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Role of Radio Sawa in Middle East questioned

Radio Sawa, a U.S.-funded Arab-language pop music and news station, has failed to meet its mandate of promoting democracy and pro-American attitudes, according to a draft report.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Radio Sawa, an Arab-language pop music and news station funded by the U.S. government and touted by the Bush administration as a success in reaching out to the Arab world, has failed to meet its mandate of promoting democracy and pro-American attitudes, according to a draft report prepared by the State Department's inspector general.

The report credited Radio Sawa with attracting a large audience in key Middle East countries but said the station, which has an annual budget of $22 million, has been so preoccupied with building an audience through its music that it has failed to adequately measure whether it is influencing minds.

The report also questioned the validity of some research given to Congress by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Radio Sawa's parent, to demonstrate its success.

Two independent panels of Arab-language experts hired by the inspector general's office gave the programming a mixed review, saying it did not match al-Jazeera in terms of quality and that parents would prefer that their teenagers not listen to Radio Sawa because its broadcasts contained such poor Arabic grammar. "Radio Sawa failed to present America to its audience," one panel concluded.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has vehemently protested the report, questioning its methodology and assumptions in a 49-page pre-publication rebuttal. The report, based on extensive interviews in Washington and the Middle East with U.S. officials and public diplomacy experts, was scheduled to be published in August, but publication has been repeatedly delayed.

The draft report notes that Broadcasting Board officials often interfered with interviews and may have intimidated some employees and "made them less forthcoming." A copy of the draft report was supplied by a source who said he feared that the inspector general's office was buckling under pressure and would water down the conclusions.

Cameron R. Hume, who became acting inspector general after the draft was completed, confirmed the report was being revised. He acknowledged that the Broadcasting Board has complained, but he noted he had his own concerns, saying the report was based on "an erroneous view" of the legislation involving Radio Sawa. He declined to comment further.

'Big dust-up'
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, said there had been a "big dust-up" over the report. He said Radio Sawa is "one of the biggest successes the U.S. has ever had in international broadcasting" but that "critics of Sawa made an inordinate contribution" to what he called a "fatally flawed report."

Sawa replaced the Arab-language version of the Voice of America, and Tomlinson said, "VOA unions are obsessed over knocking Sawa."

Norman J. Pattiz, a board member regarded as the driving force behind Radio Sawa, said that "there are many inaccuracies, misunderstandings and misinformation in the draft that need to be corrected." He said the report failed to comply with generally accepted government auditing standards, misrepresents Sawa's mission and performance, and misinterprets federal and congressional requirements.

The draft report said news and information programs represent only 25 percent of Radio Sawa's broadcast, and there appears to be a reluctance among officials to use it as a tool for public diplomacy. The report said Radio Sawa has not fully met the requirements of the VOA charter to present the policies of the United States "clearly and effectively" and to present "responsible discussions and opinion on these policies."

Finding a balance between news, music
In a statement, the Broadcasting Board said that Radio Sawa is not preoccupied with music, as the report charges, but offers more than 300 newscasts per week, and that more than 90 percent of the staff is devoted to current affairs and informational programming. "The reason Radio Sawa plays music is because research indicated a combination of music and news is the best way to reach its target audience," the statement said.

The draft report said that while Radio Sawa has been promoted as a "heavily researched broadcasting network," the research concentrated primarily on gaining audience share, not on measuring whether Radio Sawa was influencing its audience. Despite the larger audiences, "it is difficult to ascertain Radio Sawa's impact in countering anti-American views and the biased state-run media of the Arab world," the draft report said.

It said Radio Sawa has been reluctant to conduct post-broadcast analyses to determine whether U.S. interests were advanced in its programming.

Moreover, it found there was a lack of uniform quality control at Radio Sawa. Some current and former staffers complained that correspondents' reports were uneven, with some reporters quoting "word for word" biased articles that appeared in local newspapers and Middle East news services.