In the media game, ‘half-hearted attempts are not enough’

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Last week, the World Affairs Council in Amman hosted Dr James Hechts of the Denver World Affairs Council, who answered the chronic question of why the Arabs have lost out in the media battle against Israel. The answer was simple and clear: not because they were not willing to spend the money and launch efforts to let the world know about the realities of the Middle East; they lost partly because they did not know what it took to achieve that, but mostly because of the aggressiveness of the Israeli media campaign which takes into consideration every little aspect and plays it to the best of its advantage.

The first thing that would come up in this context is the Jewish influence in the Western media. It is no secret that leading Jewish personalities and Jewish-owned groups hold controlling interests in many of the American news networks, including radio and television, as well as newspapers. As such, Israel has a natural advantage there. It does not really have to burn the wires to make sure that these outlets carry reports that show Israel in a positive light, for sympathy, as a victim of Arab “terrorism,” as a people who are trying to “survive” in a land surrounded by “hostile” forces and the only beacon of democracy in a region where autocracy is the rule.

Indeed, all these points could be debated and countered, but the problem is that we make all these arguments among ourselves, preaching to the already converted, rather than addressing the international community where they should be heard.

And the overall image of the Arabs on the international scene is not exactly something to write home about either. We have seen spurts of effective efforts to modify the stereotyped Arab image in the West, but those efforts – though launched in good faith and being the first steps on a long way ahead – are not simply enough.

Let us face it. The Israelis are experts in the game of playing public relations. They have experts in the media game among them, not the result of an accident but that of a careful strategy, meticulously planned and executed with precision to ensure that every word and action counts where it counts most. It is no exaggeration that the Israeli propaganda machine works round-the-clock, monitoring everything that has to do with the Jewish state and responding quickly and promptly along the lines of European and North American countries.

Israel is known for skilfully using developments in the Arab world against the Arabs without actually appearing to do so. For Israel, every shadow of scepticism about the Arabs is another element of advantage for itself. We have seen some instances where it cleverly manipulated events in the Arab world to improve its own image while we are oblivious to most other incidents where Arabs have been projected into the bad light for the world.

We might not have believed a report in the British press a few weeks after the funeral of King Hussein that Israeli agents managed to get samples of the Syrian leader Hafez Al Assad’s urine, while he was in Amman to attend the funeral, and laboratory tests pinpointed his health problems and showed that he was on the verge of death; and that was the implied reason for Israel not to work on the Syrian front since it wanted to deal with his successor. Regardless of whether the report was true, it showed the extent to which the Israeli mind works. The report itself, for us in Jordan, was an affirmation of the ways Israeli intelligence agents go about doing their job and it has always been a no-holds-barred as we know.

For the Western mind, the report was a source of admiration for Israel; it did not matter whether what it claimed was accurate or just another propaganda stunt. Either way, it served its purpose. It was another reaffirmation, as far as the West was concerned, that Israel had to be on its toes to use all and every method to ensure its “survival.”

This particular instance might not be a great intelligence coup; for all we know, it might have been carefully leaked to a Western newspaper for added credibility. But the fact remains that, regardless of the rights and wrongs, Israel has always used every opportunity to remain far ahead of the Arabs in the media game.

What we need to realise is that it is not a conventional battle anymore. It is no longer a question of two sides to a conflict trying to put their views across through different means and achieve success or face setback on a case-by-case basis. The truth is that Israel has gone too far ahead in the race and the Arabs, if they were to catch-up with Israel, have to step up their efforts tenfold and fight a tough uphill battle against a foe who has already entrenched his position on a higher ground.

As Hanan Ashrawi, the Arab League’s new spokesperson, said last week, the Arab media bear the responsibility for changing the image of Arabs in the West. She said the Arab world often failed to understand the media while the Israeli media made major strides in aligning themselves with the way the Western mind works.

Indeed, the basics of information dissemination in the Arab world are flawed, mainly because of the political systems in place which often consider the media as a public relations arm or a source of hostility. The Arab media are quite simply programmed to have a reaction to events rather than take a proactive stance.

What the Arab world needs today is honest and transparent effort to see where it went wrong and why it ended up where it is today in terms of information. For that, there has to be a political will at the very top. Either we have it or we don’t. There can’t be two ways about. Half-hearted attempts are not enough.

Mr. Musa Keilani contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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