Mahmoud Tawil  /  AP file
A Lebanese man adjusts his television to watch Al-Hurra, a satellite television network, in Beirut on Feb. 14. 
By Producer
NBC News
updated 2/25/2004 7:59:08 AM ET 2004-02-25T12:59:08

If the Bush administration wants to win Arab hearts and minds with "Al Hurra," the new U.S.-funded Arab language satellite channel must first accomplish a daunting feat: compete with well-entrenched Arabic satellite channels on their own turf and lure away viewers whose distrust and dislike of the United States have never been greater.

The first week for the network, which means "The Free One," has not been encouraging.

Among the minority of the elite in the Arab world who own satellite dishes or decoders, many didn't bother to watch the fledgling TV station or couldn't find it.

"I haven't heard it mentioned, and nobody has watched it," Amy Moufai, a magazine writer, said.

But like many others who haven't seen it, she still has a negative opinion. "It is an overtly American propaganda tool. It's the Americans telling it the way they want to tell it. That's what they've been doing forever."

Moufani found the name "incredibly patronizing."

"I am very surprised they would choose a name like that which highlights the fact they don't know what they are doing in the Middle East," she said. "It reeks of the whole notion of a white man's bread. 'Let us teach you our free ways.'"

Most here find the network automatically suspect because it is funded by the U.S. government. "It's a CIA thing, isn't it?" responded a TV producer who hadn't seen it yet.

Backed by U.S. taxpayers
The network, financed by $62 million in congressional funding for the first year alone, was launched Feb. 14.

President Bush has said the network hopes to cut through "the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world and tell people the truth about the values and policies of the United States."

The Middle East Television Network Inc. which operates Al Hurra, is supervised and funded by a bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors, which, according to the Al Hurra Web site, serves as a firewall to protect the independence of the broadcasters.

Al Hurra is meant to provide an alternative to Arab networks viewed as critical of the United States, notably Al-Jazeera and Arabiya.

So far, the reviews are mixed but, in general, those who have tuned in found Al Hurra lackluster.

"I watched it three or four times and returned to Al-Jazeera and Arabiya because there is nothing new. They are just repeating other news items with a little change that is suitable to them," said Obeida Abdel Salaam, an Egyptian technician.

"I think its just propaganda for the Americans. They call the people in Iraq who are defending themselves 'fanatics.' But an army invaded them, so they should be against them."

Salaam suggested the network should provide exclusives in order to separate itself from the pack and to prove that it's truly "the free one."

"Why don't they give a chance for Saddam Hussein to give his answer, to tell how he was caught, or show the audience the al-Qaida people the U.S. says have been fighting in Iraq?" Salaam suggested.

"I haven't heard anyone mention [Al Hurra]," said Dr. Walid Al Kazziha, a political science professor.

Al Kazziha found the presentation "too dry for an Arab audience or for any other audience.”

"You feel that they are walking a tightrope. There is an obvious attempt to appeal to the sentiment of the people in the region."

He recommended the newscasts open in a more sensational way, in order to grab people's attention.

Some saw balance in reporting
But mass communications student Radwa Mubarak was impressed. She is writing her master's thesis on Al Hurra.

"The format is amazing. It is very good. The technology is very good. Plus it presents interesting documentaries about the Arab world."

She was surprised to see a documentary about the daily hardships suffered by Palestinians as a result of the separation wall built by the Israelis.

"So far, I haven't seen any kind of bias except for maybe when they were interviewing George Bush and he was talking about democracy in the Arab world."

But Mubarak said she would still go first to Al-Jazeera for breaking news and then to Al Hurra for a different perspective as she once went to CNN or BBC.

Media analyst Dr. Hussein Amin found the new network balanced. "The first magazine show was self-critical, so it shows the network was trying to look inside. Some Arab media scholars freely criticized Al Hurra."

Amin was impressed with the anchors and technical quality, while the content, he said, was not as bad as expected.

But he feels the network needs to provide exclusive reports in order to compete with other Arabic networks. "They have to provide the viewers with what is new and different and try to be ahead of other networks," Amin said.

