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Interview with Mouafac Harb, Alhurra Executive Vice President and Director of Network News

It has been a year and a half since US-funded Arabic satellite channel Alhurra started broadcasting on 14 February 2004. Even before the channel's launch, it was a magnet for controversy -- many in the Arab media denounced it as propaganda while some Washington insiders questioned the decision to spend $64 million on the channel at the expense of Voice of America's Arabic Service and other, more traditional public diplomacy methods. Now that Alhurra has had over a year to get on its feet, it is time for a second look. TBS's Lindsay Wise visited the channel's ultra-modern studios in Springfield, Va., and sat down with Mouafac Harb, Alhurra's executive vice president and director of network news, to review the channel's performance over the past year and give Harb an opportunity to both respond to some of Alhurra's critics and tout its successes.

Mouafac Harb

 First of all, I wanted to ask you if you could talk about the experience of working with Alhurra, and how you decided to take this job, and where it is taking you.

MH: Sure. Before I joined US International Broadcasting, which is under the umbrella of the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- a federal agency known as the BBG -- I was the bureau chief of Al Hayat newspaper in Washington. And I'm an American citizen. I was born in Beirut. September 11 was a major event that made people think, and I was one of them. And there was this opening, and I believed in the project. Finally the United States decided to reach out to the Arab world. So I applied for this job, and I believed in the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. It's a great mission. It's not only for Arabic. The BBG oversees over 60 language services to promote freedom and democracy, and I believe that this is something missing in the Middle East today, and it is a noble cause. So it's kind of a double pleasure: you work on something you believe in, while at the same time it's a great job, and it's my field of expertise. So I joined, and we launched Radio Sawa. Radio Sawa -- despite what a lot of people said about it at the beginning, "It's a bad idea," you know, "It's not gonna fly," "People are not going to listen to it because it's an American radio channel" -- in a very, very short period of time, in every single market where it had a clear signal, Radio Sawa has become one of the top radio channels among youth. We continue to strive, and our transmitters are spreading all over the Middle East. We were encouraged by Radio Sawa and naturally the board decided, building on the success of Radio Sawa, to form a television channel, and this is where Alhurra came in.

TBS: And have you, over the last year, met your expectations? Were there certain challenges?

MH: Sure, because the success of Radio Sawa -- I was part of the team that created Radio Sawa and manages Radio Sawa until today -- the board had confidence in me and asked me to do the same thing at Alhurra. And time was not on our side. We didn't have all the time in the world to put together that channel, but we decided to do it, and we put a deadline and met the deadline. The funny thing is that the first complete rehearsal of our newscast was the day we launched the channel! We embarked on a massive campaign to recruit Arab talent, and it's not easy nowadays. You have to travel to the Middle East, you have to tell people what's going on, and you have to explain to them what it's all about, our intentions and where we come from, and then you have the logistics of getting the people visas to come to the US and settle here. It's not easy any more. But we managed to put together a team that I'm proud of and we believe in this mission, and I'm proud of them.

TBS: I know that last year you wrote an article for TBS about your goals for Alhurra and some of them were "offering a fresh perspective, and viewpoints, raising professional standards, and bringing more debate." (See A New Look to Arab News, TBS 12).

MH: Yes.

TBS: Do you feel that you have met these goals in the first year, and how would you assess where Alhurra is in its first year, and how would you assess where Alhurra is in relation to where you want it to be?

MH: I believe these are still the main objectives of the channel. Everything we do falls under these guidelines. And I believe today Alhurra is part of the Arab local media scene. Before launching Alhurra, the market was, when it comes to news and information, a two-channel market. You look at it right now and it's a three-channel market. We have probably more public affairs shows and debate and talk shows than any of the other all-news channels on the Arab satellite airwaves. We're not an all-news channel; we are a news and information channel. We have a variety of programs, but when it comes to debate, encouraging debate of issues that usually you don't hear about in the Arab world, I think we are ahead of our competition, and in this regard I think we have surpassed what we have planned and what we have promised, and we have gone beyond what we expected at this stage.

TBS: I've heard some of the discussion that goes on between some of the satellite channels, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, and there's a lot of talk about professional standards and whether Arab channels should have a democratizing agenda and what is the role of the Arabic media. Do you see Alhurra as having an agenda or a goal more than just presenting the news?

