to imitate the trend in the West?
Al-Rashed: The job we are supposed to do is to cover the news. We have different priorities. Priority number one is to go after the news in the region and in this case I am better equipped than the Western TV news channels in the sense of staff on the ground, more correspondents, more cameras on ground, more specialized editors, and the language and rapport with the people. So this is the most important factor. As a news station, we have no bias or prejudice in terms of sources. It doesn't matter who is the source for tape or for a report -- whether it's APTN, freelancers, our own stringers, or our own full-time correspondents. What matters is getting the news rather than worrying who is the messenger or always imposing our logo on the footage we go with. And the second reason we have an advantage in our reporting and in particular our reliance on field reporting in that we are beaming our news to an audience with a deeper background than the American or British audience who is watching the live shot from Baghdad that you find so shallow. Our audience can handle the more intensive coverage we provide through our field reporting. If I want to tell them about Lebanon, our audience already has a far better grasp of what's happening there than an American or Korean audience.
Schleifer: The past few years, watching Arab coverage, print as well as television, has also been somewhat disillusioning. It has meant for me coming to grips with a fundamental lack of balance in the way in which the suffering of Arab Sunnis -- be they Palestinians or the civilians caught in the Falluja crossfire -- are worthy of so much empathy from an Arab media that had so little or nothing to say about the suffering of the Kurds and the Arab Shiites under Saddam, or of the African Muslim tribes in Darfur -- Sunnis but, like the Kurds, not Arab. I see an Arab Sunni supremacism that is sectarian in reference to the Shiites and racist in reference to Kurds and African Darfurians hiding behind the banner of Arab nationalism and/or Islamism.
Al-Rashed: But not intrinsically, not for all time, and not all the time, because Arabism, the way it was understood in its historic origins, had Lebanese and Syrian Christians identifying with Arabism and the Arabic language in opposition to the Young Turks' sectarian discrimination. For some Arab Shiites, at one time, Arabism meant an alternative to the aggressive Sunni communalism of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood).
The sort of Sunni Arab supremacism you are referring to did not exist at the time of the Arab Revolt, in which Arabic language, not sect, was the determining factor. What went wrong comes later, from the 1930s on, with some Arab Nationalists adopting the European Fascist mentality of exclusivity. Nazism, tragically, had much influence on Arab intellectuals. But in its origins, the Arabism of the World War I Arab Revolt was to draw together people with a common language, who shared a common ambition for independence. The Fascist perspective appeared from the '30s onwards and came to prevail in the '80s; this fascist dimension poisons the Sunni sensibility.
Schleifer: Another syndrome of the times that becomes apparent -- transcribable so to speak -- thanks to Arab satellite television talk shows or comments in al-Quds al-'Arabi, is the drawing closer of radical Islamist and radical Arab nationalist perspectives, just as there has also been, in some circles and perhaps a bit earlier, a drawing together of Arab Marxist and radical Islamist sensibilities. What they all seem to have in common, consciously or not, leftist or rightist, are Leninist instincts. Do you see that?
Al-Rashed: Unless I hear someone directly alluding to Marx or quoting Ibn Taymiyya, you can't tell sometimes are they radical Islamist or radical Marxist and or radical Nationalist. It came from the Left, first to Arab nationalists and then to Islamists. Mishari al-Dawbi wrote in Asharq al-Awsat about this phenomena.
But I do think Arab satellite television is the tool -- if there are other tools, they are minor -- to change Arab society, Arab political life on a massive scale, for the good. The situation already is bad; whatever bad also comes with Arab satellite television is almost beside the point. But Arab satellite television has the potential to change the society for the better. Look what's happening in Lebanon. Now there is increasing competition in coverage and competition in the media has a positive effect. Can you imagine how the Iraqi elections would have been covered without competition? In less than six months two important events; above all the Iraqi elections -- shown live on satellite TV and everybody could see it was free, even Al Jazeera, which initially was dubious or negative about the election but changed its tone halfway through the day. Without competition, the whole election might have been ignored or downplayed.
Secondly, the assassination of al-Hariri. Without competitive media, it could have been passed off as an isolated Islamist assassination, but having competition meant all TV channels insisting it was not that; it was a crime against all Lebanese. There was
no satellite television at the time of the gassing of Kurds.
That's why television can do a lot of good for the region, just on the basis of these two incidents. Without competition, there would be the temptation to be effected or guided by one's political tendencies, like a sympathy for Syria. But with competition, no one can indulge that sort of temptation.
Finally, and I especially address those who care about media or study media, they should fight the idea of using television to serve a cause. You should use the media to show the truth and if your cause (in the sense of a personal conviction) has the truth, then the truth will benefit the cause. That's why it's so important to rely on professionalism and why you cannot go wrong if you do.
Al Arabiya has a slogan and so does Al Jazeera, but do these slogans represent reality? That question is valid for everybody. So let's watch your news and see if your slogan is accurate. These slogans are prepared by PR people. Ask questions! Is the news item fair in presentation, and do you air two opinions? For Al Arabiya the question is, Do you really cover controversial issues concerning Saudi Arabia, and for Al Jazeera, What about controversial issues concerning Qatar. Look, MBC -- our mother company -- gave us the first taste of non-government news back in the early nineties. That's when it all began. Al Jazeera went further. It went 24-7 and it pushed the boundaries further in terms of freedom. I appreciate that.