redbrick building housing Alhurra's state-of-the-art television
studios lies tucked between offices for Lockheed Martin and
Boeing just outside Washington, DC. Although it boasts an arsenal
far different from that of its neighbors, the location of the
US-funded Arabic satellite channel, at the heart of the military
industrial complex, is striking. After all, the $62 million
effort, launched last year, is intended to play just as instrumental
a role in George Bush's war on terror as Boeing and Lockheed
Martin, but with broadcasts, not bombs. And all for a fraction
of the cost of a B-2 bomber.
(Arabic for "The Free One") has been beaming its programs
24 hours a day, seven days a week to the Middle East for over
a year now, and while it can no longer be either dismissed or
excused as a rookie, the channel is still evolving and learning.
From adding NBA basketball games to the broadcast schedule,
to offering more locally produced talk shows and town-hall style
debates on current events, Alhurra has been in a state of ferment
over the last fourteen months, a state which, according to one
of the station's earliest advocates, Norm Pattiz, is natural
is now and will always be going through a continuing evolutionary
process because all good TV stations are constantly evolving,"
says Pattiz, who oversees Alhurra and Radio Sawa as a member
of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The BBG is a presidentially
appointed, bipartisan federal agency that supervises all non-military,
government-funded US international broadcasting, including Voice
of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio and TV Marti, which
are aimed at Cuba.
that while he expects Alhurra to be in the "top ranks"
of television stations in the Middle East, the US channel is
not trying to engage in a "popularity contest" with
established Arab stations like Al Jazeera. But at the same time,
he says, Alhurra is trying to offer an alternative to indigenous
Arab media, which Pattiz, a Clinton appointee, and the multimillionaire
owner of radio conglomerate Westwood One, considers "fiercely
anti-American" and "hostile to US policies in the
question of whether Alhurra can succeed in a brutally competitive
satellite television arena remains a topic of hot debate in
Washington's public policy circles. Arab viewers are savvy media
consumers who can pick and choose from among hundreds of satellite
channels, including Qatar-based Al Jazeera, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya,
Hizbullah's Al-Manar, the London-based Lebanese Arab News Network,
as well as state-run networks and a plethora of entertainment
channels. Alhurra must work hard to stand out, and it has the
disadvantage of carrying the American label, which many Arabs
consider an automatic strike against it.
uncomfortable with the idea that in a very complete and relatively
open news environment, I'm not sure what the niche of Alhurra
is," says Jon Alterman, Middle East director of the Center
for International and Strategic Studies. "What I saw in
(Alhurra's) earlier days was a little bit distressing, partly
because the standards for international Arab media are so high.
In the Arab TV milieu, channels have trouble breaking out of
the bottom 100 or 50. Certainly breaking into the top five is
so many other choices available to Arab viewers, Alterman and
other critics of Alhurra take issue with the fundamental concept
of an American-funded Arabic-language channel because they are
not convinced that significant numbers of Arabs will choose
to watch it, especially given the US's credibility deficit in
idea that US government information would be more authoritative
than what they'd be used to is doubly damned," Alterman
says. "This is a region where people are generally skeptical
of the news and Alhurra smells to many people as the government
spin from a government they don't particularly trust to begin
with," he explains, citing "uncomfortable examples"
like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and US government support
for repressive regimes which seem to fly in the face of the
values of human rights and democracy that the US claims to be
promoting through Alhurra.
if audiences do tune in out of curiosity, the channel's performance
has disappointed some viewers. Just one month after its launch,
for example, Alhurra was blasted for not breaking into regularly
scheduled programming when Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin was assassinated.
Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and other channels carried wall-to-wall
live coverage, while Alhurra broadcast a cooking show. It also
did not help that the station opened with an interview of President
Bush that ended with Bush congratulating Alhurra's network news
director Mouafac Harb. To Arab audiences, used to scripted interviews
with Arab heads of state on government-controlled TV, Bush's
"nice job" seemed to confirm Alhurra's status as propaganda.
seemed like we were imitating the old-fashioned Arab TV,"
says William Rugh, former US Ambassador to the Arab Emirates
and Yemen. (See Rugh's US Broadcasting
and Public Diplomacy in this issue.)
has potential to be useful, but it has failed to live up to
the potential for a number of reasons," argues Rugh. "Part
of the problem with Alhurra was that expectations were so high.