MH: You know, I don't like the word agenda. I would say that Alhurra has a mission, which is the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to promote freedom and democracy through the dissemination of accurate and objective information to people throughout the world about the US and the world. I think yes, we do have a mission. And this is not a mission that contradicts what journalists stand for. We have a journalistic mission too and I think that journalists who don't believe in democracy are simply hack writers. They're pliable. So 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, and this is the core of democracy.

TBS: Have you made any changes or adjustments in the last year? You said you started out in rehearsal.

MH: We all along believed that to be effective you have to be credible, especially when it comes to news and information. So everything we do has to serve that objective. To be a credible source of information. Because we are commercial-free, we are not in the Middle East to dominate the media scene or the airwaves. We are not there to get rid of the indigenous media. We are there to be part of that mix, to benefit from them so they also benefit from us, to raise the standards of journalism in the Arab world, to make other channels more honest. And of course we added more programs. We adjusted a little bit so we could meet that objective to be more credible. In reality, what does it mean? The more shows you do from the region, the more credible you are. Over the past eight months we now have shows that originate from Morocco. Alhurra has probably the only Arabic language show among Arabic satellite channels, the famous ones, that is coming out of Morocco. We did the same thing from the Gulf. We have probably the only Arabic language weekly show that is dedicated to Gulf issues from all over the Gulf, sometimes from Dubai, sometimes from Kuwait. It depends on the story. So we are doing more original production from the region, more documentaries in addition to the daily newscast that we provide. We are extending our network of correspondents. Again, you know when it comes to television, people love to see a correspondent in the field. Even sometimes they don't pay attention to what he's saying, but if you look at the background of the correspondent and you see that correspondent in the middle of the event that's all they care about.

TBS: And you're doing more of that?

MH: Oh yes. Our correspondents are all over the region. ... We are present almost in every single Arab capital and every single capital around the world where there is a story of interest to an Arab audience. One of the things we'd like to achieve is not only to report the story that is of interest to a Middle Eastern audience, not only to bring the story that a Middle East audience would identify with, but also to make people of the Middle East, or at least the Arabic-speaking world, part of the global debate. So sometimes, you know, there's something, there's an AIDS conference or there's a global phenomenon like the earthquake in Indonesia. So we'd love also to bring the world to our audience. ... We want to make you part of the global debate, whether it's the environment, book shows, stuff like that.

TBS: Also last year you said Alhurra had a mandate from the US government to report accurately even it's critical of US policy, for example. Do you have examples from your programming in the last twelve months or so that show that you follow that mandate?

MH: Yeah, let me tell you one thing. We at least have two talk shows a day on Alhurra and Alhurra Iraq and you know it is not easy nowadays to find a lot of people who will support US foreign policy, but I have to have these shows every day. That fact indicates that sometimes we invite people critical of American policy. The key here is to be balanced, and to make sure that all elements and views relevant to a certain story are presented on a show. ... It's not that we take an editorial decision to be against someone, but we allow a margin of freedom at Alhurra. ... There is a role at Alhurra for debate and this is what democracy is all about, free debates, and if we are faithful to our mission we have to allow that free debate. And it goes back to the structure of the BBG. You've got four Democrats, four Republicans. It's not a partisan board. And when they say we have to be objective and accurate and balanced, you know we're not a mouthpiece of the government.

TBS: Do you ever find that you have trouble finding people to come on as guests on Alhurra or even working for Alhurra because [phone interrupts] . . . .

MH: They were calling me about people from the Middle East looking for jobs. So that's a nice segue to your question! It's a challenge. Journalism is -- sometimes there is one event and all channels are trying to book the guests who are relevant to that event and all of us are after the same newsmakers every once in a while and it's a challenge. But I don't think there is a serious problem, despite what you hear and may read in a certain category of Arab journalism, about Alhurra being boycotted. It is not true. And I think over time, the job of our bookers became a lot easier because at the beginning people hadn't seen the channel, they might have been hesitant, they didn't know its reach. And right now Alhurra is one of the major sources of information and I rarely hear anymore people saying, "I don't have time for it right now," and then you look and you see them on other channels. It's the opposite now, I think a lot of people are pitching our bookers to appear on Alhurra.

TBS: Why do you think that is?

