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U.S.-financed Arabic channel finds its voice

Alhurra,  the U.S. government's largest and most expensive effort to sway foreign opinion over the airwaves since the creation of Voice of America in 1942, is still struggling to find its voice in the Middle East.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When a U.S. military helicopter swooped into Baghdad and began spraying bullets into a crowd of civilians believed to be looting an Army armored vehicle, most Arab news channels aired a video of the scene that captured the last words of a journalist killed in the attack.

"Please help me. I am dying," pleaded the reporter, Mazin Tumaisi. His network, al-Arabiya, showed the footage again and again, as did al-Jazeera.

Alhurra TV, however, deemed the video too disturbing to air. The story could be told without such graphic images, news directors for the new U.S. government-funded network concluded.

Editors at U.S. news channels routinely decide that some images are too graphic to air. But to critics and competitors of Alhurra, its decision was evidence that the young network airs U.S. propaganda. "It is very questionable for them not to show it," said Hafez al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief of al-Jazeera, the Arabic news channel based in Qatar.

Alhurra, a network with 150 reporters based in Springfield, is the U.S. government's largest and most expensive effort to sway foreign opinion over the airwaves since the creation of Voice of America in 1942.

A mix of programming
The 24-hour channel, which started operating in February, airs two daily hour-long newscasts, and sports, cooking, fashion, technology and entertainment programs, including a version of "Inside the Actors Studio" dubbed in Arabic. It also carries political talk shows and magazine-type news programs, including one about the U.S. presidential election.

Its programs are produced in a two-story building that once housed local NewsChannel 8. It is staffed by a handful of journalists recruited from Arabic stations and newspapers and dozens of employees scurrying around in jeans and running shoes or kitten heels. A mixture of Arabic and English fills the newsroom as journalists answer phones and click away on their computers.

Congress last year approved $62 million to pay for Alhurra's first year. In November 2003, Congress committed $40 million more to launch a sister station aimed solely at Iraq that was launched in April. The operation is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency that is also in charge of Voice of America. The U.S. government launched Alhurra after deciding that existing Arab news channels displayed anti-American bias. The aim is to promote a more positive U.S. image to Arabs.

Khalid Disher, 24, who owns a shop in the Mansoor neighborhood of Baghdad, likes Alhurra. "Their news covers everything, the good news and the bad ones. They cover all of Iraq. As a new channel, it is a very good start."

Others are suspicious. "I know that this channel is funded by the U.S. Congress," said Atheer Abdul-Sattar, 24, who owns a sports-equipment store in Mansoor. "The Americans want their interests to be achieved. They will direct the kind of shows or ideas they want the Iraqis to believe."

Mouafac Harb, Alhurra's news director, bristles at that notion. "We're state-funded, but not state-run," Harb said. "I don't recall getting a phone call from someone trying to steer the news. Ever."

Competing in a crowded field
Alhurra may have a problem standing out in a crowded field. There are about 120 satellite-television channels, including al-Jazeera, Dubai-based al-Arabiya, London-based Arabic News Network and state-run operations.

William A. Rugh, a former ambassador to United Arab Emirates and Yemen who wrote a book on Arabic media, said Alhurra has "been a big waste of money" so far, in part because it must compete in a saturated field of Arabic networks.

The moving force behind the birth of Alhurra, which means "the Free One" in Arabic, was Norman Pattiz, the California radio executive who created Westwood One Inc., the nation's largest radio network. Pattiz was appointed in November 2000 by President Bill Clinton to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees federally funded international media efforts such as the Voice of America and Radio and TV Marti, which is aimed at Cuba. Pattiz quickly focused his attention on the Middle East, and, he said, he soon concluded that newscasts on Middle East stations often offered "incitements of violence, hate-speak and disinformation."

In 2002, the broadcasting board launched Radio Sawa, a radio station that mixes American and Arabic pop music with five hours of daily news programming. Meanwhile, Pattiz, armed with a video of scenes of Arab citizens stomping on American flags and burning an image of President Bush, lobbied Congress to fund a TV station.

"These are the kinds of visions of America that people in the Middle East see every day," Pattiz said, recalling his sales pitch.

Pattiz helped hire Harb as news director of Radio Sawa. Harb, a Lebanon-born U.S. citizen, attended George Washington University and had been working as the Washington bureau chief of the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat. After Congress approved funding for Alhurra, which had strong backing from the Bush administration, Harb became Alhurra's news director as well.

Alhurra and Alhurra Iraq are owned by a nonprofit corporation, the Middle East Television Network Inc., which was set up as a holding company for the Arabic television stations.

Harb said editorial decisions rest with him, but that he reports to the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Bert Kleinman, president of the Middle East Television Network, which oversees the station's finances. Alhurra does not air commercials or generate any revenue and thus is dependent on the U.S. government for its money.

Alhurra spent $20 million to buy broadcast equipment and technology and to renovate the studio. The rest of the money went for operating costs and salaries, which network representatives say are in line with the U.S. government's pay scale. Next year's budget for the two television and one radio stations is expected to total $52 million.

An expanded program?
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wants to expand the effort. He has introduced a bill calling for similar broadcasts in Farsi, Kurdish and Uzbek, among other languages. The expansion would require $222 million in start-up funding, plus a $345 million annual budget on top of Voice of America's budget of $570 million for 2005.

