Two media scandals hit the headlines this past week; one deeply embarrassing, the other mired in counter claims.
A week ago, an Al Jazeera Arabic website report challenged the authenticity of the two ISIS execution videos that exalted in the killing of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
The article alluded to “purported beheadings” and suggested that Foley was alive (lurking in the basement of the Pentagon?) and had most likely fabricated the video. Since the article was not translated and re-published in Al Jazeera’s English channel website, where more sane and professional minds frequently prevail, it was to be the task of Al Arabiya News the following day to report that Al-Jazeera’s Arabic website claimed that the videos were not only unconvincing but probably “Hollywood” staged productions. The alleged purpose was to create a global climate that would justify an American invasion of Syria. But the U.S. air force had already staged a significant series of air strikes against ISIS forces in Iraq before these videos were posted and the prospect of similar air strikes against ISIS concentrations in Syria were already considered most probable.
By Sunday, Agence France-Presse was reporting from Doha, Qatar that Al-Jazeera had pulled the article from the website and a statement issued by the Qatari-based network acknowledged it had pulled the report off the Arabic website and described it as “incorrect.” According to the statement, the report was about “doubts cast on U.S. social media over the criminal decapitations,” although the original Al-Jazeera Arabic article claimed that “activists around the world had been voicing doubts that could almost confirm that the two videos were fake.” This read more like the affirmation of the accusation of fraud than merely reporting the accusation.
The Al-Jazeera Arabic article read more like the affirmation of the accusation of fraud (regarding the ISIS video) rather than merely reporting the accusationAbdallah Schleifer
Nevertheless, Al-Jazeera stated that it had pulled the offensive article out of consideration for the feelings of the families of the victims whose sorrow it shares and to quote the apology as it appeared on the Al Jazeera English website, because Al-Jazeera wanted to reiterate its “previous position in condemning the kidnapping of the two journalists and condemning their killing as a heinous crime.”
So, the real question is why a report like this was written in the first place and why social media was apparently going viral with the accusation of fraud. This is odd considering ISIS, which has a very slick and prolific press operation which had already flooded You Tube with video of the gangland style mass execution of Iraqi Shiites, did not deny the videos of Foley and Sotloff’s beheadings.
This is indicative of that impulse that can surface anywhere in the Arab press, and interestingly is frequently present in the Egyptian press, of what I call knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Now, as any regular readers of this column know, I have been critical to the point of cruel of President Obama and his administration a number of times over the past year-and-a-half in regard to specific policies. So what I am talking about is this: If an American official says it’s raining outside, the knee-jerk anti-American journalist will look out the window, see that it is indeed raining but report in print, with hallucinatory conviction, that it is a sunny day.
A scandalous week
Equally scandalous this week were the counter claims being exchanged by one of the UK’s quality newspapers, The Independent, and the Saudi newspaper Makkah. The Independent reported last Monday that the tomb of Prophet Mohammad in the city of Madinah could be destroyed and the Prophet’s remains be removed to an anonymous grave.
No doubt that story must have terribly disturbed many British Muslims, who like most Muslims everywhere cherish the Prophet and if undertaking either the hajj or the umra pilgrimages will try to visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, which houses his tomb.
The Independent was accused by Mowafeq al-Nowaysar, the deputy managing editor of Makkah newspaper, of misrepresenting the story and claiming it as an exclusive. Al Arabiya News also reported that Omar al-Mudhwahi, the Saudi journalist who wrote the Makkah newspaper report, said: “If they insist on stealing my work, at least they should allow me to provide them with an accurate translation … I would be glad to.”
Two issues were raised by al-Nowaysar: The first is the charge that The Independent had recently published an English-language version of an article that Makkah newspaper had run late last month without crediting the newspaper and claiming it as an exclusive. The second issue, according to al-Nowaysar, is that the article was not just stolen but that it was dangerously mistranslated; that the British newspaper’s report of plans to destroy the tomb and move the remains of the Prophet away was incorrect. Instead, al-Nowaysar says his newspaper was reporting on calls to “isolate” the tomb, not to destroy it or move the remains of the Prophet that appeared in a journal published by religious authorities responsible for the mosques in Makkah and Madinah.
The Independent claims it did not know about Makkah’s report but had been sent a copy of the original article appearing in the same journal quoted by Makkah newspaper and said that it knew of similar calls. This is quite conceivable since such calls may be in accordance with stringent interpretation of religious law by the Saudi ulema in the past that no shrines or structures of any sort should be built above grave sites. Still, the British newspaper took a risk in labeling the story an exclusive, when a local Saudi newspaper quite predictably had reported on the issue.
The Independent’s story does not include any comment by any Saudi officials confirming the claims made in their report. On the contrary, Saudi sources told Al Arabiya News that the whole issue isn’t any more than a proposal by an individual academic published in a specialized magazine and is not a government decision.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.