Home / Arts & Entertainment / A Second Look at Alhurra: US-Funded Channel Comes of Age on the Front Lines of the ‘Battle for Hearts and Minds’

A Second Look at Alhurra: US-Funded Channel Comes of Age on the Front Lines of the ‘Battle for Hearts and Minds’

The nondescript 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.

Alhurra (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 and proper.

"Alhurra 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.

Pattiz said 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 region."

But 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.

Doubly Damned?

"I'm 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 even harder."

With 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 the region.

"The 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.

But even 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.

"It 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.)

"Alhurra 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."

While Alterman 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.

"What 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 it higher.… 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 on Alhurra."

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.

But Alhurra's 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.

"We're 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."

Television 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.

"Our 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."

The goal is to reach the widest possible audience.

"When 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."

Regardless 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.

The Cowboys are Coming

A month 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 oasis.

"Using 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.",

Mouafac 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.)

The ads 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 East. … 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."

Others argue 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.

On March 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.

Harb maintains that Alhurra is in the journalism business, not policy making.

"The 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."

Still, Harb 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.

"It's a track record," he explains. "Like people saying to you, don't tell me you're funny, tell me a joke.… They may think we're not credible, but they will watch, and might find out."

New Horizons

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 new horizons."

Another 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)

Such 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.

Ninety percent 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.

"Over 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."

One way 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 Hosni Mubarak. 

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.

For Yara 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.

"For 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."

Senior news 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.

"What 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."

At Alhurra, Baroody says he gets to see other perspectives and cover topics that were "taboo" in the Arab media.

"The 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."

Although 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 over time.

"It was the same at Al Jazeera when we started," he recalls.

Harb says 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 channel.

"These 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."

Mission Control

Harb claims that Alhurra's dependence on government funding and commitment to mission does not conflict with the channel's journalistic integrity.

"We 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."

The channel 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.

Arab 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 as well."

Harb says the goal is to provide a balanced picture of the region and separate between opinion and news, not to "brainwash" anyone.

"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," he says.

Harb 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.

Over the 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.

"We did a lot of specials that day in prime time," he points out.

But covering 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.

"We're 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."

Variety Fare

After all, 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 months.

Another 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. … People who have their heels dug in most against listening to a station that is US government-funded would be older males."

Pattiz and 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.

From within the BBG itself, Chairman Ken Tomlinson has expressed some concern that Alhurra's programming was a little heavy on the lighter fare.

"I 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."

Not that he has anything against the NBA, but it is a question of emphasis.

"I 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," he says.

Figures 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.

But the 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.

Rugh says a more useful question would have been, "What do you watch on a crisis day and how long did you watch it?"

Other research 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)

Another 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 trustworthy."

The BBG's 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.

"I 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 channel.)

Of Buggy Whips and Broadcasting

The success or failure of Alhurra is entangled in a larger debate to determine the best strategy in the US battle for Arab and Muslim hearts and minds.

According 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.

"I 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."

Tomlinson says he is more concerned with communication than with diplomacy, which he prefers to leave to the diplomats.

"Give me a great debate any time and I will view this as something better than diplomacy," he says. "It is all about ideas."

But Ambassador 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.

"The best public diplomacy is face-to-face and interactive," he says.

Vilifying and stereotyping the Arab media as rabidly anti-American does not help the situation, Rugh says, and it discourages cross-cultural discussion.

Harb and 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 before.

Marc Lynch, 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.

"That 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."

A white 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."

The report 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."

The report, 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."

The report 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."

Within the 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.

Rugh suggests 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 played.

"My 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."

Harb argues 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.

"My 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?"


1. Here 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 anyway.

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.

About Lindsay Wise

Lindsay Wise is former managing editor of Transnational Broadcasting Studies (TBS). She has a B.A. in English and Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and an M.Phil. in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, where she earned distinction for her thesis on popular Egyptian da'iya Amr Khaled. Titled "Words from the Heart: New Forms of Islamic Preaching in Egypt," the thesis explored the recent rise of “tele-Islamists” through satellite television and the Internet. In addition to her work with TBS, she also is a freelance journalist in Cairo.

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