the Arabs through Alhurra: US Chooses Easy Way Out?
comprehensive investigations by expert panels, US public diplomacy
officials have succeeded in figuring out why US public diplomacy
targeting the Arab world have failed: it is the Arab media and
more specifically the pan-Arab television channels, with Al
Jazeera as the main culprit.
State of the Union address in January 2004, US president George
W. Bush heralded the solution-a US Congress-financed Arabic-language
satellite television channel called Alhurra ("The Free"),
and it was launched in early February 2004.
President Bush introduced Alhurra with the words "to cut
through the hateful propaganda, the Voice of America and other
broadcast services are expanding their programming in Arabic
and Persian-and soon a new television station will begin providing
reliable news and information across the region."
broadcasts via two state-owned Arab satellites, Arabsat and
Nilesat. It complements its sister music and news-based Radio
Sawa ("Radio Together"), launched in spring 2001,
which is now part of the local radio scene of many Arab cities.
satellites grant Alhurra 90% reach in the Arab Gulf region,
10-15% in Iraq, over 50% in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, just
over 10% in Egypt, and over two-thirds of the homes across the
Maghrib region. But with this promising reach a number of questions
need to be tackled in order to be able to convert potential
into actual viewership, let alone changing the minds and the
hearts of the Arabs.
is the Bush Administration's argument that the US perspective,
if it reaches Arab masses at all through the Arab media, reaches
them distorted? Is this claim based on the new Arab media realities
that have been evolving since the sprawling of pan-Arab satellite
TV in the 1990s? Or based on a premise that belongs to a previous
media era of a single Arab media environment? How well aware
is the US administration informed about the new realities taking
shape across the Arab regional TV scene?
a similar question can be asked of the Arab media itself: why
is it that in the US mind it only conjures images of hate, bias,
and antagonism towards the US?
time for both, the US and the Arabs to put an end their intellectual
laziness and start searching for new answers rather than simply
continuing to pull out answers generated decades ago, and which
justify their mutual failure to communicate.
To a researcher
on developments in the Arab media scene, it is intriguing to
observe how miserably the US administration has failed in realizing
the opportunities the pan-Arab satellite media made available
to the official US political perspective-even on Al Jazeera,
allegedly the leading manufacturer of hatred towards the US.
with the CNN's coverage of 1990-1991 war to liberate Kuwait,
this presence of US media content continues to take wider dimensions
with every major regional or international event that has origins
in the Arab world. Thanks to the rapid growth to access to pan-Arab
satellite television, expansion of the presence of US media
across the Arab world has been showing exponential growth since
the 9/11 attacks on the US.
9/11, all major pan-Arab satellite channels have carried live
practically every news conference or speech held or made by
President Bush, Secretaries Colin Powel and Donald Rumsfeld
or spokespersons at the White House, Pentagon, State Department,
CENTCOM in Qatar, or the Coalition Provisional Authority in
officials, analysts, and research experts on the region appear
regularly on prime-time news and talk shows that command wide
audiences across the Arab world. All major Arab satellite channels
have news bureaus in Washington and regularly invite US officials
and US experts to appear on their shows.
Competition for pan-Arab audiences has forced key Arab satellite
channels to shed the image conjured up by the state-owned media.
National political news is scarcely reported in the main news,
to the extent that more US officials than government officials
of the twenty-three Arab states combined appear on pan-Arab
overlooked major development is the media normalization with
Israel. Israeli officials and political analysts appear regularly
on prime-time news or talk shows of Arab satellite channels
owned by states or individuals whose countries do not officially
recognize the State of Israel.
is however a significant difference between the way Israelis
and Americans communicate with Arab audiences. Many Israeli
analysts and officials communicate in fluent Arabic; sometimes
to the extent that a viewer may be unable to identify them as
Israelis. The Israelis may have done themselves a service in
dropping their own Arabic satellite channel soon after it was
launched last year.
not to suggest that the US's Alhurra channel in Arabic will
face a similar fate to that of the Israeli Arabic-language channel,
or to suggest that fluency in Arabic is a pre-requisite for
effective communication. Most of the 200-strong Alhurra staff
are Arab professionals drawn from different Arab media, headed
by Bert Clienmen, a personal friend and a passionate friend
of the different peoples of the Middle East.
has no illusion that Alhurra will be a TV channel that supports
the US perspective. But he also sees it as a channel that seeks
widening the perspectives of its audiences, motivates them to
ask questions and supports individuality and self-empowerment
rather than claiming to have monopoly over truth or to be a
competitor to Al Jazeera.
masses are shying away from the Arab official media, which for
long hijacked political truth. The pan-Arab satellite TV channels
have freed the media, if only partially-a fact that has yet
to be appreciated in the US.
presence on Arabsat and Nilesat is testimony that the Arab states
do not block the flow the US political perspective to the Arab
world, regardless of the notion held by some that the Arab states
had little choice on that.
notions in Washington give the impression that the US is better
off creating its own media vehicles to reach Arabs, rather than
making more effective use of existing Arab media.
of Alhurra will largely depend on the lessons yet to be drawn
from the new and promising media dynamics created and still
evolving on the pan-Arab television scene. There is little evidence
that the US understands these new dynamics. With Alhurra the
US has opted for the easier alternative, but this will not guarantee
that its message will reach the greatest number of viewers.
Fakhreddine is research manager for media at the Pan-Arab Research
Center in Dubai, a member of Gallup International. Last summer
he was responsible for organizing the Gallup poll in Iraq. An
earlier version of this story appeared in the Daily Star, Beirut,
on March 29, 2004.