MH: It's very simple. People want to be on TV. People want to make sure that their views are heard and Alhurra is a channel that is watched. And also, I believe we do a professional job, so we don't invite people to trap them. We don't choreograph things. We don't stage phone calls. We don't do that. It's a debate and you come and we do it live and we make sure that we invite people that do matter. For our medical show, I don't invite someone to talk about the Suez Canal. You know, that's one of the problems, I believe, in the Arab media. People don't have specialized guests to talk about specific events. So they're always like talking around the issue. They don't give you specific info.

TBS: So you don't think there's a stigma attached to Alhurra in terms of working for it or coming to speak on it?

MH: No. Not at all. I'm not aware of that. And people working for Alhurra, the number of applications we have received and continue to receive at Alhurra is beyond what I expected. I wouldn't have expected that that number of people would apply.

TBS: And do you have numbers for that?

MH: I would say in the thousands.

TBS: Do you have a way to measure your progress or your success for yourself and do you have any idea of who is watching?

MH: We do a lot of market research, a lot of focus groups. And I think probably when it comes to Arabic language media, Alhurra is the most researched project I can think of. And before we do anything we do market research. (Click here for ACNeilson survey results.) Alhurra again is a job in progress, and we do have good numbers. People are watching. And we believe from the evidence, scientific and anecdotal, that people are watching. And what we talked about before, the fact that everyone in the think-tank intelligentsia or officials, they accept our invitations. And I was talking to someone who appeared on one of our shows - his name is Jihad El Hazm. I don't know if you know him, he's a columnist on Al Hayat newspaper. He was a guest on our show and he called me after the show and he said, "You know, I've never appeared on any television channel before and received so many phone calls as I did after your show." So you know, people are watching, people are watching.

TBS: Are you satisfied with Alhurra's reputation and your viewership numbers, and what are you doing to attract more viewers?

MH: I've said it is fine, where we are today, but is that it? Am I going to go to sleep right now? No. We have more for Alhurra and we want to take Alhurra even further. I would love to see our numbers going up and I would like to see our influence in the Middle East spreading out. And when I say our influence, I want to make sure it is used in the right context. When I say influence, it's not to change people. It may sound like, you know, brainwashing people. Our influence is in the media. We would like to make other channels more honest than they were before. This is what I would say is our impact on the Arab media. It's no longer two channels so the broadcasters are at a disadvantage from their own managers. Today there is competition in the Middle East. We want journalism and broadcasters to be in better negotiating positions to their own managers, so if you cannot negotiate good terms, you can go to Alhurra and visa versa. I think the fact that we are there has improved the conditions of journalism and broadcasting in the Arab world because you have another venue, you have another outlet. And also people are comparing and watching and television is a medium where, if it works here, people immediately want to do it over there. And you see our fingerprints: more magazine kind of shows on other Arab satellite channels, more light stuff, more optimistic stuff, more shows that are not about violence. There is another side to life in the Middle East. I'm sorry, we're not a depressing channel. You can be accurate, but you don't have to be depressing.

TBS: How would you define accurate?

MH: You can be sensitive to peoples emotions on a certain day where there is a major event and you feel it, that the mood of the place is not good, so you try to be - because our job is not to offend - to be sensitive, the closer we are to people's sentiments and aspirations the better we are. But at the same time you have to work with what the facts are.

TBS: Do you have certain policies about airing tapes of hostages or messages from Bin Laden? I know that Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera have been talking about having new standards and a code of ethics.

MH: I think they talk a lot about having new standards and I'm glad that people are talking about having new standards. I would say the fact that we are there and we have our own standards, we have forced people to review their own standards. They may not agree with our standards, but at least we triggered a debate among them. I would say to you, this is an area where not only the media in the Middle East is trying to figure out what to do, it's a challenge in newsrooms all around the world. We're commercial-free, and if the president of the United States wanted to air thirty seconds of a reelection campaign ad, he'd have to pay for it. How would you justify if any time a terrorist organization has a spot, a thirty-second spot or a segment, whether its Bin Laden or people who kidnap a person, they sent it to us and we gave them all the airtime in the world? So we have to make sure that we are reporting the news, but at the same time refuse to aid terrorists. We will not tolerate the strategy of terrorists. If you look at how terrorists in Iraq use those hostages, it is using the media as a part of their strategy. Instead of having to rent a basement to hide the hostages in and rent a car and a mask, they have an IT department and they bring a camera and they put it on the net and they send it to everyone. We don't want to become accomplices to terrorist organizations and part of their tactics and strategy.

