Feb 29 2004

America’s clumsy outreach

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Media Activism

In a desperate effort to reverse America’s negative image in the Arab world, a new Arabic-language television station called Alhurra (“the free one”) has been added to the diet of existing government-sponsored broadcasting outlets in the Arab region.

The new station joins America’s Radio Sawa and its slick Hi magazine as post-September 11 Arabic-language media tools that the US hopes to use to win Arab hearts and minds.

Judging from the broadcast content of its first day, Washington has a long way to go to achieve its goals.

Alhurra operates with a $62-million grant from the US government. Judging from its first broadcast day, there is no hint it will ever become self-reliant. Listeners can only conclude that Alhurra will always be an instrument of the US government.

The US secretary of state has a permanent seat on the station’s board along with four Democrats and four Republicans.

Sponsoring foreign radio broadcasts has been a favorite tool of colonial European governments. The British have been bankrolling foreign broadcasts on the BBC; the French on Radio Monte Carlo. But neither has attempted televising in Arabic, via satellite, as does Alhurra.

Arab regimes have for years monopolized the mass media to control their people and maintain power. But Alhurra will not contribute to efforts by many in the Arab world who want the air waves to be free to private and independent ownership.

While some expected the new station to be an important addition to the plurality of opinions available to the Arab public, its first day of broadcasting confirmed what the skeptics have been saying all along: What the US needs to do is change its policy, not its media strategy.

When Alhurra chose to launch the station with an exclusive interview with the US president, Arab viewers expected some new revelation or insight into the president’s Mideast policy. Instead they were lectured by the president, who used the interview to repeat worn-out positions regarding the war on terror and the need for democratic change in the Arab region.

BUSH BEGAN his exclusive interview with Alhurra saying he hopes to encourage the spread of freedom in the Middle East. His definition of freedom was very clear: “Open society, free parties, secular society and independent press.”

Of course, Bush didn’t waste his time dealing with the mundane issue of freedom. Rather he used his air time to talk about his war on terror and what he considered his success in Iraq and Libya.

Ironically, the only three countries Bush specified by name as moving toward democracy were monarchies – Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. And the only Arab leader personally criticized by Bush was the only one democratically elected by his people in free and fair elections, Yasser Arafat.

The interview conducted by Mowafq Harb, Alhurra’s editor-in-chief, failed to challenge Bush on any of the issues being hotly debated in America. It had nothing of the intensity of Bush’s interview a week earlier on NBC’s Meet the Press.

The Arab audience was shocked that Harb didn’t ask a single question about Israel’s nuclear weapons when the president was talking ad nauseam about his efforts to free the Middle East from weapons of mass destruction.

In the process of asking a question, Harb lost all credibility with the remark: “when we entered Iraq.” A few minutes later, Harb – an American Arab – suddenly became super-objective by telling the president, “In the Arab world, they feel that America is biased toward Israel.”

Perhaps the biggest gaffe came after the interview was formally over. President Bush shook hands with Harb and said in the manner of an employer praising his employee: “Good job.”

The gaffe was not what the president said, but that the editors and producers decided to keep this sentence in rather than simply edit it out.

In the 1990s in Palestine, I remember how we used the window of freedom we had shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accords to stress the importance of an independent media. We brought in American TV experts to discuss local US TV stations and looked up to American television as a positive model.

Working with the California-based Internews Network we held international conferences and hands-on workshops about independent broadcasting. We even talked about how to gain audience share and how to structure advertising income to cover broadcasting costs.

But no one in the Arab world will be able to see much of independent US broadcasting so long as the only TV station available to them from America sings to the tune of those paying this piper in Washington, and not its viewers in the Arab region.

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