Alhurra—Dialogue with the Deaf

By David Wilmsen, TBS contributing editor

The United States Government's new Arabic-language satellite television channel claims to be bringing something new to the Arab world. The message is impossible to miss, as it is incessantly hyped in the clumsily cued station promos: If you look, you must surely see; a new horizon; a new window on the world. Think. Contemplate. Choose. You are free. Imagine an uncensored dialogue, a dialogue not afraid of crossing red lines. Imagine the truth as it is. Imagine no more.

From now on Alhurra is here to promote that dialogue.

So far, it seems, not many have bothered to engage. Oh, a few—a very few—have appeared on the talk shows. And a few more in the press and broadcast media have spluttered some protests; this is their domain, after all. But the viewing public either has yet to become aware of the new channel or is simply ignoring it. This is a good thing. Otherwise, the bumptious arrogance of the station would start losing hearts and minds.

The irony is that Alhurra really has provided a vehicle for dialogue, just not in the manner envisioned by the station. Arab audiences already have a choice between at least a half-a-dozen all-talk satellite outlets, from which, in their reckoning, they receive a balanced, in-depth airing of the issues, and whose popularity stems in part from their freewheeling talk shows criticising Arab governments. They are fully aware of US positions; they just see things differently, and until now, there has been no venue for them to convey their views to American interlocutors.

This was expressed in the maiden broadcast of the station with the first edition of the weekly program "The Four Directions." Journalist Jihad Khazen, joining the program by satellite feed from London, observed that the problem is not the failure of the Americans to gain a hearing on the Arab airways. The problem is American policy. He continued, "We welcome the chance for dialogue, and we hope it helps, but it is not going to change too many minds. What will change minds is a change in US policy."

Instead of listening, though, Alhurra seems stubbornly bent on hammering home the government agenda, preaching to Arabs about the frailties of their society. What it misses is that Arabs do not disagree with them on that score. A regular guest to the station, Washington chief of the newspaper Al-Hayat, Salah Nemett, is perfectly happy to concede that the Arab world needs democracy. But, he points out,

No one is against democracy; we just don't want it delivered on the back of an American tank.

The US does not want to encourage democracy out of any love for the Arabs but because it sees it as being in its own interest to do so as part of its struggle against terrorism.

Democracy requires an independent judiciary and parliament, a free press that keeps an eye on power, and laws that support these institutions. Without those, an immediate transformation to representative democracy would result in the ascendancy of the religious extremists. Why? The Arab world has been ruled by secular regimes for the past seventy years, and the rise of Islamic movements has come about as a result of the failures of those systems. It is the present regimes that are responsible for the rise of these movements.

This is not what the United States government relishes hearing. And yet views like these are presented nightly on the talk show and station flagship "Free Hour" with mouthpiece Ziad Noujaim, one of only two regular talk shows in the entire weekly schedule. (The rest of the time is taken up by a curious blend of variety shows and travelogues-many of them in English-and occasionally an hour of news.) Unlike the other Arab satellite channels, whose talk shows are peopled with a wide cross section of voices, "Free Hour" is plagued with a deadening sameness of Arab guests, probably because there are only a few convenient to Alhurra offices in Virginia. These are brought up against a greater abundance of American officials, Martin Indyk, Richard Armitage, Colin Powell-even the president appeared-and the two groups talk past each other. Noujaim's questions seem scripted to provide the Americans a venue for spouting the party line and to rub Arab noses into their miserable plight. No one appears to notice that the Arab guests agree that things are bad. But they are sceptical of American motives and intentions too.

That may have changed for a night when sociologist and democracy-advocate Saad El Din Ibrahim was invited to the show. He more than anyone else should have assured station management of a rousing program with a genuine Arab voice detailing all that is amiss in the Arab world. Usually the programs incorporate several viewpoints, almost always including a spokesman for the administration. This time, the Arab social critic was granted the entire hour to himself.

It cannot have turned out exactly as expected. True, Ibrahim agreed with every ill Noujaim threw at him. Monarchracy? We've got it. Freedom of expression? Restricted. Opposition parties? Weak. Minority rights? A few. But he grew impatient with his host's single-minded pursuit of these hot-button topics, as if through their much repetition, someone in the Arab world would finally hear. Never mind that they have been hearing Ibrahim say just these things in Arab print and broadcast media for years.

Consider this exchange:

Ziad: Is there a civil society in the Arab world? Is it effective? And most importantly, is it independent of political power? Is it free to operate without permission of the political powers?

Saad: Man, you are asking five questions in one. Which one do you want me to answer? Yes, it exists, in some countries it is strong and in others weak, and it is empowered to play a role.

Ziad: Then why doesn't it play a role? Why is there no change? I want to believe what you are saying, and many viewers…

Saad: You have to ask, where? In the Sudan, civil society was able to bring down the government twice, the Abboud and Jaafar El-Numeiri regimes. Professional associations, these are civil society. In Bahrain, Kuwait, in a country like Lebanon. When you say strong, that doesn't mean that it is going to win all of its fights with the autocratic state. Who maintained Lebanese society during the civil war? There was no government. It was civil society-non-governmental, volunteer organizations-that swept the streets and provided social services as best they could…

Ziad: I'm not talking about services; I'm talking about the possibility…

Saad: Ziad! Are you going to teach me what civil society is? Unbelievable! That's what civil-society organizations do. Civil society provides services, creative outlets, works for change…

Ziad: That's what I am talking about…

Saad: Everything! Why do you bring up one side of the issue and leave out the other? It's bad enough that our leaders shout us down; we don't need it from you.

It must be asked, who is listening to these discussions? Why should Alhurra be quizzing its Arab guests about their civil society or any other issue? Arab audiences do not need to be reminded of the unpleasant realities of their world; they know them only too well. It is Americans who, instead of trotting out their usual tired nostrums, should be listening to the Arab point of view, finally expressed in dialogue in an American venue. But that is not likely to happen while the dialogue is in Arabic. So, in the end, who is listening? Probably no one. TBS

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
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