MH: We go on a case by case basis. We don't show faces of dead people, okay? It's a matter of taste. The most important thing is to get the story out. That's the main thing. And what do you use to get the story out? That differs from one journalism organization to the other, but the main thing is to get the story out. But do we go out of our way to show bloody scenes? I think it's offensive to people.

TBS: So for example, if you got a hold of a hostage video, what would you show? What wouldn't you show? Would you show any of it?

MH: Definitely, definitely I'm against showing hostages pleading on tape. I paraphrase. I won't allow the terrorists to use the platform to shape public opinion, because those powerful images are very, very emotional. First, it's not fair to the family of the hostage. And second, I don't want to be used by terrorists. I might use a shot, put a voice over on top of it, and make sure that all the analysis needed to get the story out. But again, I think there must be some legal issues here. This is someone who was forced to say something on air. There should be a new Geneva Convention or something. You can't do that -- you see a family, a father a brother, a sister and you see it on TV. All channels are airing it under freedom of speech. I don't think it is freedom of speech. It's ethics at base.

TBS: For example, I know there was a controversial tape where an American soldier shot someone in a mosque unarmed. Did you show that tape?

MH: We showed the tape. Again, the most important thing is to get the story out. The story was out. The thing is context and to make sure that when you show pictures you don't show them in a way to mislead people. And we were not there, we don't know what happened, so we put whatever was needed to explain to people what was going on that day and what is that controversy about. But did we show the exact shooting? It's unnecessary.

TBS: I'm just trying to get an idea of what your standards are. For example, the burning of the bodies of the American contractors?

MH: We don't go grabbing pictures that are offensive.

TBS: What about messages from Bin Laden?

MH: The same guidelines that I applied before. The most important thing is that we have an item that is newsworthy and that we get the story out. But at the same time we need to protect the public and also we need to be faithful to our mission and to make sure that we are really commercial free. We don't give that platform to anyone unless it's newsworthy. No room for preaching on our channel.

TBS: This question is about language. Is there a policy about using the word "martyred" (ustushhida) or "resistance" (muqawama)?

MH: One policy. We only use terms and expressions that are common among respectable news organizations.

TBS: Meaning?

MH: We do not use any term that colors the news and we stay away from adjectives that can be viewed as taking sides. So again it's part of de-emotionalizing the news and not taking sides to make sure our news is accurate. And people go back to you and say martyrs and ustushhida ("so-and-so was martyred") this is [unclear]. Even Muslim scholars today don't know what to call those people and who are we to decide? That's not our job. We report the news, not define it. And this is across the board.

TBS: So what about something like irhab ("terrorism").

MH: Irhab is something we use. It's common. We follow the same language that is used by AP and Reuters and major news organizations.

TBS: They will use sometimes "militants" instead.

MH: It depends on the context.

TBS: Okay. As you know I live in Cairo, and I've been around the Middle East traveling as well, and as I'm sure you're aware, there are a lot of questions about Alhurra, even before it came out, about whether it was credible, or a propaganda channel, and I feel like today, when I talk to people, to Arabs in the Middle East, there's still this big question: Alhurra has no credibility, it has no street cred, everyone knows it's a mouthpiece for the government. How do you handle this?

MH: All what you said we are well aware of. And I understand why people would say that. The question is, we are unlike any other channels, we start at credit zero, we start at minus. 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. It came at a time, you know when there is a war on terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not on a peaceful track, it came at the time of the war in Iraq, at a time when we were talking about the Greater Middle East Initiative, democracy. Automatically people are in love with conspiracy theories in the Arab world. You live there and you know that. So this was not helpful to our channel. But again, this is the Middle East. If you want to time it for better days, I can't think of since I was born of a day that was the right day to launch a TV channel in the Middle East. But what we do to counter this, we do not allow it to divert us from the mission. We don't want to be distracted. We believe Arab media consumers are very sophisticated. It's a track record. Like people saying to you, don't tell me you're funny, tell me a joke. It's a track record. They may think we're not credible, but they will watch, and might find out.

TBS: So you think people are really giving you a chance?

MH: Enlightened people are, yes. I think we underestimate the power of people's desire to know. This is a region where I believe in most Arab countries, owning a satellite dish is against the law. In spite of that you see people risking their lives and going on top of the roofs of their building to put a satellite channel when they know it's illegal. Why is that? They want to know. They are running away from the state-owned and -run mouthpieces of Arab regimes. And there's one thing people say to us, "You are also a government-owned channel. Why are you bragging that you are any different from the other Arabic channels." From the outside, that argument sounds great but it's deceiving, and I'll tell you why. Because the political system in the United States is different than the political system in every single country in the Middle East. We are funded by congress and subsequently it is taxpayers' money, and I don't think taxpayers are funding us to be the mouthpiece of the regime. If the political systems in the Middle East are like ours, if their parliaments are elected like our Congress, the president is elected like our president, then that comparison is an accurate one, but to come and compare us to them? You're comparing apples and oranges. It's a democracy in the US.

MH: I think the word credibility in the Middle East does not mean the same thing as when you say it to a Western audience. When I say to Arabs, why do you think Al Jazeera is credible, they will say to you, it sympathizes with our views. So that's why people think you are credible. It caters to people's emotions. It tells me what I believe in, which is fine, but it's not credibility. Credibility is when I tell you something that really happened and I don't tamper with the news. So that's what I think Alhurra is bringing to the table in the Middle East. We separate between opinion and news. If it's an opinion, I'm obliged to tell you, this is my opinion, but if I mix the two together, this is not journalism.

TBS: So you're saying that Alhurra doesn't do that, but someone like Al Jazeera does?

MH: You're saying that. I didn't say that. I don't want to talk about it, but I think that's a common practice in Middle East media, that people editorialize the news and it's not only in radio and television, but it is also the newspapers. We don't do that. Absolutely.

TBS: I'm curious. Who has content control?

MH: We have a journalistic mission and we have a board, and everything that is aired on this channel is decided by that newsroom that I run. We have the BBG, which acts as a firewall. ... Their job is not to meddle with content, but to act as a firewall between us and the government. So if I get a phone call from any government agency or official saying, why did you do that? I want you to change that," the way that the BBG was created I can say to them, go to the board, don't talk to us. This is to protect the integrity and to make sure the journalistic mission is protected.

TBS: What would you like to say to Alhurra's critics?

MH: My main thing is that Alhurra is not there to replace the Arab media. 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? I mean, we are so sensitive to Arabic culture and I think this channel is the most family-oriented channel.

MH:Before you launch any media channel you study the market and based on what you see in the market and your vision you try to come up with the best techniques to penetrate that market and I think when it comes to radio, the way people consume it nowadays is in the car, listening to music, so we designed a radio program that gives people radio the way they consume radio, which is breaking news when something happens in the world . . . . When it comes to television and you look at the Arab satellite scene, it's so advanced when it comes to entertainment. Sitcoms or an American sitcom, or a game or what have you which is not copyrighted. You've already got all that. What would we be bringing to the table? So we decided you've got to find a loophole in the market. You've got all-sports channels, all-music channels, all-movie channels today in the Arab world; however, Alhurra is the only channel that is dedicated to promoting freedom and democracy.

TBS: So can you tell me what is your percentage of entertainment to news and information?

MH: You know what we do? We have the NBA. So we do have entertainment, but we don't call it entertainment like general entertainment. We do entertaining information. Magazines, fashion, style, sports.

TBS: So what is the percentage of hard news?

MH: It depends on the day, but I'd say primetime it's 50-50.

TBS: And does that remain consistent or does that change throughout the year?

MH: We are adding more and more news.

TBS: And is that more original content as well?

MH: Yes. The future of Alhurra is for local production in the Middle East.

TBS: You say there are no commercials on Alhurra. What about the promos for Alhurra, especially the horses?

MH: Those 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. Plenty of things. No matter what you do. … Today Alhurra is in the big league in the Middle East and we are part of the local area's media scene. ... No one will say Alhurra is not professional in its production quality. They say, Oh it is the American policy. They mix two things together. And 90 percent of the criticism we received came towards US foreign policy and not Alhurra, but they mix two things together.

TBS: Are there any projects or programs or scoops that you want to brag about now?

MH: Oh, well. I can tell you we are adding more morning shows and day shows and we have the NBA. We have a medical show -- it's not about medicines, it's about preventative medicine.

TBS: Do you have any sense of what your most popular programs are?

MH: We have a nice show every night called Free Hour. It's a daily talk show, our signature talk show. We have a fashion and style magazine every week called Azarar. This is very popular. And documentaries, you know, top-rated documentaries from around the world, and we do produce our own documentaries as well.

