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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
Arab media breaks Bigley death
By Sebastian Usher
BBC world media correspondent

It was the Arab media that broke the news of Kenneth Bigley's killing and most of the pan-Arab satellite channels led with the story after the news was officially confirmed.

Ken Bigley
Kenneth Bigley was taken hostage on 16 September

The story of Mr Bigley's kidnapping and captivity has been given plenty of coverage by Arab news stations, with his family making several appearances to plead for his release.

But it is an open question whether the family's hopes of creating a well of sympathy for Mr Bigley in the Arab world succeeded or not.

The Arab media has been demonised by some - particularly in Washington - as a source of venomous anti-Western propaganda while others see it instead as a liberating force in the Arab world.

Breaking the news

Nowhere has its role been more scrutinised than in its handling of the violence in Iraq and the series of kidnappings and killings by Islamic militants there.

With their greater access to sources on the ground, stations like al-Jazeera have consistently scooped the world in reporting the latest killing or statement from al-Qaeda's leaders.

In Bigley's case, it was a lesser known station, Abu Dhabi TV, that broke the news that everyone was dreading to hear.

This was followed up by reports on al-Jazeera and its main rival, al-Arabiya, that gave more detail, substantiating the sense that Bigley's calvary was over.

All the Arab news stations began leading with the story.

Al-Jazeera broadcast British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's statement live.

Impassioned pleas

There's no doubt of the weight that these Arab stations gave the story. For once, a Western victim of Islamist violence preceded Palestinian or Iraqi casualties on Arab TV.

This may in part be down to the way Bigley's family used Arab TV to make impassioned pleas for his release, hoping his kidnappers would hear the message and show mercy.

In this, they were following a pattern established by the relatives and governments associated with previous hostages of using the Arab media to communicate with the hostage-takers - and the Arab world at large.

This is mirrored by the kidnappers' strategy of using videos and statements sent to TV stations and posted on radical Islamist websites to get their message across.

Even after the confirmation of his brother's murder, Paul Bigley went back on al-Jazeera to denounce both the killers and the occupation of Iraq.

'Showing reality'

Apparently stung by criticism that they had originally shown too much of the distressing videos filmed by the militants of their kidnap victims, Arab TV stations have recently been much more restrained in what they show.

Abu Dhabi TV refused to show the video it said it had of Bigley's killing, while al-Jazeera and other stations have shown less and less of these distressing scenes.

They still generally feel they need to show something - if for no other reason than to prove the reality of what they're reporting.

Some Arab media commentators have argued that they should show the videos for the same reason that Arab TV stations generally show far more graphic film of the carnage in Iraq than Western TV.

They say it simply shows what the situation really is - a reality, they say, the West shies away from.

Soul-searching

In showing greater restraint over the hostage videos, Arab stations may even be appearing to play down the emotional impact of the killings in comparison with the intensity of their coverage of Iraqi or Palestinian casualties.

This only adds to the inevitable sense that the Arab media is most concerned and most upset by what happens to its own people.

Although Arab newspapers and political and religious leaders have condemned the ruthless tactics of militants like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as completely against Islam, the resonance of these denunciations is usually drowned out quickly by the next round of Iraqi or Palestinian deaths brought in all their immediacy and anguish into Arab homes by al-Jazeera and its rivals.

It will be interesting to see if Bigley's killing sets off more soul-searching in the Arab world about the roots of Islamic militancy - but the chances are that it will soon be seen as just another unfortunate casualty in what most people in the Middle East view as an unjustified war of aggression.


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