When Americans became aware that the prestige of the United States after 9/11 had declined seriously in the Arab world, many called for an intensified public diplomacy effort in the Middle East in order to reverse that decline. Reacting to that concern, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is responsible for US Government-sponsored international broadcasting, developed two new projects intended to help explain America better to the Arab public. One of them was Radio Sawa, an Arabic language radio channel that the BBG started 2002, and which replaced the Voice of America's Arabic Service, and the other was Alhurra Television, also in Arabic, which the BBG started in February 2004.
The BBG intended Radio Sawa to target the 15-30 age cohort in the Arab world, and in order to appeal to that group, the program content was primarily American and Arab pop music, interspersed with periodic brief news bulletins. Congress gave Radio Sawa $100 million in startup funding. In order to improve access, the Broadcasting Board of Governors enhanced Sawa's signal on medium wave by shifting the use of some transmitters, and also arranged for leases on several local FM channels in Arab countries.
Alhurra was intended to reach a general audience by satellite and its sponsors said it would offer programs that would demonstrate American democracy and deal with issues that it said had been avoided by all Arab TV channels. Congress gave Alhurra $102 million in startup funding.
Now that both Radio Sawa and Alhurra television have been in operation for some time, it seems clear that both have shortcomings.
There are several problems with Radio Sawa. First, its sponsors claim that it is successful because it has developed a significant audience share in the Arab world. However to be effective in supporting American public diplomacy, audience share is not enough. Radio Sawa is giving the young Arabs the programs they want, namely pop music, but the station does little to advance public diplomacy objectives, which include improving understanding and appreciation of American society and foreign policies. The Voice of America Arabic Service that Radio Sawa replaced presented a broad spectrum of programming including extensive news reports and analyses, features on American culture and society including on current issues, and in-depth background pieces that helped Arab audiences understand America better. Radio Sawa does none of that, so those programs are now lost. Moreover, VOA Arabic appealed to many age groups and types of listeners, including policy makers and influential professionals, while Radio Sawa only aims at youth and is only of interest to them.
Supporters of Radio Sawa claim that its transmissions are audible to more people and that few Arabs could hear VOA. There was some truth in that, because much of VOA's transmitter power was in short wave, and the medium wave and FM frequencies that most people now listen to were simply not available. Also the VOA audience had declined because of the growth of both FM and satellite TV. But VOA management was trying to address that problem. In 2001 it had a $15 million plan to implement a major transmitter expansion at an annual cost of $4 million that could have included FM leases and provided 24/7 service. VOA had already boosted the Kuwait medium wave transmitter from 100 to 600 KW in 1996, and they planned to boost the medium wave transmitter on Rhodes from 300 to 600KW. But the BBG shut down the Arabic Service on April 19, 2002 before those plans could be carried out.
Alhurra also has several problems. Its sponsors have succeeded in obtaining substantial funding from Congress by claiming that existing Arab television channels are hopelessly anti-American and in addition are all so tightly controlled by Arab governments that no sensitive issues are ever aired. The BBG argument is that in order for the US to fight terrorism we must promote democracy and a free press in the Arab world, and the best way to do that is to establish an American-style TV channel based on American principles of free press, and that competition will force the Arab channels to open up.
The premise of that argument is incorrect and the performance of Alhurra does not meet that standard. Professor Marc Lynch in his well-researched essay in the book Engaging the Arab and Muslim Worlds through Public Diplomacy has amply demonstrated the falsity of the BBG premise. He has shown what Arab viewers know, that Arab television channels have for some years taken up issues that are very sensitive politically and deal openly and frankly with Arab social and cultural taboos. As for Alhurra's performance, testimony by Arab viewers of the channel found that it is far from liberal in its programming but in fact it looks much more like the old-style Arab TV channels that were totally controlled by authoritarian Arab governments and that served primarily as propaganda arms of those governments.
For example, when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Alhurra essentially featured commentators friendly to the US Government, while Al Jazeera broadcast the Senate hearings that featured Richard Clarke and other critics of the administration, and the latter was much more effective public diplomacy. Another example was that in March 2004 when Sheikh Ahmad Yassin was killed by the Israelis, Alhurra gave it very brief coverage and ignored most of the reaction in the Middle East, putting a cooking show on instead. Al Jazeera and other Arab channels in contrast not only covered the funeral but broadcast interviews with Israelis and Americans as well as with Palestinians, programs that appealed to the audience and also showed balance.
When Alhurra began, Arab viewers expected a great deal from it and they were deeply disappointed because the quality of the programs was poorer than the quality of Arab satellite TV. The quality has improved somewhat but it is still below standard and well below what audiences expect from a channel sponsored by the government of the world's only superpower.
In fact, Alhurra faces an existential dilemma. Because of its government funding and Congressional oversight, Alhurra must be careful not to go too far in presenting views critical of the US Government, but at the same time it must regularly include a fair amount of open discussion of American foreign policy if it is to compete with Al Jazeera and other Arab channels. It is not clear how it can it do that over the long term. For the time being, however, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has been able to avoid that dilemma because members of Congress do not in fact know what is being broadcast on Alhurra except what the BBG wants to tell them. Members of Congress and their staffs know no Arabic, they do not watch Alhurra, and they have no independent means to monitor it. So far, that ignorance has allowed the BBG to obtain generous funding from Congress.
When the BBG presents opinion poll data to Congress, the data is accurate but misleading. The polls do not show Alhurra or Radio Sawa in head-to-head competitions, but only ask whether audiences have watched the programs. Arab viewers and listeners asked if they have watched Alhurra or listened to Radio Sawa this week will probably answer yes even if have only watched or listened for one minute, while devoting most of their time to other channels. A much better test of audience penetration would be to ask which channel the audience prefers. Moreover, as was pointed out in the Congressionally-mandated study "Changing Minds, Winning Peace," issued in October 2003 by a group of experts headed by Ambassador Djerejian, if the purpose of public diplomacy is to change opinions ("move the needle"), questions probing the questions need to be asked about the impact of these new channels on opinion change, and this has not been done.
It is likely however that despite these shortcomings, Alhurra and Radio Sawa will survive. That is so because Congress feels under great pressure to "do something" about America's serious public diplomacy problem in the Arab world, and supporting Alhurra and Radio Sawa seems to them like a simple remedy, if not a quick fix. There are no other simple and appealing options on the table. And since members of Congress, like Senator Biden (D-Delaware), who enthusiastically support it have no way of monitoring these programs directly, all they know about them is what they hear from people with a vested interest in more funding. When Senator Biden and others visited the Alhurra production studios they were dazzled by state-of-the-art equipment, and by the fact that the staff members are native speakers of Arabic, so they decided that the programs "must be good." Without any real independent oversight by knowledgeable people, these efforts will continue, whether they are worth the cost or not.
There are, however, alternatives. Voice of America professionals have called for the revival of the VOA Arabic Service, and they are right to do so because effective public diplomacy needs serious broad-spectrum radio programming that appeals to a variety of different groups including policy makers. Moreover, instead of denouncing Al Jazeera, American officials should try to make much more use of all of the existing Arab television channels that are willing to give them access, so that they can get their policies and views out to the Arab public. Ignoring or boycotting these channels as they have done is self-defeating, and denouncing them reinforces the impression that America follows a double standard, opposing free speech only when it hurts. That is the wrong message to send.