US: Mistrust casts shadow on US' Arabic TV

Fair and balanced channel? Critics sceptical of ambitious project to beam shows to Mid-East viewers

The Straits Times
Friday, December 19, 2003

SPRINGFIELD (Virginia) - The United States' next great hope for winning Arab hearts and minds - an Arabic TV network - faces scepticism, even from an expert appointed by Secretary of State Colin Powell to review US public relations efforts in the Arab world.

The expert, Mr Edward Djerejian, director of the James A. Baker III Public Policy Institute of Rice University, said: 'We're sceptical that it will be able to jump over this barrier, this obstacle of credibility, in terms of being a state-run media outlet.'

Many Middle East scholars have also questioned whether Al Hurra's target audience, suspicious of all things American, will ever accept it, especially when its main hub is in the US.

Based in this Washington suburb, the Arabic-language news and entertainment network will be beamed by satellite to the Middle East as early as next month. Its name translates to English as 'The Free One'.

It is the most ambitious global media project sponsored by the US government since the Voice Of America began broadcasting in 1942.

Al Hurra is meant to be the US' 'fair and balanced' pan-Arab answer to outlets like Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite network that White House officials have accused of fanning anti-Americanism in the Persian Gulf.

Even if Al Hurra does gain acceptance, some scholars say they doubt that a single TV network could have enough impact to justify US$62 million (S$106 million) in first-year costs.

The team behind it, an odd mix of American media executives and long-time Arab journalists, says it will be editorially independent and will exemplify the best values of US journalism and present the best chance so far to deepen the understanding of America in the region.

'We're contending with a media environment that includes hate speak in radio and TV,' said Mr Norman Pattiz, head of the Middle East committee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the US agency financing and overseeing the media project.

'It's in that environment that the Arab street gets its impression of our policies, our culture, our society,' he said.

'We simply cannot ignore the indigenous media.'

Al Hurra will be available everywhere in the Middle East that Al Jazeera is, he said.

By midwinter, he said, the network will have a separate outlet and studios in Iraq, as well as bureaus throughout the Middle East.

The network, along with Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language radio venture that began nearly two years ago, was put on the fast track after the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks, when US officials recognised a need to address anti-American sentiment in the Arab media.

Other projects born of the time had failed or faltered.

In one of the more embarrassing examples, an Arabic video produced last year by the US State Department highlighting Muslims living prosperously in America was met with scepticism by Arabs.

But officials behind Al Hurra say this project has been better thought out, built with American marketing and production skills.

Yet they hope it will have an Arab sensibility, delivered by its Lebanese-born news director Mouafac Harb, a former Washington bureau chief for the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat.

The news director is in the process of hiring a largely Arab staff of more than 200 people.

Network president Bert Kleinman said people in Egypt and Bahrain who had taken part in focus groups had reacted positively to a description of Al Hurra - 'fair and balanced', 'empowering', 'tolerant'.

But he acknowledged: 'When we asked if a fair and balanced channel like this could be American, some said absolutely not.'