SAT CHANNEL AL-HURRA LAUNCHES TO MIXED REVIEWS
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
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.
$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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
piece was about the making of an Israeli training documentary
aimed at encouraging IDF soldiers to treat Palestinians better
at Israeli checkpoints.
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."
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.
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."
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."