Corespondent insists on independence
That is precisely what Al Hurra’s Egypt correspondent, Tarek Shami, hopes to do. He has taken a lot of flak from his colleagues for working with the U.S. network.

"They say, 'Why are you there, why did you choose this?' when we talk.... I insist that we are independent," Shami said.

Shami has worked with other Arab networks for 14 years. Although he admits it is difficult to assess after only one week, Shami believes that Al Hurra will allow him to speak more freely and cover more controversial stories than its Arab peers have, and he promises he will not hold back.

Abu Dhabi TV, for example, forbade its reporters from calling the U.S.-led war on Iraq "aggression" or "invasion" and discouraged criticism of the United States.

The Middle East Broadcasting Co. want its reporters to steer clear of anything that might be construed as anti-religious or against Arab governments.

And Arab networks, in general, avoid sensitive topics like female genital mutilation. "I think that Al Hurra will not take this into consideration. They will do the job as it is and as their correspondents want to do it," Shami said.

Correspondents recommend stories to the network and are sometimes assigned stories. Scripts are submitted for approval, which is standard practice in most networks.

So far, Shami hasn't had any changes made to his scripts. Shami says Al Hurra aims to gain the same credibility as the BBC, one of the most trusted source of news in the region — no small task in a region more cynical than ever of anything made in the U.S.A.

Arab editorials pan network
Arab newspaper editorials across the Arab world have panned the fledgling network. "The reaction in Cairo, and across the Middle East has been lukewarm. By midweek some were still trying to find it on the [satellite] dish," wrote an Egyptian English-language weekly. The editorial quoted a viewer who called the newscast "frivolous," and "too much like propaganda."

Al Quds Al Arabi, a newspaper that is often critical of the United States, described the broadcast's beginnings as "disappointing, characterized ... by monotony and an almost total lack of professionalism."

The unsigned editorial accused the network of pandering to the United States by having President Bush as its first guest and posing only polite questions, "so as not to anger the boss."

Critics contend that another state-owned station is the last thing the region needs at a time when new Arab networks are trying to break Arab governments' monopoly on information.

Far from ushering in a new era of press freedom, "it is like going backward because America has introduced another government-controlled media. They opened up with Bush's face, typical of government-controlled media," Al Kazziha, the political science professor, said.

Al Quds Al Arabi said that debuting with a Bush interview "brought to mind official channels broadcast by regimes mired in dictatorship, just like those of the 1960s and beginning of the ’70s."

U.S. policy under fire
Also, many in the region assert this was the wrong time to launch a U.S.-sponsored network in the Arab world.

"This is not the right time to have a station like this because most countries are against the U.S. because of Iraq and Israel. If they solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, then people would accept a station like this," Abdel Salaam said.

"The actions are not coherent with the message. The message is very hypocritical. Bush is talking about democracy after he has colonized a country. What is he doing?" Mowfai, the magazine writer, said.

Although Amin said the network could survive and compete, he conceded that it was launched at a very difficult time "when people are mobilized against the U.S. because of the war in Iraq, Afghanistan and support of the state of Israel."

Egypt's most prestigious Arabic-language newspaper, Al Ahram, questioned the very premise of the U.S.-funded network, making a case echoed by many that the U.S. administration is hated not because of what the Arab media say but because U.S. policy in the region is perceived as anti-Arab.

"It is difficult to understand how the U.S. with its advanced research centers and clever minds, explains away Arab hatred as a product of a demagogic media and not due to to its biased policies and propensity to abuse Arab interests," he said.

"How can the new channel change Arabs' feelings when each day they see the suffering of the Palestinians? What kind of brainwashing by the channel would make people forget what is going on in the occupied territories?... The removal of hatred should take place in the real world by deeds and decisions and not on the airwaves with words and images."

Al Kazziha, for his part, said the new network won't change things.

"The only things that will change peoples’ minds and hearts is a genuine change of policy in the region, addressing the Palestinian issue.... If Bush were to stand up tomorrow and say that the [Israeli-built] wall is not going to stay because it is illegal, that will change hearts and minds. Otherwise, forget it."

Charlene Gubash is an NBC News producer based in Cairo.

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