Eighty of Alhurra's 150 journalists moved here from Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. Fifty remained abroad to work in the network's bureaus in Amman, Baghdad, Beirut and Dubai.

Harb said most of the journalists were initially skeptical but agreed to join for the opportunity to try something new.

"Journalism is difficult in Lebanon. It's difficult to say everything you want to say," said Larissa Aoun, who previously worked for a state-run station in Beirut. "I was really looking for an opportunity where I could be more open."

A rough beginning
Alhurra had a bumpy start. When the channel was launched in February, government officials in some countries condemned it. A cleric in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa, or religious decree, against watching the channel, writing in Al Hayat that Alhurra was staffed by "agents in the pay of America."

In Alhurra's first days, there were many technical problems. And when President Bush appeared on the station to discuss the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, he ended the interview by telling Harb he'd done a "good job," prompting more questions about the station's independence.

Harb said he wishes that Bush had not made that comment, but that he also believes the incident was misconstrued. "I don't believe I was soft on the president," he said.

In March, when Israeli missiles killed Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin as he emerged from a prayer session, most Arab news channels switched immediately to the story. Alhurra stuck with its regular program, a cooking show.

Detractors pounced on that. "Whatever the reason, Al-Hurra's not pursuing the story in real time will be interpreted by many Arabs as politically motivated," wrote an opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

Harb agreed that it was a mistake. "This happened very early in the life of Alhurra. ... When they assassinated the next leader of Hamas, we were more ready to give more comprehensive coverage by then," he said.

Harb does not, however, think that Alhurra was wrong when it decided not to show the video of the dying al-Arabiya journalist.

In U.S. media, "the idea of publishing graphic images is shied away from, frowned upon universally," said Keith Woods, who teaches journalism at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Everybody has a sense of a line that you don't cross without good reason."

Imad Musa, 34, was working in al-Jazeera's Washington bureau before he joined Alhurra as a producer. Musa, an American who is the son of Palestinian immigrants, liked the idea of shaping a new channel. He said he received assurances of journalistic freedom before taking the job and has not felt pressure to slant a story.

There are, he acknowledged, differences between the policies of his current and former employer. Alhurra's reporters are told not to refer to the U.S. presence in Iraq as an occupation. Those who set off explosive devices attached to their bodies are called suicide bombers, not martyrs.

And in Iraq, Alhurra reporters "focus on more human interest and positive stories. For instance, 'electricity has arrived in this neighborhood,' not 'this neighborhood still doesn't have electricity'," Musa said.

Musa also has to deal with the fact that some Arab politicians refuse to appear on his channels or are criticized for appearing. One member of the Jordanian parliament who agreed to be on Alhurra in August was criticized for appearing opposite an Israeli.

Overall, however, Musa said news judgment at Alhurra is not very different from that of al-Jazeera. Last month, on the day Musa was being interviewed, al-Jazeera began its 5 p.m. newscast with video of violence in Najaf that was almost identical to the scene Musa picked to lead his program.

The Alhurra program's two anchors were positioned in front of a blue map of the Middle East in the Springfield studio. During that day's broadcast, one of al-Jazeera's female anchors wore a head scarf. Alhurra's anchors were dressed in modern business attire. Both stations used a classical form of Arabic in presenting the news. But unlike al-Jazeera, Alhurra didn't sign off with the traditional Islamic greeting assalamu alaikum, or "peace be upon you."

Reaching viewers
Alhurra is transmitted to the Middle East on two satellites, Nilesat and Arabsat. Viewers in Iraq can also get the network over broadcast television. The network is available to 70 million satellite television viewers in 22 countries. There are few reliable statistics on how many people watch it regularly. One survey conducted for the network by ACNielsen found that 29 percent of Jordanians and 24 percent of Saudi Arabians with satellite-TV receivers tuned in during a seven day period in July and August. But a Zogby poll of six Middle East countries done in May for the University of Maryland found that Alhurra barely registered as a primary source of news.

"There is a psychological barrier, and this ... affects people's perceptions in dealing with things coming from across the Atlantic," said Badran A. Badran, a professor of media and communications at Zayed University in Dubai. "The U.S. is viewed in a negative light."

Some Middle East experts assert that the very assumption under which Alhurra was created — that existing Arab news stations contribute to disdain for the United States — is flawed. "The managers of Alhurra have stigmatized the competition and stereotyped it as being totally anti-American and that's simply not true," said Rugh, the former ambassador.

Rather than compete in an already crowded field, Rugh said U.S. American policymakers should appear more on al-Jazeera and other widely watched channels. More than 400 Voice of America staff members signed a petition sent to Congress in July charging that Alhurra and Sawa were draining VOA's budgets and not being held to the same editorial standards.

A draft of a report by the State Department's inspector general, obtained by The Washington Post, said Radio Sawa is failing to meet its mandate to promote pro-American attitudes because it is preoccupied with building an audience through music — an assertion disputed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The State Department said it is revising the report.

Some legislators have said that if Alhurra is not promoting U.S. views, the government should not be funding it. "Do not tell us it's not propaganda, because if it's not propaganda, then I think ... we will have to look at what it is we are doing," Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) said at a hearing in April.

Harb countered that fair news is what will promote democracy. "Our track record will speak for itself," he said.

Staff writer Jackie Spinner and special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report from Baghdad.