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A New Voice

April 15, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


AL HURRA STAFFER: Stand by 45 seconds. Cue music, and take four.

TERENCE SMITH: Al Hurra, Arabic for “The Free One,” is a new U.S. government-funded satellite television channel that represents the latest and most ambitious exercise in public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world.

AL HURRA STAFFER: I need exclusive. Yes, yes, exclusive on 4.

TERENCE SMITH: Just a few weeks after Al Hurra went on the air in February, it suddenly had an exclusive. As the channel was starting an interview with a governing council member in Baghdad, a horrific bomb blast ripped through a hotel in the Iraqi capital.

AL HURRA STAFFER: Okay, for the exclusive…

TERENCE SMITH: Startled, the interview subject bolted, and the new network worked quickly to get the footage on the air throughout the Middle East.

Al Hurra broadcasts its news and entertainment programming from this state-of-the-art facility in Springfield, Va., just outside of Washington.

From here, it’s beamed by satellite to 22 Arab countries, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, where some 170 million people live.

TERENCE SMITH: Congress approved $30 million to launch the channel, with an operating budget this year of $37 million. It has correspondents in Middle East capitals from Beirut to Baghdad.

Ken Tomlinson is chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. non-military broadcasting internationally. He says Al Hurra will compete directly with the crowded field of some 130 satellite stations that have gone on the air in the Arab world in recent years.

KEN TOMLINSON: It’s competition to Al Jazeera, and it’s competition to the other state-sponsored broadcasters. And I believe it’s going to make them more responsible. I think it’s going to set a new tone for journalism in the region. We sponsor the debate; let the people decide.

AL HURRA COMMERCIAL: A window on a better future. Al Hurra, the ‘Free One.’

TERENCE SMITH: As this promotional video shows, the commercial-free channel broadcasts a mixture of news, information and entertainment 24 hours a day.

There are hour-long news broadcasts twice a day, news updates on the hour, and a daily discussion show along with a magazine show, and features on fashion and cuisine. The network’s rundown also includes Arabic subtitled versions of Frontline and Inside the Actors Studio.

Al Hurra’s stated goal is objective coverage. But many in the Middle East see Al Hurra as little more than American propaganda, with Uncle Sam pulling the purse strings.

TERENCE SMITH: Jamal Dajani is the director of Middle Eastern programming at Link TV, a national satellite network based in San Francisco. He recently returned from Egypt, where he talked to viewers about Al Hurra.

JAMAL DAJANI: A lot of the people there equate it with being government-sponsored by the United States, that it is another state-sponsored satellite TV, and something they don’t need more of in the region.

The first day it aired, what Al Hurra did? They interviewed President George Bush, and that’s very much the same line what the state-sponsored television in the Middle East do throughout the region.

NORMAN PATTIZ: We are not government-controlled. We are government-funded in the same way the BBC is government funded.

TERENCE SMITH: Norman Pattiz is chairman of the Middle East committee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and chairman of Westwood 1 Radio Network. Al Hurra was his brainchild.

NORMAN PATTIZ: We have to walk the walk and we have to be an example of news that is reliable and credible because if we are not, they will know.

TERENCE SMITH: Satellite dishes are proliferating throughout the Arab world. Some viewers, sampling the new Al Hurra out of curiosity, wonder whether the network will in fact live up to its name, ‘the Free One.’

Ahmed Rizk is a businessman in Cairo:

AHMED RIZK: I’ve been watching Al Hurra since day one. And, you know, it’s not all good, not all bad. But I don’t believe it’s really Hurra, you know, it’s what we call “American freedom.” It’s not that kind of freedom you give to your people. We don’t need that kind of station, we need real freedom.

TERENCE SMITH: But Mouafac Harb, the director of network news for Al Hurra, says the network’s public funding does not predispose the coverage.

MOUAFAC HARB: We are not a pro-American government channel. When it comes to American foreign policy, we do not advocate policy. We explain policy. And not only do we explain policy, but the debate that goes on around it.

TERENCE SMITH: Harb helped found the news operation of the now 2-year-old Radio Sawa, which attracts some 15 million mostly younger listeners per week, in 22 Middle Eastern countries. It is also funded entirely by the U.S. government.

Harb makes no apologies for what he calls the network’s “freedom and democracy mission.”

MOUAFAC HARB: Some people would say, you know, this probably would taint the channel from day one, that is the American channel. Guess what? Yes, we are the American channel, and let’s face it, let’s be transparent, let’s say who we are. And that has been our approach.

TERENCE SMITH: Jihan Mansour worked for Al Arabiya, a competing satellite channel based in Dubai, and then for Radio Sawa. She moved to Virginia to work for Al Hurra, as did most of the 200 staffers here at the headquarters.

She says she sees the new channel as a counterbalance to the anti-American, pan-Arab message of Al Arabiya and its main competitor, Al Jazeera.

JIHAN MANSOUR: They keep pushing the idea that western people are trying to demolish the Arab civilization, and this is not true. So I think Arab people need to know who is the American man, actually.

EDWARD DJEREJIAN: One should not try to orchestrate the Voice of America.

TERENCE SMITH: Former ambassador to Syria, Edward Djerejian, is the founding director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

He recently chaired a bipartisan, congressionally mandated advisory group on U.S. public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world. His report, “Changing Minds, Winning Peace,” calls for the establishment of a foundation, or a corporation for public diplomacy, similar to the model for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

EDWARD DJEREJIAN: This would, therefore, take away this barrier of an American-sponsored — American government-sponsored entity. This is a suggestion that we think should be taken seriously by the administration, because the credibility is a critical factor.

TERENCE SMITH: The Arabic-speaking Djerejian also advocates that the government provide translated American TV and radio content for the existing Arab stations in the region.

But Norman Pattiz rejects this, arguing that indigenous Arab media are part of the problem, not the solution.

NORMAN PATTIZ: They do their own news. To expect the indigenous media to do anything other than what they’ve already been doing, I think is naive to the extreme.

TERENCE SMITH: Djerejian sees formidable competition for Al Hurra in the entrenched and overwhelmingly popular Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, found even in the poorest areas, as a colleague relayed to him upon return from a recent trip to Casablanca.

EDWARD DJEREJIAN: We went into the Bedah Dils, the slums — no plumbing, poor sanitation, but hundreds of hand-wired satellite TV dishes. Now, think of that. These people are sitting there in their dire economic, social political circumstances and yet they’ve got those satellite dishes. And what are they looking at? They’re looking at Al Jazeera. They’re looking at Al Arabiya.

TERENCE SMITH: Norman Pattiz argues that that represents an opportunity, not an obstacle.

NORMAN PATTIZ: We should have been in this business seven or eight years ago. But because we’re late doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get in the game.

AL HURRA STAFFER: Standby, 45 seconds.

TERENCE SMITH: It is a game in which the stakes are huge: Nothing less than the hearts and minds and attitudes in the Arab and Muslim world.