TBS: What has been in new at Alhurra in recent months?

 Over the past few months a lot of things are going on and brewing in the Middle East. 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. You feel like there is something going on. 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. Alhurra is very proactive. We are doing town hall meetings in places where we see a reform movement is picking up. We did a whole week out of Beirut, we did a whole week out of Cairo. Every day there was a town hall meeting and next week we're going to Damascus. So we're trying to seize the moment and be useful to our audience at a time when we are witnessing historical changes in the Middle East.

TBS: Is there anything else, in terms of coverage of recent events?

MH: We are doing more breaking news. We've now been one year on air and our correspondents are spread all over the world and we are reacting faster to breaking news. But at the same time, what distinguishes us from other channels is that we are news and information and the diversity of the channel -- yes we go and break for news, but this is something people are liking. It's not only repeating and looping the same headlines that all news channels have. We have news, information, documentaries, but at the same time we have entertaining programs. We have the NBA, we have other programs that are of interest to our audience. Having said that, there's also a promise that whenever something happens, you can continue to watch Alhurra because we will make sure that we'll inform you right away that something happened.

TBS: On that point, actually, I know that some of the criticism that you guys have gotten in the last year has been about breaking news. There was of course the incident with Sheikh Yassin's death --

MH: That was a month after launching Alhurra (on March 22, 2004). This is passé, this is one. And second, we're not an all-news channel. And even that day, those (critics) were not fair to us because we changed the whole channel. We did a lot of specials that day in primetime about the assassination of Sheikh Yassin. However, we are more aggressive right now in going and doing breaking news.

TBS: Now, I was watching last week when the bombing happened here in the Khan El Khalili (in Cairo), and I felt like Alhurra was quite late actually with that news. I didn't get much information about it from Alhurra until at least a half hour or an hour after it was on other channels.

MH: Look, first of all, it depends. We are not an all-news channel. However, we have certain guidelines that before we go on air -- because we understand the immediacy, people go by rumors, and we're not going to put on air anything that we're not sure of.

TBS: So it doesn't matter if your competitors Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are running it?

MH: We're competing for the truth, you know, we're not competing to get the picture first. I want to make sure what I tell people is right. I hate speculations. We don't want to speculate, we don't want to give wrong information and come back and correct and what have you. 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. But at the same time we have an obligation to breaking news and to tell people what's going on and we're not a local channel, so we have to pick the event. Our reach should be regional and global, to break into the news and to announce coverage of an event. I mean, why people are not -- you know what's going on in Yemen over the past two weeks? Fighting. More than fifty people died. I did not see any news channel breaking and going non-stop coverage. Why is that?

TBS: So you're saying it's a matter of selective breaking news?

MH: People, you know, whatever they have available, they try to convince you that that is the only story in the Middle East.

TBS: Okay, so you're satisfied with your breaking news coverage, or are you still working on it?

MH: We are, but we will continue to be more aggressive.

TBS: Are there more new non-news programs that are coming?

MH: There are more that are coming, but from the first day of launching Alhurra we had these kinds of programs. We are doing a lot of documentaries. We have acquired a lot of good-quality documentaries. And if you are watching you will see that if there is a big event, like the death of the pope, we immediately put into play two or three documentaries. A big event or personality - we're playing right now a documentary on FDR and for the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz we did something as well. We are reacting to global news and global events and this is the direction we're going. We've acquired some really good stuff. We have Frontline, we have The Civil War, the one that ran on PBS, we have a jazz series that Ken Burns did and we're about to launch a -- I don't want to call it a medical show -- it is more of a health and good living show for the region. And we are making efforts to do more original production from the region. Town hall meetings, and this summer there will be documentaries as well. I don't want to say the names of the documentaries because I don't want people to get the ideas, but this summer you will see high quality documentaries broadcast by Alhurra.

TBS: In Arabic, not subtitled?

MH: Exactly. In Arabic. Those are original, produced by Alhurra, commissioned on behalf of Alhurra to be produced by Arabic producers but under our editorial guidelines and those are big quality documentaries. And you will start to see them probably early May.

TBS: So what is your dream for Alhurra, your vision for Alhurra at this point? Would you like people to turn to it in a crisis and look to it as a number one source of news, or would you like to see it as competing --

MH: Don't quote me incorrectly, because I want to say this carefully. From day one our channel is not commercial and we are publicly funded. As I have said, our plan is not to replace the indigenous media. We never planned it that way. We are not there to become the channel and people don't watch their own channel. However, 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. These are the objectives and at the same time, we have to be also faithful to the overall mission of US international broadcasting, which is to promote freedom and democracy.

TBS: So what about the idea of what people call "moving the needle" in favor of positive attitudes toward the US. Do you see that as part of your mission as well?

MH: It is not stated that way, "moving the needle." I mean, how do you measure the needle? This is the expression that I find very simplistic. These are long-term attitudes and I think that if we are successful in our mission, which is to promote freedom and democracy in the region, that needle by itself would move. It's a byproduct.

TBS: Of doing your, job, basically.

MH: Of doing our job, exactly. Because if people are informed, democracy has a better chance. And if democracy prevails in the Middle East I don't think you'll see the kind of hatred and resentment you see towards the world and the West and mainly the United States.

TBS: Here's another opportunity for you to clear up some questions. There's been, obviously, all lot of polls conducted for the BBG by Ipsos-Stat and ACNeilson, and I've seen all those polls. But of course, I've also seen other polls like from people like Shibley Telhami and the Arab Research Group that show very different numbers. How do you reconcile the different numbers that seem to pop up depending on whose polling and the contradictions that arise in terms of numbers?

MH: Do you remember during the (US) elections and the Zogby exit polls? They were so off! So you know, I don't want to talk about the other research that's being conducted in the Middle East, but I can defend our own research. I can tell you we have no reason to doubt the results of our research and the research we have contracted to major players in the world -- I mean I'm talking about Ipsos-Stat and Nielsen. I mean those are the standards by which all other companies are judged and if you go to the Middle East ad agencies they rely heavily on the polls and research of Ipsos-Stat to determine how to serve their own customers. So I would say those are the people who set the standards in the business. However, one of the problems nowadays is that everyone is a public diplomacy expert and a media expert and I'm, you know, Dr. Telhami is someone I respect, but I don't know how long he's been in that business, the business of measuring media and rating journalists. So let's stick to professionals who've been doing this for a long, long time and let's see the method and the scientific methods by which our research has been conducted.

You may hear people especially in Washington, around the think tanks, questioning the usefulness of launching Alhurra: "Unless you change the policy, nothing is going to change." At least we're trying something. Those who are criticizing our project have yet to come up with a good idea. Okay, what's your alternative? Don't do radio, don't do Alhurra, but what's your alternative? Change the policy? No, we're not policy makers. People voted for this president and that's his policy. So, you know, I don't mind people having their own opinion about our project, but what is their solution to the problems of the Middle East today when it comes to public diplomacy and the attitudes of Arabs towards the United States? I haven't seen anything.

TBS: What about the criticism you get from the Arab press? I mean, not so much from Washington. Does that kind of stuff sting? Do you worry about that at all?

MH: Actually, it is not all negative. We've received a lot of -- I mean we're part of the Arab media scene today and I've seen bad, negative press in the Arab media about Arab media more than about Alhurra. This is one thing. And second, you have to understand when we are criticized by certain columnists, it does not mean the whole Arab press. Like Mustafa Bakry in Cairo. I mean, you know that guy was also on the payroll of Saddam Hussein! Same thing in Jordan. So we have to know the Arab media. It's an extension of the political system, the regimes, the intelligence apparatus.

TBS: So you don't really concern yourself with their criticism then? You don't lose sleep over it?

MH: No, believe me. Actually the other day some person was saying he doesn't want to admit that he was watching Alhurra. He's a columnist in Jordan and he's well-known for being pro-Saddam. He said, "My bad luck took me the other day to watch Alhurra." He wouldn't say, "I was watching Alhurra." We thought, wow!

TBS: I was reading something in the Egyptian press a while ago that was trashing you personally. Does that kind of stuff bother you? Do you hear it? Do you have any response to it. It said you had gotten death threats. Is that true?

MH: I don't want to become the story. If you want to be a good journalist in the Middle East and dealing with Middle Eastern affairs, it's part of the job. Me and all my other colleagues in the Middle East who are trying to do their jobs and be professional journalists, their lives are at risk, so I'm not the only one. Telling the truth in the Middle East is a risky business. But things will change. They will change.

TBS: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

MH: Yeah. Be fair to us. You've seen the people, they're journalists. These people, they're so courageous. 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.

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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