U.S.-FUNDED SAT CHANNEL AL-HURRA LAUNCHES TO MIXED REVIEWS
  
By Willa Thayer

                                                     
Whether you love or hate the idea of a US-funded, Arabic-language satellite news station broadcasting to the Arab world, Al-Hurra - which launched regionally in mid-February - appears set to stay the course.

When asked about what the channel had to prove in order to secure its annual funding from US Congress, Norman Pattiz of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) - which oversees US international broadcasting - was confident.

The annual $570 million allocated for radio and TV stations under the board's auspices is, he said, "a teeny, tiny budget compared to other government agencies," and, "a quarter of the price of a B-1 bomber."

Regardless of Pattiz's grim ratio, the BBG expects to receive research results aimed at assessing the channel's regional impact by mid-May, after polling in 12 to 15 Arab capitals.

The channel's launch was accompanied by a flood of criticism in the Arab press, which asked rhetorically how Arab viewers could possibly trust a US-funded channel for regional news coverage, with US forces occupying Iraq and an administration that rarely censures Israel.

"Al-Hurra isn't free," local weekly Rose El-Youssef declared in a headline, playing on the meaning of the station's name - "the free one" - in Arabic. The magazine quoted one analyst who predicted that the station would - far from improving the image of the US - merely fuel popular distaste for America. Last month, a fatwa, almost a rite of passage for all things controversial in the region, was issued against the station by a Saudi Arabian sheikh, who warned Muslims not to deal with, or even watch, Al-Hurra.

However, the station's managers seem unfazed. "At this point, we'll take all the publicity and all the fatwas they'd like to give us. That lets people know that we're out there," said Pattiz. On its first day of broadcasting, Al- Hurra outlined its purpose on a talk show called "All Directions," where Moaufac Harb, the station's news director, explained, "Al-Hurra wasn't established to wipe out other Arab media. We want to compete with it, and be a part of it."

Some participants, though, expressed circumspection about the channel's prospects. "Don't quit your day job," Jihad Khazen, columnist for the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, advised Harb, predicting that it would be years before Middle Easterners tuned into Al-Hurra to "see what's going on at home."

Mohamed Shamam, managing editor of the Arabic edition of Newsweek, said, "Before the US administration informs the Arab people of the truth, it must first inform the American people of the truth."

Harb responded to the barbs by saying that the station's policy was to cover events truthfully, and provide viewers with information unavailable elsewhere, with the ultimate purpose of supporting the dissemination of democracy in the region.

Technically speaking, the station's producers are still finding their feet, and catching the news can require a measure of planning, according to viewers. "Al-Hurra's news bulletins are too few and far between," said Jihad Ballout, a spokesman for Qatar's internationally recognized flagship Al-Jazeera news channel. "But, to be fair, it's a bit premature to assess their content. The news department is still finding its way."

Meanwhile, Al-Hurra's coverage seems balanced, for the most part, taking angles similar to those of other regional news outlets. Shortly after the death of confessed Achille Lauro hijacker Abu Abbas on March 9 in a US detention facility in Iraq, for example, Al-Hurra ran an interview with Abbas' widow, who held the Americans responsible for her husband's well-being. Another piece covered an anti-war protest in the US, organized by families of servicemen stationed in Iraq.

Regional news appears no less unsparing, with footage of March 20 anti-US demonstrations in Cairo - highlighting the massive state security presence - and a telephone interview with a Libyan dissident, freshly released from a Tripoli prison. Concerning Israel, the litmus test for many regional viewers, Al-Hurra, while dealing with the hard news, also explores the lighter side.

On the day of the channel's launch, for example, the station covered an event in New York hosted by the peace group "Seeds for Peace" that brought Palestinian and Israeli youths together for purposes of mutual understanding in the US. The segment included footage of the youths, joined by Jordan's Queen Noor, holding hands and singing.

Another piece was about the making of an Israeli training documentary aimed at encouraging IDF soldiers to treat Palestinians better at Israeli checkpoints.

Asked whether such segments might be met with cynicism by the average Arab viewer, Harb said, "We don't think 'if I run that news piece' - if it's a legitimate, newsworthy piece - 'I might alienate people.' If I thought that way, I'd be paralyzed, and turn into an echo of other Arab media."

An impotrant issue for many, in these days of instant news, is the inclusion of historical context in reports. An Al-Hurra story in mid-March, for example, which covered anti-Syria protests in Lebanon by supporters of Michel Aoun, a former head of the Lebanese army (now in exile in France), portrayed the general as a patriot eager to liberate his
country. Scant attention was paid to Aoun's bloody 1989 "war of liberation," or his complicated history with neighboring powers and the US.

"I'm always promoting placing stories in context," Harb responded. "However, there are limitations to that. If I continue to give background, I turn into a history channel. If you consider Michel Aoun a controversial figure, and you don't invite controversial figures on your broadcast, I wouldn't invite any Arab official." TBS


This article is reprinted in its entirety from Business Monthly, April 2004, with permission. Willa Thayer is a Cairo-based journalist whose main interests are political-economy and Arab media. For her sociology MA she wrote a thesis entitled "The Nasserist Work Ethic and the Spirit of State Capitalism, 1952-1967."
Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu