It has been a
year and a half since US-funded Arabic satellite channel Alhurra
started broadcasting on 14 February 2004. Even before the channel's
launch, it was a magnet for controversy -- many in the Arab
media denounced it as propaganda while some Washington insiders
questioned the decision to spend $64 million on the channel
at the expense of Voice of America's Arabic Service and other,
more traditional public diplomacy methods. Now that Alhurra
has had over a year to get on its feet, it is time for a second
look. TBS's Lindsay Wise visited the channel's ultra-modern
studios in Springfield, Va., and sat down with Mouafac Harb,
Alhurra's executive vice president and director of network news,
to review the channel's performance over the past year and give
Harb an opportunity to both respond to some of Alhurra's critics
and tout its successes.
of all, I wanted to ask you if you could talk about the experience
of working with Alhurra, and how you decided to take this job,
and where it is taking you.
Before I joined US International Broadcasting, which is under
the umbrella of the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- a federal
agency known as the BBG -- I was the bureau chief of Al Hayat
newspaper in Washington. And I'm an American citizen. I was
born in Beirut. September 11 was a major event that made people
think, and I was one of them. And there was this opening, and
I believed in the project. Finally the United States decided
to reach out to the Arab world. So I applied for this job, and
I believed in the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
It's a great mission. It's not only for Arabic. The BBG oversees
over 60 language services to promote freedom and democracy,
and I believe that this is something missing in the Middle East
today, and it is a noble cause. So it's kind of a double pleasure:
you work on something you believe in, while at the same time
it's a great job, and it's my field of expertise. So I joined,
and we launched Radio Sawa. Radio Sawa -- despite what a lot
of people said about it at the beginning, "It's a bad idea,"
you know, "It's not gonna fly," "People are not
going to listen to it because it's an American radio channel"
-- in a very, very short period of time, in every single market
where it had a clear signal, Radio Sawa has become one of the
top radio channels among youth. We continue to strive, and our
transmitters are spreading all over the Middle East. We were
encouraged by Radio Sawa and naturally the board decided, building
on the success of Radio Sawa, to form a television channel,
and this is where Alhurra came in.
TBS: And have
you, over the last year, met your expectations? Were there certain
because the success of Radio Sawa -- I was part of the team
that created Radio Sawa and manages Radio Sawa until today --
the board had confidence in me and asked me to do the same thing
at Alhurra. And time was not on our side. We didn't have all
the time in the world to put together that channel, but we decided
to do it, and we put a deadline and met the deadline. The funny
thing is that the first complete rehearsal of our newscast was
the day we launched the channel! We embarked on a massive campaign
to recruit Arab talent, and it's not easy nowadays. You have
to travel to the Middle East, you have to tell people what's
going on, and you have to explain to them what it's all about,
our intentions and where we come from, and then you have the
logistics of getting the people visas to come to the US and
settle here. It's not easy any more. But we managed to put together
a team that I'm proud of and we believe in this mission, and
I'm proud of them.
TBS: I know
that last year you wrote an article for TBS about your goals
for Alhurra and some of them were "offering a fresh perspective,
and viewpoints, raising professional standards, and bringing
more debate." (See A
New Look to Arab News, TBS 12).
TBS: Do you
feel that you have met these goals in the first year, and how
would you assess where Alhurra is in its first year, and how
would you assess where Alhurra is in relation to where you want
it to be?
MH: I believe
these are still the main objectives of the channel. Everything
we do falls under these guidelines. And I believe today Alhurra
is part of the Arab local media scene. Before launching Alhurra,
the market was, when it comes to news and information, a two-channel
market. You look at it right now and it's a three-channel market.
We have probably more public affairs shows and debate and talk
shows than any of the other all-news channels on the Arab satellite
airwaves. We're not an all-news channel; we are a news and information
channel. We have a variety of programs, but when it comes to
debate, encouraging debate of issues that usually you don't
hear about in the Arab world, I think we are ahead of our competition,
and in this regard I think we have surpassed what we have planned
and what we have promised, and we have gone beyond what we expected
at this stage.
heard some of the discussion that goes on between some of the
satellite channels, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, and there's a
lot of talk about professional standards and whether Arab channels
should have a democratizing agenda and what is the role of the
Arabic media. Do you see Alhurra as having an agenda or a goal
more than just presenting the news?
