On June 8, Larry Register announced his resignation from the troubled American Arabic-language satellite television station Alhurra. His departure came in the wake of a relentless campaign by conservative journalists and members of Congress, fueled by disgruntled stalwarts of Alhurra’s previous, failed incarnation. Register’s forced departure marks a low point for American efforts at broadcasting to the Middle East, an entirely predictable debacle which likely puts paid to even the slender hopes that the station might turn itself around.
The latest Alhurra fiasco began with a crusade launched by Joel Mowbray in a series of Wall Street Journal op-eds and postings to the conservative Powerline blog. In reality, however, it dates back to the shift in the station's leadership. Last year, the founding director Mouafic Harb left under a cloud of criticism, after a scathing GAO report criticized the station’s management and performance, while noting serious deficiencies in mandated evaluations of audiences and content. Most independent observers had come to agree that Alhurra had grown into a white elephant, an expensive irrelevance. Very few American officials even bothered to appear on it, preferring to spend their valuable time on Arabic TV stations with an actual audience. By the time Harb departed, Alhurra was widely recognized as a failure, with little market share and even less political impact.
Some of the problems with Alhurra had to do with its management, others with more structural problems. Alhurra's founders seemed to think that the Arab world was like the former Soviet space, deprived of information and desperate for an objective, credible source of news and free public debate. That would have been true in the 1980s. But at the time of its launch (2004) the Arab world was actually drowning in satellite television, with multiple sources of information and talk shows which already discussed all the issues which Alhurra claimed to be introducing. Alhurra, with its stigma of American funding, never had a chance to be more than a drop in the ocean. Other than a few times when it irritated
The removal of Harb, along with the replacement of the uber-partisan Ken Tomlinson as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, offered the opportunity for a fresh start. Larry Register, an old CNN hand, was brought in to try and salvage the sinking station. When Register took over, he began to try to win an audience by covering issues which Arabs actually cared about, featuring a wider, more diverse range of voices, and trying (against the odds) to establish Alhurra as a model of free media rather than American propaganda. Register increased the attention paid to American politics, exploiting one of Alhurra’s few points of comparative advantage. He recognized that without attracting viewers, Alhurra would fade into the obscurity of Radio Marti, the anti-Castro station beloved of American conservatives which hardly any Cubans ever heard. There is little evidence to support Mowbray’s complaint that Alhurra had backed away from coverage of human rights and democracy issues; indeed, I would note that the only Alhurra program which I have ever seen generate any Arab public discussion was a program on torture in
The conservative crusade against Register’s tenure at Alhurra demonstrates one of the great difficulties facing any official American broadcasting to the
The other major issue raised by these events has to do with Alhurra’s lack of transparency and accountability. Information about Alhurra’s content has always been hard to come by. Alhurra has no live feed available in the United States (unlike Radio Sawa, to which you can listen on-line), features only a rudimentary website, offers no transcripts of its programs in Arabic or English (unlike Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, both of which offer full transcripts of all their programs online), and does not even publish basic information about the topics of programs or their guests. There has simply been no way for anyone—whether Congress or external analysts within the
Alhurra's new management might even welcome such transparency as its best protection against cherry-picking attacks such as Mowbray’s, in which unnamed insiders fed a steady stream of seemingly damning anecdotes which nobody else could either contextualize or critique. Such increased access to content might also increase its impact with the millions of Arabs who routinely read Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya’s websites—if, that is, anyone involved in the Alhurra debates actually cares about such things.
After Register, anyone running Alhurra will understand that he or she has three basic options: produce a bland, anodyne, uncontroversial product which nobody watches; produce pro-administration propaganda product to which conservatives can’t object, but lose all credibility as a source of information or news; or produce a competitive, high quality product which attracts an audience, only to be crucified before a Congressional committee. It’s a safe guess that anyone replacing Register would wisely avoid the last option, leaving only bland irrelevance or naked propaganda for whatever puzzled Arab viewers might happen to come across Alhurra as they click (rapidly) through the channels. The choice of Danny Nassif, long-time director of Radio Sawa’s news, makes a return to the Harb model of irrelevance in the Arab world and zealous defense of its reputation in
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science at