If the US does anything everybody expects it to be better
than anything else." Instead, Rugh says, "Alhurra
pulls its punches on Arab affairs and where they claim to bring
fresh air and truth and openness to Arab satellite broadcasting,
in fact they do less of that than Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya."
and Rugh have not been able to watch Alhurra regularly because
it is not available in the US, they say they have not seen a
lot of evidence so far that the channel is having an impact.
I saw was presentable TV. It wasn't always engaging," Alterman
says. "I saw news judgment downplaying acts of violence
when all international news networks, including CNN, were playing
The biggest concern I have is that I haven't
seen very impressive data, either about who their audience is
or how they compete with other channels. Anecdotally, one does
not hear that it is popular. One does not hear about things
It is true
that Alhurra got off to a rough start. In the months leading
up to its launch, many in the Arab media called for a boycott
of the channel, and a Saudi cleric even pronounced a fatwa (religious
judgment) against it.
supporters say it has come a long way from its first day of
broadcasting, which was also its first complete rehearsal of
its newscast. Considering that Arab attitudes towards Alhurra
were "ninety-nine percent negative before we even came
on the air," Pattiz says the channel has exceeded expectations.
He points to marketing research, conducted for the BBG by ACNeilsen
and Ipsos-Stat, which estimates Alhurra is reaching an unduplicated
weekly audience of at least 24 million Arabs. He says this is
evidence that Alhurra has succeeded in integrating itself into
the regional media scene.
taking small steps because we have tremendous hurdles to overcome,"
Pattiz says. "Frankly, we're ahead of where we thought
we'd be a year ago."
is a medium of programs, he says, and unlike radio, people switch
channels all the time. What distinguishes Alhurra, and what
Pattiz hopes will attract viewers to the channel, is its particular
blend of hard news and debate shows with entertainment programming,
such as the fashion magazine Azrar, the movie program
Cinema Week, Inside the Actor's Studio, Luxury
Travel, and an MTV-style show called Club Sawa, as
well as basketball and football games on the weekends.
mission has never been to be the most popular station in the
Middle East. We'll never be that," admits Pattiz. "Our
viewers perceive us as a news and information channel with variety.
That's what makes us different from Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya."
is to reach the widest possible audience.
you're running a variety of programming constantly you're always
changing and adjusting and deleting," he explains. "What
will not change is our commitment to news and information."
of its rocky start, Alhurra has many American politicians convinced.
The channel Alhurra has strong bipartisan support in Congress,
which proposed an additional $52 million for the project in
the 2005 budget, after committing $40 million in November 2003
to launch a specialized Alhurra-Iraq station. The Bush administration
has also made an $82 billion supplemental request for 2005,
which includes $7.3 million for international broadcasting.
The supplement is intended to allow Alhurra to broadcast in
Europe as well as pay for the BBG to beam Farsi-language satellite
television to Iran and increase broadcasts to non-Arabic speaking
Muslim countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. For 2006, Bush
is requesting $652 million for international broadcasting, which
represents a 10 percent increase from 2005. After a period of
decline in funding and prominence after the end of the Cold
War, it is clear broadcasting public diplomacy is back to stay,
this time aimed primarily at the Arab and Muslim worlds as an
important part of the strategy of Bush's War on Terror. But
the question of how effective that strategy is remains a topic
of hot debate in both the US and the Middle East.
before Alhurra's Valentine's Day launch, Egyptian weekly Al-Usboa'
published an article last year, which, like dozens of others
in the Arab media, condemned the US-funded broadcasting effort
sight unseen as a misguided and Zionist-led propaganda effort.