MH: You know,
I don't like the word agenda. I would say that Alhurra has a
mission, which is the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors
to promote freedom and democracy through the dissemination of
accurate and objective information to people throughout the
world about the US and the world. I think yes, we do have a
mission. And this is not a mission that contradicts what journalists
stand for. We have a journalistic mission too and I think that
journalists who don't believe in democracy are simply hack writers.
They're pliable. So I cannot operate, I cannot be a good journalist,
unless I live in a democratic society. And that's why we are
objective. We present the news but when it comes to democracy,
it's the core of what we do. I'm informing people so you can
make a better choice, and this is the core of democracy.
you made any changes or adjustments in the last year? You said
you started out in rehearsal.
MH: We all
along believed that to be effective you have to be credible,
especially when it comes to news and information. So everything
we do has to serve that objective. To be a credible source of
information. Because we are commercial-free, we are not in the
Middle East to dominate the media scene or the airwaves. We
are not there to get rid of the indigenous media. We are there
to be part of that mix, to benefit from them so they also benefit
from us, to raise the standards of journalism in the Arab world,
to make other channels more honest. And of course we added more
programs. We adjusted a little bit so we could meet that objective
to be more credible. In reality, what does it mean? The more
shows you do from the region, the more credible you are. Over
the past eight months we now have shows that originate from
Morocco. Alhurra has probably the only Arabic language show
among Arabic satellite channels, the famous ones, that is coming
out of Morocco. We did the same thing from the Gulf. We have
probably the only Arabic language weekly show that is dedicated
to Gulf issues from all over the Gulf, sometimes from Dubai,
sometimes from Kuwait. It depends on the story. So we are doing
more original production from the region, more documentaries
in addition to the daily newscast that we provide. We are extending
our network of correspondents. Again, you know when it comes
to television, people love to see a correspondent in the field.
Even sometimes they don't pay attention to what he's saying,
but if you look at the background of the correspondent and you
see that correspondent in the middle of the event that's all
they care about.
TBS: And you're
doing more of that?
MH: Oh yes.
Our correspondents are all over the region. ... We are present
almost in every single Arab capital and every single capital
around the world where there is a story of interest to an Arab
audience. One of the things we'd like to achieve is not only
to report the story that is of interest to a Middle Eastern
audience, not only to bring the story that a Middle East audience
would identify with, but also to make people of the Middle East,
or at least the Arabic-speaking world, part of the global debate.
So sometimes, you know, there's something, there's an AIDS conference
or there's a global phenomenon like the earthquake in Indonesia.
So we'd love also to bring the world to our audience. ... We
want to make you part of the global debate, whether it's the
environment, book shows, stuff like that.
last year you said Alhurra had a mandate from the US government
to report accurately even it's critical of US policy, for example.
Do you have examples from your programming in the last twelve
months or so that show that you follow that mandate?
let me tell you one thing. We at least have two talk shows a
day on Alhurra and Alhurra Iraq and you know it is not easy
nowadays to find a lot of people who will support US foreign
policy, but I have to have these shows every day. That fact
indicates that sometimes we invite people critical of American
policy. The key here is to be balanced, and to make sure that
all elements and views relevant to a certain story are presented
on a show. ... It's not that we take an editorial decision to
be against someone, but we allow a margin of freedom at Alhurra.
... There is a role at Alhurra for debate and this is what democracy
is all about, free debates, and if we are faithful to our mission
we have to allow that free debate. And it goes back to the structure
of the BBG. You've got four Democrats, four Republicans. It's
not a partisan board. And when they say we have to be objective
and accurate and balanced, you know we're not a mouthpiece of
TBS: Do you
ever find that you have trouble finding people to come on as
guests on Alhurra or even working for Alhurra because [phone
interrupts] . . . .
They were calling me about people from the Middle East looking
for jobs. So that's a nice segue to your question! It's a challenge.
Journalism is -- sometimes there is one event and all channels
are trying to book the guests who are relevant to that event
and all of us are after the same newsmakers every once in a
while and it's a challenge. But I don't think there is a serious
problem, despite what you hear and may read in a certain category
of Arab journalism, about Alhurra being boycotted. It is not
true. And I think over time, the job of our bookers became a
lot easier because at the beginning people hadn't seen the channel,
they might have been hesitant, they didn't know its reach. And
right now Alhurra is one of the major sources of information
and I rarely hear anymore people saying, "I don't have
time for it right now," and then you look and you see them
on other channels. It's the opposite now, I think a lot of people
are pitching our bookers to appear on Alhurra.
TBS: Why do
you think that is?
MH: It's very
simple. People want to be on TV. People want to make sure that
their views are heard and Alhurra is a channel that is watched.
And also, I believe we do a professional job, so we don't invite
people to trap them. We don't choreograph things. We don't stage
phone calls. We don't do that. It's a debate and you come and
we do it live and we make sure that we invite people that do
matter. For our medical show, I don't invite someone to talk
about the Suez Canal. You know, that's one of the problems,
I believe, in the Arab media. People don't have specialized
guests to talk about specific events. So they're always like
talking around the issue. They don't give you specific info.
TBS: So you
don't think there's a stigma attached to Alhurra in terms of
working for it or coming to speak on it?
MH: No. Not
at all. I'm not aware of that. And people working for Alhurra,
the number of applications we have received and continue to
receive at Alhurra is beyond what I expected. I wouldn't have
expected that that number of people would apply.
TBS: And do
you have numbers for that?
MH: I would
say in the thousands.
TBS: Do you
have a way to measure your progress or your success for yourself
and do you have any idea of who is watching?
MH: We do
a lot of market research, a lot of focus groups. And I think
probably when it comes to Arabic language media, Alhurra is
the most researched project I can think of. And before we do
anything we do market research. (Click here for ACNeilson survey
results.) Alhurra again is a job in progress, and we do have
good numbers. People are watching. And we believe from the evidence,
scientific and anecdotal, that people are watching. And what
we talked about before, the fact that everyone in the think-tank
intelligentsia or officials, they accept our invitations. And
I was talking to someone who appeared on one of our shows -
his name is Jihad El Hazm. I don't know if you know him, he's
a columnist on Al Hayat newspaper. He was a guest on our show
and he called me after the show and he said, "You know,
I've never appeared on any television channel before and received
so many phone calls as I did after your show." So you know,
people are watching, people are watching.
TBS: Are you
satisfied with Alhurra's reputation and your viewership numbers,
and what are you doing to attract more viewers?
would like to make other channels more honest than they
MH: I've said
it is fine, where we are today, but is that it? Am I going to
go to sleep right now? No. We have more for Alhurra and we want
to take Alhurra even further. I would love to see our numbers
going up and I would like to see our influence in the Middle
East spreading out. And when I say our influence, I want to
make sure it is used in the right context. When I say influence,
it's not to change people. It may sound like, you know, brainwashing
people. Our influence is in the media. We would like to make
other channels more honest than they were before. This
is what I would say is our impact on the Arab media. It's no
longer two channels so the broadcasters are at a disadvantage
from their own managers. Today there is competition in the Middle
East. We want journalism and broadcasters to be in better negotiating
positions to their own managers, so if you cannot negotiate
good terms, you can go to Alhurra and visa versa. I think the
fact that we are there has improved the conditions of journalism
and broadcasting in the Arab world because you have another
venue, you have another outlet. And also people are comparing
and watching and television is a medium where, if it works here,
people immediately want to do it over there. And you see our
fingerprints: more magazine kind of shows on other Arab satellite
channels, more light stuff, more optimistic stuff, more shows
that are not about violence. There is another side to life in
the Middle East. I'm sorry, we're not a depressing channel.
You can be accurate, but you don't have to be depressing.
TBS: How would
you define accurate?
MH: You can
be sensitive to peoples emotions on a certain day where there
is a major event and you feel it, that the mood of the place
is not good, so you try to be - because our job is not to offend
- to be sensitive, the closer we are to people's sentiments
and aspirations the better we are. But at the same time you
have to work with what the facts are.
TBS: Do you
have certain policies about airing tapes of hostages or messages
from Bin Laden? I know that Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera have been
talking about having new standards and a code of ethics.
MH: I think
they talk a lot about having new standards and I'm glad that
people are talking about having new standards. I would say the
fact that we are there and we have our own standards,
we have forced people to review their own standards. They may
not agree with our standards, but at least we triggered a debate
among them. I would say to you, this is an area where not only
the media in the Middle East is trying to figure out what to
do, it's a challenge in newsrooms all around the world. We're
commercial-free, and if the president of the United States wanted
to air thirty seconds of a reelection campaign ad, he'd have
to pay for it. How would you justify if any time a terrorist
organization has a spot, a thirty-second spot or a segment,
whether its Bin Laden or people who kidnap a person, they sent
it to us and we gave them all the airtime in the world? So we
have to make sure that we are reporting the news, but at the
same time refuse to aid terrorists. We will not tolerate the
strategy of terrorists. If you look at how terrorists in Iraq
use those hostages, it is using the media as a part of their
strategy. Instead of having to rent a basement to hide the hostages
in and rent a car and a mask, they have an IT department and
they bring a camera and they put it on the net and they send
it to everyone. We don't want to become accomplices to terrorist
organizations and part of their tactics and strategy.
TBS: So what
is the official policy in terms of footage?
"We will not
tolerate the strategy of terrorists. If you look at how
terrorists in Iraq use those hostages, it is using media
as a part of their strategy."
MH: We go
on a case by case basis. We don't show faces of dead people,
okay? It's a matter of taste. The most important thing is to
get the story out. That's the main thing. And what do you use
to get the story out? That differs from one journalism organization
to the other, but the main thing is to get the story out. But
do we go out of our way to show bloody scenes? I think it's
offensive to people.
TBS: So for
example, if you got a hold of a hostage video, what would you
show? What wouldn't you show? Would you show any of it?
definitely I'm against showing hostages pleading on tape. I
paraphrase. I won't allow the terrorists to use the platform
to shape public opinion, because those powerful images are very,
very emotional. First, it's not fair to the family of the hostage.
And second, I don't want to be used by terrorists. I might use
a shot, put a voice over on top of it, and make sure that all
the analysis needed to get the story out. But again, I think
there must be some legal issues here. This is someone who was
forced to say something on air. There should be a new Geneva
Convention or something. You can't do that -- you see a family,
a father a brother, a sister and you see it on TV. All channels
are airing it under freedom of speech. I don't think it is freedom
of speech. It's ethics at base.
TBS: For example,
I know there was a controversial tape where an American soldier
shot someone in a mosque unarmed. Did you show that tape?
MH: We showed
the tape. Again, the most important thing is to get the story
out. The story was out. The thing is context and to make sure
that when you show pictures you don't show them in a way to
mislead people. And we were not there, we don't know what happened,
so we put whatever was needed to explain to people what was
going on that day and what is that controversy about. But did
we show the exact shooting? It's unnecessary.
TBS: I'm just
trying to get an idea of what your standards are. For example,
the burning of the bodies of the American contractors?
MH: We don't
go grabbing pictures that are offensive.
about messages from Bin Laden?
MH: The same
guidelines that I applied before. The most important thing is
that we have an item that is newsworthy and that we get the
story out. But at the same time we need to protect the public
and also we need to be faithful to our mission and to make sure
that we are really commercial free. We don't give that platform
to anyone unless it's newsworthy. No room for preaching on our
question is about language. Is there a policy about using the
word "martyred" (ustushhida) or "resistance"
MH: One policy.
We only use terms and expressions that are common among respectable
MH: We do
not use any term that colors the news and we stay away from
adjectives that can be viewed as taking sides. So again it's
part of de-emotionalizing the news and not taking sides to make
sure our news is accurate. And people go back to you and say
martyrs and ustushhida ("so-and-so was martyred")
this is [unclear]. Even Muslim scholars today don't know what
to call those people and who are we to decide? That's not our
job. We report the news, not define it. And this is across the
TBS: So what
about something like irhab ("terrorism").
is something we use. It's common. We follow the same language
that is used by AP and Reuters and major news organizations.
will use sometimes "militants" instead.
MH: It depends
on the context.
As you know I live in Cairo, and I've been around the Middle
East traveling as well, and as I'm sure you're aware, there
are a lot of questions about Alhurra, even before it came out,
about whether it was credible, or a propaganda channel, and
I feel like today, when I talk to people, to Arabs in the Middle
East, there's still this big question: Alhurra has no credibility,
it has no street cred, everyone knows it's a mouthpiece for
the government. How do you handle this?
All what you said we are well aware of. And I understand why
people would say that. The question is, we are unlike any other
channels, we start at credit zero, we start at minus. Before
we even launched the channel, people made up their minds about
us. Not only that, people created their own definition about
what we intend to do, and based on their own definition, not
our definitions, they judged us. It came at a time, you know
when there is a war on terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict
is not on a peaceful track, it came at the time of the war in
Iraq, at a time when we were talking about the Greater Middle
East Initiative, democracy. Automatically people are in love
with conspiracy theories in the Arab world. You live there and
you know that. So this was not helpful to our channel. But again,
this is the Middle East. If you want to time it for better days,
I can't think of since I was born of a day that was the right
day to launch a TV channel in the Middle East. But what we do
to counter this, we do not allow it to divert us from the mission.
We don't want to be distracted. We believe Arab media consumers
are very sophisticated. It's a track record. Like people saying
to you, don't tell me you're funny, tell me a joke. It's a track
record. They may think we're not credible, but they will watch,
and might find out.
TBS: So you
think people are really giving you a chance?
people are, yes. I think we underestimate the power of people's
desire to know. This is a region where I believe in most Arab
countries, owning a satellite dish is against the law. In spite
of that you see people risking their lives and going on top
of the roofs of their building to put a satellite channel when
they know it's illegal. Why is that? They want to know. They
are running away from the state-owned and -run mouthpieces of
Arab regimes. And there's one thing people say to us, "You
are also a government-owned channel. Why are you bragging that
you are any different from the other Arabic channels."
From the outside, that argument sounds great but it's deceiving,
and I'll tell you why. Because the political system in the United
States is different than the political system in every single
country in the Middle East. We are funded by congress and subsequently
it is taxpayers' money, and I don't think taxpayers are funding
us to be the mouthpiece of the regime. If the political systems
in the Middle East are like ours, if their parliaments are elected
like our Congress, the president is elected like our president,
then that comparison is an accurate one, but to come and compare
us to them? You're comparing apples and oranges. It's a democracy
in the US.
TBS: So why
would you say that, if I asked almost any number of my Arab
friends, they would say Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari
monarch, has more credibility than Alhurra?
"I think the
word credibility in the Middle East does not mean the
same thing as when you say it to a Western audience."
MH: I think
the word credibility in the Middle East does not mean the same
thing as when you say it to a Western audience. When I say to
Arabs, why do you think Al Jazeera is credible, they will say
to you, it sympathizes with our views. So that's why people
think you are credible. It caters to people's emotions. It tells
me what I believe in, which is fine, but it's not credibility.
Credibility is when I tell you something that really happened
and I don't tamper with the news. So that's what I think Alhurra
is bringing to the table in the Middle East. We separate between
opinion and news. If it's an opinion, I'm obliged to tell you,
this is my opinion, but if I mix the two together, this is not
TBS: So you're
saying that Alhurra doesn't do that, but someone like Al Jazeera
saying that. I didn't say that. I don't want to talk about it,
but I think that's a common practice in Middle East media, that
people editorialize the news and it's not only in radio and
television, but it is also the newspapers. We don't do that.
TBS: I'm curious.
Who has content control?
MH: We have
a journalistic mission and we have a board, and everything that
is aired on this channel is decided by that newsroom that I
run. We have the BBG, which acts as a firewall. ... Their job
is not to meddle with content, but to act as a firewall between
us and the government. So if I get a phone call from any government
agency or official saying, why did you do that? I want you to
change that," the way that the BBG was created I can say
to them, go to the board, don't talk to us. This is to protect
the integrity and to make sure the journalistic mission is protected.
would you like to say to Alhurra's critics?
MH: My main
thing is that Alhurra is not there to replace the Arab media.
Alhurra is not there to brainwash anyone. Alhurra is there to
be part of the Arab local media scene, and this is not the first
time the US government has broadcast news and information in
different languages across the world and if Hizbullah could
have a satellite television channel, is it too much for the
greatest power on earth to have a satellite channel? Why so
threatened? I mean, we are so sensitive to Arabic culture and
I think this channel is the most family-oriented channel.
TBS: And in
terms of the format, why didn't Alhurra take more of a format
like Radio Sawa? More entertainment with news interjected?
Hizbullah could have a satellite television channel, is
it too much for the greatest power on earth have a satellite
channel? Why so threatened?"
you launch any media channel you study the market and based
on what you see in the market and your vision you try to come
up with the best techniques to penetrate that market and I think
when it comes to radio, the way people consume it nowadays is
in the car, listening to music, so we designed a radio program
that gives people radio the way they consume radio, which is
breaking news when something happens in the world . . . . When
it comes to television and you look at the Arab satellite scene,
it's so advanced when it comes to entertainment. Sitcoms or
an American sitcom, or a game or what have you which is not
copyrighted. You've already got all that. What would we be bringing
to the table? So we decided you've got to find a loophole in
the market. You've got all-sports channels, all-music channels,
all-movie channels today in the Arab world; however, Alhurra
is the only channel that is dedicated to promoting freedom and
TBS: So can
you tell me what is your percentage of entertainment to news
MH: You know
what we do? We have the NBA. So we do have entertainment, but
we don't call it entertainment like general entertainment. We
do entertaining information. Magazines, fashion, style, sports.
TBS: So what
is the percentage of hard news?
MH: It depends
on the day, but I'd say primetime it's 50-50.
TBS: And does
that remain consistent or does that change throughout the year?
MH: We are
adding more and more news.
TBS: And is
that more original content as well?
MH: Yes. The
future of Alhurra is for local production in the Middle East.
TBS: You say
there are no commercials on Alhurra. What about the promos for
Alhurra, especially the horses?
were part of launching the channel, and we heard a lot of things:
Oh, the cowboys are coming. And then they discovered those are
Arabian horses so they shut up. Plenty of things. No matter
what you do.
Today Alhurra is in the big league in the
Middle East and we are part of the local area's media scene.
... No one will say Alhurra is not professional in its production
quality. They say, Oh it is the American policy. They mix two
things together. And 90 percent of the criticism we received
came towards US foreign policy and not Alhurra, but they mix
two things together.
TBS: Are there
any projects or programs or scoops that you want to brag about
MH: Oh, well.
I can tell you we are adding more morning shows and day shows
and we have the NBA. We have a medical show -- it's not about
medicines, it's about preventative medicine.
TBS: Do you
have any sense of what your most popular programs are?
MH: We have
a nice show every night called Free Hour. It's a daily talk
show, our signature talk show. We have a fashion and style magazine
every week called Azarar. This is very popular. And documentaries,
you know, top-rated documentaries from around the world, and
we do produce our own documentaries as well.
has been in new at Alhurra in recent months?
MH: Over the past few months a lot of things are going on
and brewing in the Middle East. Democratic movements are spreading,
reform movements -- peaceful ones -- are spreading. You feel
there is something going on throughout the Middle East, from
Beirut to Egypt to Bahrain. You feel like there is something
going on. And for any media organization to be successful, you
have to be in tune, in sync with your audience, you have to
connect with them. Alhurra is very proactive. We are doing town
hall meetings in places where we see a reform movement is picking
up. We did a whole week out of Beirut, we did a whole week out
of Cairo. Every day there was a town hall meeting and next week
we're going to Damascus. So we're trying to seize the moment
and be useful to our audience at a time when we are witnessing
historical changes in the Middle East.
TBS: Is there
anything else, in terms of coverage of recent events?
MH: We are
doing more breaking news. We've now been one year on air and
our correspondents are spread all over the world and we are
reacting faster to breaking news. But at the same time, what
distinguishes us from other channels is that we are news and
information and the diversity of the channel -- yes we go and
break for news, but this is something people are liking. It's
not only repeating and looping the same headlines that all news
channels have. We have news, information, documentaries, but
at the same time we have entertaining programs. We have the
NBA, we have other programs that are of interest to our audience.
Having said that, there's also a promise that whenever something
happens, you can continue to watch Alhurra because we will make
sure that we'll inform you right away that something happened.
TBS: On that
point, actually, I know that some of the criticism that you
guys have gotten in the last year has been about breaking news.
There was of course the incident with Sheikh Yassin's death
MH: That was
a month after launching Alhurra (on March 22, 2004). This is
passé, this is one. And second, we're not an all-news
channel. And even that day, those (critics) were not fair to
us because we changed the whole channel. We did a lot of specials
that day in primetime about the assassination of Sheikh Yassin.
However, we are more aggressive right now in going and doing
I was watching last week when the bombing happened here in the
Khan El Khalili (in Cairo), and I felt like Alhurra was quite
late actually with that news. I didn't get much information
about it from Alhurra until at least a half hour or an hour
after it was on other channels.
first of all, it depends. We are not an all-news channel. However,
we have certain guidelines that before we go on air -- because
we understand the immediacy, people go by rumors, and we're
not going to put on air anything that we're not sure of.
TBS: So it
doesn't matter if your competitors Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya
are running it?
competing for the truth, you know, we're not competing to get
the picture first. I want to make sure what I tell people is
right. I hate speculations. We don't want to speculate, we don't
want to give wrong information and come back and correct and
what have you. And we don't want to create panic, because sometimes
we'll be watching a minimum explosion and if you watch those
channels, you feel, wow, the world is angry and it creates some
kind of panic. But at the same time we have an obligation to
breaking news and to tell people what's going on and we're not
a local channel, so we have to pick the event. Our reach should
be regional and global, to break into the news and to announce
coverage of an event. I mean, why people are not -- you know
what's going on in Yemen over the past two weeks? Fighting.
More than fifty people died. I did not see any news channel
breaking and going non-stop coverage. Why is that?
TBS: So you're
saying it's a matter of selective breaking news?
you know, whatever they have available, they try to convince
you that that is the only story in the Middle East.
so you're satisfied with your breaking news coverage, or are
you still working on it?
MH: We are,
but we will continue to be more aggressive.
TBS: Are there
more new non-news programs that are coming?
are more that are coming, but from the first day of launching
Alhurra we had these kinds of programs. We are doing a lot of
documentaries. We have acquired a lot of good-quality documentaries.
And if you are watching you will see that if there is a big
event, like the death of the pope, we immediately put into play
two or three documentaries. A big event or personality - we're
playing right now a documentary on FDR and for the anniversary
of the liberation of Auschwitz we did something as well. We
are reacting to global news and global events and this is the
direction we're going. We've acquired some really good stuff.
We have Frontline, we have The Civil War, the
one that ran on PBS, we have a jazz series that Ken Burns did
and we're about to launch a -- I don't want to call it a medical
show -- it is more of a health and good living show for the
region. And we are making efforts to do more original production
from the region. Town hall meetings, and this summer there will
be documentaries as well. I don't want to say the names of the
documentaries because I don't want people to get the ideas,
but this summer you will see high quality documentaries broadcast
TBS: In Arabic,
In Arabic. Those are original, produced by Alhurra, commissioned
on behalf of Alhurra to be produced by Arabic producers but
under our editorial guidelines and those are big quality documentaries.
And you will start to see them probably early May.
TBS: So what
is your dream for Alhurra, your vision for Alhurra at this point?
Would you like people to turn to it in a crisis and look to
it as a number one source of news, or would you like to see
it as competing --
quote me incorrectly, because I want to say this carefully.
From day one our channel is not commercial and we are publicly
funded. As I have said, our plan is not to replace the indigenous
media. We never planned it that way. We are not there to become
the channel and people don't watch their own channel. However,
we want to be one of the primary sources of information for
people to enrich the Arabic media scene and also given what
is going on in the Middle East, we would love to make the Arab
media more honest in its reporting. These are the objectives
and at the same time, we have to be also faithful to the overall
mission of US international broadcasting, which is to promote
freedom and democracy.
TBS: So what
about the idea of what people call "moving the needle"
in favor of positive attitudes toward the US. Do you see that
as part of your mission as well?
MH: It is
not stated that way, "moving the needle." I mean,
how do you measure the needle? This is the expression that I
find very simplistic. These are long-term attitudes and I think
that if we are successful in our mission, which is to promote
freedom and democracy in the region, that needle by itself would
move. It's a byproduct.
TBS: Of doing
your, job, basically.
MH: Of doing
our job, exactly. Because if people are informed, democracy
has a better chance. And if democracy prevails in the Middle
East I don't think you'll see the kind of hatred and resentment
you see towards the world and the West and mainly the United
another opportunity for you to clear up some questions. There's
been, obviously, all lot of polls conducted for the BBG by Ipsos-Stat
and ACNeilson, and I've seen all those polls. But of course,
I've also seen other polls like from people like Shibley Telhami
and the Arab Research Group that show very different numbers.
How do you reconcile the different numbers that seem to pop
up depending on whose polling and the contradictions that arise
in terms of numbers?
MH: Do you
remember during the (US) elections and the Zogby exit polls?
They were so off! So you know, I don't want to talk about the
other research that's being conducted in the Middle East, but
I can defend our own research. I can tell you we have no reason
to doubt the results of our research and the research we have
contracted to major players in the world -- I mean I'm talking
about Ipsos-Stat and Nielsen. I mean those are the standards
by which all other companies are judged and if you go to the
Middle East ad agencies they rely heavily on the polls and research
of Ipsos-Stat to determine how to serve their own customers.
So I would say those are the people who set the standards in
the business. However, one of the problems nowadays is that
everyone is a public diplomacy expert and a media expert and
I'm, you know, Dr. Telhami is someone I respect, but I don't
know how long he's been in that business, the business of measuring
media and rating journalists. So let's stick to professionals
who've been doing this for a long, long time and let's see the
method and the scientific methods by which our research has
who are criticizing our project have yet to come up with
a good idea. Okay, what's your alternative? Don't do radio,
don't do Alhurra, but what's your alternative? Change
the policy? No, we're not policy makers."
You may hear people
especially in Washington, around the think tanks, questioning
the usefulness of launching Alhurra: "Unless you change
the policy, nothing is going to change." At least we're
trying something. Those who are criticizing our project have
yet to come up with a good idea. Okay, what's your alternative?
Don't do radio, don't do Alhurra, but what's your alternative?
Change the policy? No, we're not policy makers. People voted
for this president and that's his policy. So, you know, I don't
mind people having their own opinion about our project, but
what is their solution to the problems of the Middle East today
when it comes to public diplomacy and the attitudes of Arabs
towards the United States? I haven't seen anything.
about the criticism you get from the Arab press? I mean, not
so much from Washington. Does that kind of stuff sting? Do you
worry about that at all?
it is not all negative. We've received a lot of -- I mean we're
part of the Arab media scene today and I've seen bad, negative
press in the Arab media about Arab media more than about Alhurra.
This is one thing. And second, you have to understand when we
are criticized by certain columnists, it does not mean the whole
Arab press. Like Mustafa Bakry in Cairo. I mean, you know that
guy was also on the payroll of Saddam Hussein! Same thing in
Jordan. So we have to know the Arab media. It's an extension
of the political system, the regimes, the intelligence apparatus.
TBS: So you
don't really concern yourself with their criticism then? You
don't lose sleep over it?
MH: No, believe
me. Actually the other day some person was saying he doesn't
want to admit that he was watching Alhurra. He's a columnist
in Jordan and he's well-known for being pro-Saddam. He said,
"My bad luck took me the other day to watch Alhurra."
He wouldn't say, "I was watching Alhurra." We thought,
TBS: I was
reading something in the Egyptian press a while ago that was
trashing you personally. Does that kind of stuff bother you?
Do you hear it? Do you have any response to it. It said you
had gotten death threats. Is that true?
MH: I don't
want to become the story. If you want to be a good journalist
in the Middle East and dealing with Middle Eastern affairs,
it's part of the job. Me and all my other colleagues in the
Middle East who are trying to do their jobs and be professional
journalists, their lives are at risk, so I'm not the only one.
Telling the truth in the Middle East is a risky business. But
things will change. They will change.
TBS: Is there
anything else you'd like to add?
Be fair to us. You've seen the people, they're journalists.
These people, they're so courageous. They're like family. They
believe in democracy. The first thing they used to ask me when
I was interviewing them was, "Is this going to be propaganda?"
That's the first thing they asked me. One of them asked me,
"If I'm going to another propagandist," -- this is
someone who was working for an Arab channel -- "why should
I leave unless you assure me that it's going to be different?"
And I did. So there's a commitment. We made a promise to those
people who left their homes. And they were attacked by some
people. I call them the neo-orphans of Arab nationalism. You
know, they were called traitors or whatever. It's unfair. Those
people are journalists and they're good journalists.
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