Al Hurra is a new 24-hour Television news channel in Arabic
. It is funded by the US government in an attempt to broadcast Pro-American news into the Middle East
As of right now, the Arab world is angry at the US. The reasons are due to the fact that the majority of Arabs feel the US is unfairly biased towards Israel, the US invaded Iraq, US leaders and officials insulted their dominant religion; Islam, and that the US does not understand or listen to Arabs. Those are increasingly popular sentiments throughout the region, but not the topic of this node. It is important to mention them, because they are the reason for this channel.
The US attempts to gain public support in foreign countries by getting its message to the people. Since 1942, the Voice of America would broadcast over radio, into friendly and enemy countries. It would tell the news, play some music, give pro-American and pro-Freedom speeches, and generally try to win people over to the American point of view. It was supposed to tell the truth about American and world news in locations that may or may not have access to other news sources. However, this was over radio, and many people get their news nowadays from television.
The US State Department previously tried to improve US relations with the Arab world after 2001 by publishing "Hi" magazine, which was basically a $4.2 Million flop. It steered clear of controversial issues and tried to describe itself as a "lifestyle magazine" which was designed to promote American values. It was described as a "pro-American Reader's Digest." Critics said that the magazine was addressing "the wrong problem." "The problem with young Arabs is not how they perceive U.S. culture or the American way of life," says Mohammed Nawawy, an Egyptian-born journalism professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts and co-author of a book on the Al-jazeera TV network. "They're watching American movies and wearing American jeans and lining up to get visas to come to the United States. The problem is how they perceive United States foreign policy, and that can only be changed by actions on the ground in Iraq and Israel," he added.
With already two strikes under its belt (Radio Sawa and Hi magazine), the US administration decided they should try again, this time with a much more popular and engaging medium, television. (Hey, it worked on Americans with their conservative Fox News Channel and footage of the President on an aircraft carrier.)
Before describing the station, some background information on the Arabic television world is in order. There are already 150+ channels on Arabic television to begin with. Every state in the Middle East region has its own State-run news service. Many view that as a form of bias, as the services are obviously biased toward the government controlling it, and censorship as the government blacks out stories that are unfavorable towards it. Al Jazeera entered the spotlight as a more independant news source, showing a secular 24-hour news channel all in Arabic with original reporting. It quickly became a hit, with over 55 million viewers. People trusted their journalism over the partisan views of the State-broadcast television stations. Al Jazeera reported on stories that other services couldn't or wouldn't touch, with journalism critical of governments and the corruption present. It managed to cover the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where few others could. While CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the BBC covered the war on the side of the US and British forces, Al Jazeera managed to air live footage of civillian casualties and air strikes. Al Arabiya television also became a hit among Arab viewers.
Despite the fact that the US Administration feels its war in Iraq and Afghanistan were partly for "Humanitarian reasons," it has made the population of the Arab world enraged. Daily newspapers and editorials and television programs blast the US for its poor and hypocritical foreign policy, criticizing its wars and its unconditional support for Israel. The US Administration is not stupid, they realize that this attitude can only foment more terrorism against the US. It is certainly not helping the fight in Iraq.
The US State Department's Margaret D. Tutwiler, the official in charge of public diplomacy, acknowledged that America's standing abroad had deteriorated to such an extent that "it will take us many years of hard, focused work" to restore it.
Why does the current US administration see as the source of this problem? "They hate us out of ignorance," is a common thought bandied about. Currently, the communications strategies like this station are being developed on the assumption that if "they" just knew how good "we" are and how much we love "freedom," then they will support the US and its "war on terrorism." Of course, scores of experts all agree that the US policy is the real culprit. The sentiment at the moment is "It's hard to convince anyone of the US' commitment when you have photos of naked Iraqis being tortured by Americans." "The United States lost the public relations war in the Muslim world a long time ago," says Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News. "They could have the prophet Muhammad doing public relations and it wouldn't help."
The White House has accused Arab media, namely Al Jazeera, of deliberately trying to provoke anti-Americanism sentiments. They have protested on numerous occasions, and have even destroyed 2 bureaus since 2001 with missile attacks. (One was purportedly and debatably an accident) Al Jazeera aired several of the videotapes from Osama Bin Laden on its networks, which caused the US to condemn the channel.
Al Hurra (which means "The Free One" in Arabic) was created, as President Bush said in his State of the Union 2004 address, "to cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda." Bush also said the channel would join other U.S. government broadcasts that are aimed at cutting through the "hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world" and telling people "the truth about the values and the policies of the United States." The US government has given a $62 Million US budget to create a new Pro-America television station and run it for its first year. It will broadcast "objective, balanced news" which makes many cringe, as it sounds like an effort to give "fair and balanced" (yet slanted) Fox News to the Middle East. One wonders how it's possible to be both "objective" and "Pro-American" at the same time sometimes.
