by Iqbal Jassat (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 3, Jumada' al-Ula', 1431)
Media would correctly argue that its function as a public watchdog is to disseminate news and information
“Cup terror arrest” and “Saudi held for al-Qaeda attack on WC” are some of the sensational headlines accompanying reports on the Iraqi army’s announcement of a possible terrorist threat to the Fifa World Cupin South Africa. The allure and power of these screaming headlines allows not only a huge hike in newspaper sales, it also impacts on public opinion to the extent that more people are likely to accept that al-Qaeda poses a major threat to this country’s much awaited soccer spectacle.
Media would correctly argue that its function as a public watchdog is to disseminate news and information. It will say too, with full justification, that its role to do so will not be sacrificed at the altar of any holy cow. It will remain faithful to its discipline without fear or favour. If al-Qaeda is suspected of plotting to sabotage the soccer festival, then it is the function of the media to say so.
Yet, in dealing with this particular story, since the alarm was raised by certain self-proclaimed “terror experts”, it would be fair to assume that based on the number of inquiries fielded by us, many in the media and many more consumers have very little information to make sense of what is meant by “Islamic terrorism”. Despite the fact that this term has come into vogue since 9/11 and has been bandied about as regular jargon by US officials, much confusion persists.
Reports that describe al-Qaeda as an “Islam-based terror organization” imply that any threat emanating from it would implicate adherents of Islam: Muslims! All its actions — repulsive or not — would necessarily link Muslims, thus allowing these “terror experts” the space to expand their fanciful theories beyond the realm of reality. Hence the concern we have and the caution we ask is intended for media to be on guard against peddling Islamophobia.
Current reports about the arrest of a senior Saudi army officer Abdullah Azzam Saleh Misfar al-Qahtani and the claim that he “participated in the planning of a terrorist act in South Africa during the World Cup” made by the head of the Iraqi army security, Major-General Quassem Atta, raises many questions. These are pertinent and have thus far been ignored by the South African media in its haste to announce the arrest and link to al-Qaeda. Why?
For instance, it would be crucial to know why al-Qahtani was released from US military custody after two years in detention. It is an explanation the US has to make public but may not do so in the absence of media pressure. It is extremely relevant for it boggles the mind that a senior al-Qaeda operative with links to Ayman al-Zawahiri, having been imprisoned by the occupying army of America, is let loose and in the space of a few months is bagged for conspiring to blow up the World Cup! Why?
In addition, it is also very strange that the Iraqi authorities failed to communicate with their South African counterparts or to brief them in advance of the press conference. This is highly irregular! Yet none of the reports read by this writer allude to this suspicious conduct by a military still under the thumb of a foreign army. To Pretoria’s embarrassment both senior spokesmen for the South African Police Service as well as Hawks said they knew nothing about the arrest.
If we accept that al-Qahtani is a Saudi citizen and possesses seniority as an army officer having graduated from King Fahd Security College with the rank of lieutenant, in addition to holding a degree in business administration, it would follow that the Saudi regime ought to have detailed information on him. The Saudi monarchy is a client of the US and a close ally in its “war on terror” and therefore would have an explanation as to their role in his initial arrest and questionable release after two years. Yet it appears that the media has failed to tap this source and relies almost entirely on dubious “terror experts” for their obviously biased spin.
Finally if one such self-professed expert like Hussein Solomon insists that he is convinced al-Qaeda was planning to launch an attack, surely it is incumbent on the media to ask why he has not disclosed this information to the relevant authorities. This is imperative to pre-empt any attack and may also lead to the arrest and prosecution of those Solomon keeps referring to as “al-Qaeda affiliates”.
Media responsibility does not end in communicating; it requires substance and context too. And unless this effort is made, it will raise questions whether sections of our media remain mired in the apartheid past.