Titled, "These are the Engineers of the American Media
Raid: Israel is Behind Radio Sawa and America's Alhurra Channel,"
the article slammed Alhurra's Lebanon-born news director Mouafac
Harb as "the first Arab Zionist" and criticized Pattiz
for his ties to "the Israeli lobby." Author Ahmad
Abu Salih concluded with a bitter complaint about one of the
symbols chosen to represent the channel in promotional segments:
a herd of galloping horses, racing through the desert to a shimmering
the word that his master Norman Pattiz repeats in every one
of his statements (that the US needs to have a horse in the
Middle East's media war), Mouafac Harb chose as a symbol for
Alhurra an Arab horse that will run across the screen between
Alhurra's programs," Abu Salih wrote. "But it will
be a 'horse without a rider,'(1) running without guidance, because
there will not be any Arab viewers who will be fooled by the
Alhurra channel as long as he sees on the screens of other satellite
channels the horrors of the Israeli occupation, subsidized by
the US, and similar scenes of the American occupation of the
capital of the Islamic Caliphate in Baghdad, and the humiliating
treatment that the Iraqi people and the country's Islamic symbols
are exposed to, as well as the continuing implementation of
the American neo-conservatives' plans to control the world by
brute force and in the complete absence of international law."
Abu Salih's rant is a fairly typical sample of the complaints
and suspicions of many in the Arab world who are predisposed
to view Alhurra with distrust. Rami G. Khouri, editor of Lebanon's
The Daily Star, criticized Alhurra as "an entertaining,
expensive, and irrelevant hoax," doomed by the US government's
"fatal combination of political blindness and cultural
misperception." Syrian newspaper Tishreen accused
the station of being "part of a project to re-colonize
the Arab homeland that the United States seeks to implement
through a carrot-and-stick policy." Even The New York
Times, in a recent article on Al Arabiya, dismissed
Alhurra as "largely irrelevant."
Harb, Alhurra's executive vice president and network news director,
is familiar with such criticism, but he says most of Alhurra's
critics have not really watched it. He says he does not lose
sleep over complaints in the Arab media, which he considers
"an extension of the political system, the regimes, the
intelligence apparatus" in the Middle East. (See Interview
with Mouafac Harb in this issue.)
with the galloping 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," Harb says. "Plenty of things. No matter what
you do. But today Alhurra is in the big leagues in the Middle
No one will say Alhurra is not professional in
its production quality. They say, oh (the problem) is the American
policy. Ninety percent of the criticism we received came towards
US foreign policy and not Alhurra, but they mix two things together."
that the unpopularity of American policy in the region is the
precise reason why a project like Alhurra is doomed to failure,
despite all its technological bells and whistles.
17, columnist Suleiman Gouda wrote a condemnation of Alhurra
in independent Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm, calling
the channel a giant failure. "The current American administration
appears to be in the throes of a state of hysteria as it calls
for freedom, democracy, and human rights in the Middle East,"
Gouda wrote. He pointed to the irony of America's insistence
that 14,000 Syrian troops withdraw from Lebanon in order to
hold free elections, while more than 140,000 American troops
occupied Iraq during its so-called "free elections."
Double standards have wrecked the US's reputation in the region
and if Bush wants to repair America's image, he needs more than
a PR quick-fix. The "administration must focus on deeds,
not words," Gouda concludes.
that Alhurra is in the journalism business, not policy making.
problem is, we are unlike any other channels, we start at credit
zero, we start at minus," he says. "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."
says he has faith in the sophistication of Arab media consumers
to judge Alhurra for themselves on the basis of its programming,
not its funding.
a track record," he explains. "Like people saying
to you, don't tell me you're funny, tell me a joke.
may think we're not credible, but they will watch, and might
One of Alhurra's
recent promotional spots -- the channel is otherwise commercial-free
-- shows scenes of triumphant Iraqis voting and proudly showing
off their inked fingers, followed by images of Egyptian protestors
from the Kifaya (Enough) movement singing the Egyptian
national anthem and Lebanese protestors waving flags in downtown
Beirut, chanting, "Freedom, Autonomy, Independence!"
The ad ends with the written words, "The coming phase for
opens with images of security installations as Arabic words
in red scroll across the screen. "The only fixed thing,"
reads the scroll, "is change." This is followed by
shots of what appear to be trucks full of Syrian troops rolling
out of Lebanon, followed by images of Syrian President Bashar
al-Asad walking into a council hall and a picture of a banner
reading "Thank you, Syria." As the ad continues, Lebanese
figures appear calling for unity and Jordan's King Abdallah
is heard saying, in English, "We're trying to make the
Middle East a better place." The final frames show scenes
of protest in Lebanon, including an English-language sign with
Bashar al-Asad's picture and "Papa Don't Preach -- I'm
in Trouble Deep" written on it. As cinematic music swells,
the words "the coming phase" and "new horizons"
superimpose themselves over a flock of birds rising into the
air above protestors' heads.(2)
ads reflect the sense of historical moment and mission that
pervades the high-tech Alhurra studios in Virginia, where 200
employees, speaking a mixture of English and Arabic, bustle
around the central set piece, a large see-through map of the
world in blue and orange that serves as the backdrop for newscasts.
Each workstation uses the latest TV and computer technology,
with a satellite feed linked to the computer server.
of Alhurra's staff was recruited from Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq,
and other Arab countries. When asked, they say it was Harb's
promise of independence, journalistic integrity, and commitment
to spreading democratic values that attracted them. As Alhurra
worked through some of its growing pains over the past year,
the impression that the region is witnessing historical changes
has intensified, encouraging the staff and strengthening their
sense of mission.
the past few months a lot of things are going on and brewing
in the Middle East," Harb says. "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. . . . 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 trying to "seize the moment" is by adding
a one-hour morning news program and introducing town hall meetings
in places like Beirut and Cairo, where reform movements seem
to be picking up steam. The week of April 17-23, for example,
featured a series of discussions about Syrian media and politics,
broadcast live from the Damascus souq. In the first episode,
a group of Syrian and Lebanese writers and journalists debated
the issue of censorship in Syria, taking questions from an audience
of young people. But Alhurra's team ran into difficulties and
left the country in protest the next day, accusing the Syrian
government of trying to censor the content of espidoes scheduled
for the rest of the week, including town-hall style shows on
the future of the Baath Party, political reform in Syria, and
democracy in the Middle East.(3)
Alhurra's current affairs program Free Hour also broadcast
a series of panel talks live from Martyr's Square during the
Lebanese protests, bringing together guests like Jibran Tueni,
editor of Annahar newspaper, Faysal Salman, editor of
Assafir newspaper, Lebanese University professor Charles
Shartouni, Hikmat Dib, member of the Free Patriotic Movement,
and pro-Hariri Al-Mustaqbal parliamentary alliance MPs Ghattas
Khouri and Ghinwa Jalloul. In Cairo, Alhurra produced a week
of debate on women's issues as well as recent talk shows focusing
on the slow pace of democratization in Egypt, giving a platform
to opposition activists and other outspoken critics of President
Such specials are one of the strongest additions to Alhurra's
programming in the past year, and represent a larger effort
to strengthen the channel's locally produced original programming.
The channel has increased its number of foreign bureaus and
correspondents. Its overseas staff now numbers 150. Alhurra
also created special programs called Iraq Decides, America
Decides, and Palestine Decides to cover elections
in those countries, and although some have criticized Alhurra
for fielding a limited range of guests on its shows, there is
no question that the channel is producing more of them live
and from inside the region.
Youssef, an associate producer for Free Hour, covering
recent events in Lebanon represented the high point of working
at Alhurra. The 27-year-old Beirut native had endured negative
comments from some of her friends in Lebanon when she went to
work for the American channel, but says those criticisms have
faded over time and such moments offer a kind of redemption
for all the hard work and doubt.
us it was a sense of mission," she says. "For my team
at least, the Free Hour team, it was a sense of mission
to go live from the burial site and where everything was happening
and to gather all these people to talk, especially students
and everything. It was very poignant for us to be there and
for us to do this."
producer Emile Baroody also is from Beirut. He worked for Al
Jazeera for four years, Abu Dhabi TV for three years, and for
a brief period in Dubai, where he worked for business channels.
After working as the North American correspondent for LBC, he
moved to Alhurra in January of 2004.
brought me to Alhurra is the same thing that got me out of the
Gulf," he says. "There's a condescending way Arab
media treat their viewer with. It's always that you're the best
people and nothing is your fault. Arabs are never held responsible
for anything. It's always the fault of someone else."
Baroody says he gets to see other perspectives and cover topics
that were "taboo" in the Arab media.
Palestinian issue is a problem, for example, but it shouldn't
stop us looking at Palestinian corruption," he says. "The
Arab media are often biased. Alhurra benefits by not being (based)
in the Middle East. When you are there, even with the best intentions,
you always get carried away by what happens around you. You
work in a vacuum."
he never experienced anyone telling him what to report at Al
Jazeera, he says the atmosphere was self-censoring.
He is happy
to be working at Alhurra, but things have not always been easy.
Some sources, journalists, and pundits boycotted the channel
at first, and others got criticized for appearing. Hamas would
not speak to Alhurra reporters, and Baroody remembers times
when people interviewed by Alhurra asked that they not use a
microphone with Alhurra's logo on it. But he says he is not
worried. He is confident Alhurra will win people's confidence
was the same at Al Jazeera when we started," he recalls.
he has not had trouble recruiting talent to Alhurra, despite
calls for a boycott in the Arab media. He is protective of his
staff, defensive of their professionalism, and angry when they
are accused of betraying the Arab world by working for a US-funded
people, they're so courageous," he says. "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."
that Alhurra's dependence on government funding and commitment
to mission does not conflict with the channel's journalistic
have a journalistic mission too and I think that journalists
who don't believe in democracy are simply hack writers,"
he says. "They're pliable. 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, lighten that decision,
and this is the core of democracy."
does not shy from free debate, he says, and producers invite
critics of US policy to participate in on-air discussions when
appropriate. Alhurra also reports stories that reflect negatively
on the US occupation, such as recent anti-US protests in Iraq,
for example. It also covers more positive and upbeat stories
than its counterparts Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. A newscast
in March, for example, ran two stories on the evening news about
Palestinian and Israeli children playing soccer together and
Palestinian and Israeli artists collaborating on a peace song.
media serves up a "heavy dose of Palestine and Iraq, but
the main focus is on the negative aspects," says senior
assignment editor Vatche Sarkisian, a broadcasting veteran who
has lived the past twenty years in the US and work in the Washington
bureau of MBC and Al Arabiya before moving to Alhurra. "We
don't discount the importance of those events," he says.
"We say yes, there is violence, but there is reconstruction
the goal is to provide a balanced picture of the region and
separate between opinion and news, not to "brainwash"
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," he says.
Alhurra is trying to raise Arab media's standards by separating
news and opinion, "deemotionalizing" the news, and
exercising objective news judgment. For that reason, Alhurra's
policy is that reporters say people are "killed,"
not "martyred." They will use the term "terrorist"
and not "so-called terrorism" often used by Al Jazeera
and other Arab channels. Their anchors greet their viewers,
with a simple "Welcome back," instead of the religious
greeting "Asallamu 'Alaykum" common on Arab networks.
Alhurra also will not show tapes of Bin Laden, hostages pleading
for their lives, or footage that its editors consider unduly
violent or bloody. Nevertheless, Alhurra has occaionally shown
dead bodies and wounded victims of bombings, such as the disfigured
remains of a suicide bomber in Cairo at the beginning of May,
for example, and a bloodied tourist being moved into an ambulance.
last year, the channel also has made a concerted effort to improve
its reporting by increasing the number of correspondents in
the field and trying to be more aggressive about breaking news
coverage, though Harb maintains Alhurra was unfairly criticized
for its coverage of Sheikh Yassin's assassination.
did a lot of specials that day in prime time," he points
breaking news remains a soft spot for Alhurra, and leaves it
open to accusations of downplaying negative or violent news.
For example, the channel did not break into its programming
for at least an hour after the rest of the Arab channels and
the BBC were carrying news of the terrorist attack in Cairo's
Khan El Khalili bazaar in April that killed three tourists,
including an American, and wounded more than a dozen others.
Harb defends Alhurra's performance, however.
competing for the truth, you know, we're not competing to get
the picture first," he says. "I want to make sure
what I tell people is right
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."
Alhurra is not an all-news channel. Some of its most popular
programs are its lighter fare - travel and fashion shows, medical
and technology series, cinema and music programs. Magazine-style
shows like With the People and Very Close interview
Arab personalities like Egyptian jewelry designer Azza Fahmy
about her life and work or average Americans on the street about
social topics like late marriage. Alhurra also broadcast the
Golden Globes and Emmy Awards live.
One of Alhurra's
top attractions has been its award-winning, subtitled documentary
series on everything from who built the pyramids or who burned
ancient Rome to FDR's presidency, World War II, the FBI, and
the American Civil War. Now Alhurra is locally producing its
own original Arabic documentaries that will air in the coming
relatively new addition to Alhurra's schedule is NBA and football
games. Pattiz says this is a tactic designed to attract more
adult males to the channel's audience, which "tends to
be younger than our competitors and more female.
who have their heels dug in most against listening to a station
that is US government-funded would be older males."
Harb say that this "variety" programming is what gives
Alhurra an identity distinct from other Arab channels, but some
tension exists in determining just how much of that identity
should be devoted to news and information and how much to audience-building
"variety" programming. Sometimes, in fact, this outsourced
entertainment programming can be so off-beat it could be considered
downright offensive to conservative Arab social mores, such
as the time when Alhurra broadcast a whole segment on a man
who lived in a house shaped like a giant naked woman and gleefully
climbed on her bare "breast" to brag about how his
bedroom was located in her bosom and his hot tub in her uterus.
the BBG itself, Chairman Ken Tomlinson has expressed some concern
that Alhurra's programming was a little heavy on the lighter
must admit I personally raised a question with Mouafac Harb
about too much fashion and Mouafac said that he thinks its healthy
for people in the Middle East to see that there is a grand and
beautiful world out there and that the issue of fashion as a
magazine show is interested in what is happening in the world
and beyond people's borders," Tomlinson says. "But
the reason we created Alhurra was for news, current affairs,
and to foster debates on issues that will determine the future
of the region."
he has anything against the NBA, but it is a question of emphasis.
know Norm (Pattiz) loves basketball, and by no means am I going
to deprive people of the Middle East of the opportunity to see
basketball, but we're in the news and information business,"
Lie and Liars Figure
At the heart
of the debate about Alhurra is a dispute over numbers. According
to research carried out for the BBG by marketing firms ACNeilsen
and Ipsos-Stat, Alhurra has been a rousing success. A February
2005 telephone poll conducted by Ipsos-Stat in Egypt, Saudi
Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and
Kuwait found that over 34 percent of Arabic speakers over the
age of fifteen reported watching Alhurra in the past week, compared
to 23 percent in a similar poll conducted last year in the same
cities. The same Ipsos-Stat research also showed Alhurra reaching
40 percent of Al Jazeera's audience in a given week and reported
that 61 percent of Alhurra's viewers consider its news reliable,
an increase from 50 percent in spring 2004.
BBG's numbers raise some suspicions among Alhurra's detractors.
By asking respondents simply if they have watched Alhurra in
the past week, the research avoids the question of how Alhurra
is doing in comparison to the competition, while raising the
possibility that some respondents only watched for a few minutes
and are not in fact regular Alhurra viewers.
a more useful question would have been, "What do you watch
on a crisis day and how long did you watch it?"
has drawn a very different picture of Alhurra's reception and
credibility. A June 2004 Zogby survey conducted by Brookings
scholar Shibley Telhami found that Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya
left Alhurra in the dust as far as Arabs' preferred news sources
were concerned. Telhami's study polled 3,300 people in Egypt,
Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab
Emirates. Al Jazeera came in number one with Al Arabiya a distant
second. No one identified Alhurra as the first choice for news
and only 3.8 percent picked it as a second choice.(3)
June 2004 survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey
Research reported that only 1.1 percent of Palestinians mostly
watched Alhurra, compared to 58.1 percent who for Al Jazeera,
12 percent Al-Manar and 10.2 percent Al Arabiya. In April 2004,
a Gallop poll reported that only 6 percent of Iraqis watched
Alhurra in the past week. More recently, in a survey conducted
between November 2004 and January 2005, Arab Advisors Group
reported that only 3 percent of Egyptians watched Alhurra, less
than BBC World (5 percent) and Nile News (9 percent). Al Jazeera
registered 88 percent with Al Arabiya second at 35 percent.
Only 8 percent of viewers with an opinion found Alhurra "very
trustworthy" while 29.2 percent considered it "not
Tomlinson says he is not overly concerned about the differences
in viewership numbers. Perhaps people do not like to admit they
watch it, he suggests.
gotta tell you, as an old journalist, my attitude towards a
lot of this stuff is Mark Twain's assertion that 'figures lie
and liars figure,'" Tomlinson says. "But I think when
you launch something like this, in the early months, just an
indication, for example the figures that we just released were
significantly higher than the viewership figures that we measured
last August. It seems to me that that indicates that the viewership
is increasing. We have people in the field in the next couple
of months doing another Neilsen survey. I do think people are
watching it. Do we have Al Jazeera type figures? No. But if
someone told me three years ago when I came into this job that
we can do something that can give you 20 million regular viewers
in the Arab world. I would say my God, that would be fantastic."
(See Alhurra on the Cairo Street
in this issue for a sample of Egyptian views of the US-funded
Whips and Broadcasting
or failure of Alhurra is entangled in a larger debate to determine
the best strategy in the US battle for Arab and Muslim hearts
to BBG chairman Tomlinson, the twenty-first century war on terror
must utilize twenty-first century technology. Old public diplomacy
tactics like exchange programs, cultural centers, and VOA radio
alone just do not have the mass reach or appeal necessary to
make a real difference, he believes.
guess I view some of the public diplomacy traditionalists the
way I view buggy whip manufacturers in 1930s," he says.
"I love buggies and I love buggy whips, but if you want
to engage in modern day communication with people you first
need to do it through broadcasting. Twenty-five years ago, the
story was radio and today it is satellite television. By the
way, I applaud exchange programs, I applaud the other programs
of public diplomacy. I want to fund those also. But if you want
to reach large numbers of people, you have to do it through
broadcasting and television. It is the modern reality."
says he is more concerned with communication than with diplomacy,
which he prefers to leave to the diplomats.
me a great debate any time and I will view this as something
better than diplomacy," he says. "It is all about
Rugh says one of the primary problems with US public diplomacy
strategy, typified by Alhurra and Radio Sawa, has been that
America's conversation with the Arab and Muslim world has taken
on the form of a one-way monologue, rather than a two-way dialogue.
best public diplomacy is face-to-face and interactive,"
and stereotyping the Arab media as rabidly anti-American does
not help the situation, Rugh says, and it discourages cross-cultural
other Alhurra staff argue that the channel is willing to broach
taboo subjects that get ignored or marginalized in the mainstream
Arab press, but while Alhurra has produced recent shows on topics
such as Islamist movements, torture in Arab prisons, child exploitation,
censorship, corruption, and women's rights, these are all issues
that have been covered on Al Jazeera and other Arab satellites
a political science professor at Williams College, has written
a content analysis of Al Jazeera showing that the channel often
dismissed by Harb, Tomlinson, Pattiz, and Bush administration
officials as an irresponsible pariah actually broadcasts a wide
variety of debates on everything from government repression
of protests in Arab states to AIDS, unemployment, failure of
democracies in the region, and a wide range of women's issues.
He says he disagrees with the fundamental premise behind Alhurra,
and critiques it for relying on a narrow variety of guests.
"They're misdiagnosing the problem," he argues.
said, the point about which I've changed my mind is that there
doesn't seem to be any opportunity cost to having it out there,"
he concedes. "We might as well use it and try to make the
best of it and try to make it a better product. My request is
don't consider it public diplomacy, don't take away critical
public diplomacy funds from exchange programs and on-the-ground
cultural centers. If you have limited resources, put them where
they can make a difference. To the extent resources are being
spent on Alhurra they're not going elsewhere."
paper published in October 2003 by the Advisory Group on Public
Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World called for dramatic
increases in funding and increased leadership and coordination
for US public diplomacy efforts, which it said were woefully
insufficient to affect "the national security threat emanating
from political instability, economic deprivation, and extremism,
especially in the Arab and Muslim world."
asked the question "How valuable is government-sponsored
international broadcasting in the Arab and Muslim World? With
much of the potential broadcast audience hostile to the United
States and receiving, unlike citizens of Iron Curtain countries,
abundant information from other electronic sources, the answer
is that we do not know."
by former US ambassador to Syria and Israel Edward P. Djerejian,
cited a GAO survey that asked State Department public affairs
officers how effective they thought government-sponsored broadcasting
was. Only 5 percent answered very effective while 23 percent
judged it "generally ineffective" and 9 percent "very
ineffective," with another 27 percent answering "neither
effective nor ineffective."
questioned Radio Sawa's emphasis on audience-building entertainment
over hard news and asked policymakers to consider whether funds
for a TV station "can be better spent on other public diplomacy
instruments, including others involving electronic media."
BBG itself, the debate has been touchy. In July, over 400 Voice
of America staff members petitioned Congress, complaining that
Alhurra and Radio Sawa were siphoning away funds from VOA without
being held to the same standards.
that in addition to reviving VOA Arabic, more American officials,
Arab Americans, and private citizens should appear regularly
on the existing Arab satellite channels, which have the large
audiences and home-grown credibility Alhurra lacks. It is not
even necessary for American guests to speak Arabic on these
programs, he says, because the channels can provide voiceovers.
The challenge is convincing senior state department and administration
officials, who "tend not to be anxious to appear on Arab
TV because they see more negatives than positives" when
they do not have editorial control over how their remarks are
assumption is there is a place for US-sponsored broadcasting.
I don't dismiss it as some people do on the grounds that an
Arab listener won't want to hear what the US government is saying,"
Rugh says. "The question is what should we be doing in
public diplomacy? In principle, we should be doing TV, but we
should be doing it right."
that Alhurra's mission to promote democracy is a long-term project,
and should be given a chance to mature. Improving America's
image among Arabs will be an eventual byproduct of telling the
truth, he says.
main thing is that Alhurra is not there to replace the Arab
media," he adds. "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?"
Wise is managing editor of Transnational Broadcasting
Studies' new print edition, and deputy managing editor of
TBS Electronic. She has an M.Phil. in Modern Middle Eastern
Studies from St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. In
addition to her work with TBS journal, she also is a
freelance journalist in Cairo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Abu Salih is alluding to the title of a controversial television
serial that aired during Ramadan 2002. Titled, A Horse without
a Rider, the serial was based on the Protocols of the
Elders of Zion, a text that has gained widespread distribution
in the Arab world today, but that is in fact judged by historians
to be an anti-Semetic, nineteenth century forgery written in
the 19th century by a Russian agent to help justify the pogroms
and persecution of Jews in Russia. Israel, the Anti-Defamation
League, and US diplomats unsuccessfully tried to keep the serial
from airing, but Egypt and other Arab satellites broadcast it
2. This is especially interesting when compared to an Al Jazeera
promotional ad that appeared the same night in which scenes
of Saddam Hussein's Information Minister Mohammed Sa'id Al-Sahaf
blasting Al Jazeera and banning it from Iraq were alternated
with scenes of the current Iraqi government complaining bitterly
about the channel and eventually throwing it out of the country.
The ad ended with the station's logo, "The opinion and
the other opinion," taking on a new twist.
3. According to an Alhurra press release dated April 20, 2005,
"Before sending the team to Damascus, Alhurra management
was assured by the relevant Syrian authorities that nothing
would interfere with free discussion." The press release
went on to point out that "Alhurra has become an important
source of news and information in Syria. In December of 2004,
just ten months after the satellite television network was launched,
ACNielsen surveys showed that Alhurra's weekly viewership in
Syria was 39 percent of all adults (15 and over) residing in
satellite television households. The survey also indicated that
Alhurra was a source of credible news for Syrians; 60 percent
of Alhurra viewers stated that the news on Alhurra is reliable."
According to the Syrian Arab News Agency, SANA, however, the
Syrian director of foreign information Dr. Nizar Mayhub claimed
that "the [information] ministry had offered all possible
facilities to Alhurra. The evidence is that the first episode
of the programme was a success, as the channel itself admitted
.... [A] number of people who were supposed to appear on the
remaining three episodes of the programme are temporarily away
from Syria. This indicates that the Alhurra team did not coordinate
with the participants in advance. This forced the channel to
cancel its programme without any interference from the Foreign
Information Department or any other Syrian quarter."
4. Barbara Slavin, "VOA Changes Prompt Staffer Protests,"
USA Today, July 12, 2004.
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