Even before opening, the channel already faced skepticism from Middle East Experts, Arabs, and Middle Easterners themselves. A minority trust President Bush today, they may not bother with an American-controlled television channel. Previous pro-American ads paid for by the US government were a flop. Most of the people in the region have learned to become skeptical of state-run media, as it hides stories and downplays others. This could probably be no different, some Arabs already see it as propaganda. Most Arabs do not trust the state-run television news, and have no reason to trust the American-run news any more than the others in their lot. Al Hurra hopes to combat that issue by having "the highest production values in the region." They plan to distinguish themselves through their journalistic approach. According to a channel official, Al Jazeera tends to point out that the Israelis were flying "American-made" aircraft, while Al Hurra will not do that.
Al Hurra officials claimed that they will not pull their punches when they talk about the United States. One official said the channel might feature a translated version of the BBC documentary "Blair's War," which extensively broadcast the views of critics of the Iraq war. Like the Voice of America, they ultimately answer to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an appointed body of four Democrats and four Republicans plus the US Secretary of State.
In 2004, the LA Times reported on another US-backed (and Pentagon-funded) group, the Iraqi Media Network, and its broadcast channel Al Iraqiyah. According to the Journalist Edmund Sanders, hopes "have dimmed, despite spending nearly $200 million on two Pentagon contractors hired to launch the media company." The contract was recently transferred from San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. to Florida equipment maker Harris Corp. The article continued, "The station has suffered from management turnover and poor ratings. Some U.S. and Iraqi advisors left, complaining that coalition officials tried to use the station as a public-relations vehicle."
Al Hurra broadcasts from Springfield, Virginia and has a Lebanese-born director. It has a staff of 200, with many Arabs on staff. 310 Million Arabs in 22 Arab countries will be able to watch the Satellite channel, but it will take some months to determine the ratings. The channel began broadcasting on February 14, 2004. It typically advertises itself with the silhouette of an Arabian horse.
They have an array of programs ready - including top-of-the-hour news broadcasts and talk-show formats."Free Hour" is patterned after Nightline and Larry King Live. Last week, for example, one program examined the US-Libyan relationship and what caused Col. Mohammar Qaddafi to dismantle his weapons program; another looked into whether Al Qaeda has spread into Iraq. Weekend talk shows run on Fridays (the Arab equivalent of American Sundays) and are patterned after NBC's Meet the Press and CBS's Face the Nation.
Reactions to the Station
officials took issue with Al Hurra's criticism and said Arab viewers would see the network for what it was, a tool of the American government. "His mandate is clear — that's to promote American points of view," said Jihad Ali Ballout, a Jazeera spokesman. "We are two different beasts altogether: Al Jazeera's job is not to promote anybody's point of view." Another person said quite simply, "America is judged not on what she says but what she does."
UK newspaper The Guardian writes that "Al Hurra's debut passed without notice in some quarters: most Egyptians cannot afford a satellite dish." It also noted in its report, "few people in downtown Cairo confessed to tuning in for the inaugural broadcast. Opinions, however, were plentiful. 'You mean the American propaganda channel?' proved the most popular response."
Riverbend, a popular Iraqi blogger who posts from Baghdad, had this to say about the network:
I wish everyone could see Al-Hurra- the new 'unbiased' news network started by the Pentagon and currently being broadcast all over the Arab world. It is the visual equivalent of Sawa- the American radio station which was previously the Voice of America. The news and reports are so completely biased, they only lack George Bush and Condi Rice as anchors. We watch the reports and news briefs and snicker… it is far from subtle. Interestingly enough, Asa'ad Abu Khalil said that Sawa and Al-Hurra are banned inside of America due to some sort of law that doesn't allow the broadcast of blatant political propaganda or something to that effect. I'd love to know more about that.
A channel like Al-Hurra may be able to convince Egyptians, for example, that everything is going great inside of Iraq, but how are you supposed to convince Iraqis of that? Just because they broadcast it hourly, it doesn't make it true. I sometimes wonder how Americans would feel if the Saudi government, for example, suddenly decided to start broadcasting an English channel with Islamic propaganda to Americans....
I know it bothers the CPA terribly to have the corpses of dead Iraqis shown on television. They would love for Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia to follow Al-Hurra's example and show endless interviews with pro-occupation Iraqis living abroad and speaking in stilted Arabic. These interviews, of course, are interspersed with translated documentaries on the many marvels of... Hollywood. And while I, personally, am very interested in the custom leather interiors of the latest Audi, I couldn't seem to draw myself away from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia while 700+ Iraqis were being killed.
So far, other Iraqis seem to hate the channel as well, as evidenced by Iraqi officials arguing with the Al Hurra commentators over Iraq while on the air.
Hassan Al-Naser, a 22-year-old Saudi university student, said Al Hurra is the last place he would turn for information. “I haven’t watched it and I don’t care what they show. We all know the main aim behind this channel is to polish the image of the United States in the region... If the US policy in the region were acceptable, they would not have to improve their image in this way. The US government has been a great supporter of Israel, which killed thousands of Palestinians, and is now occupying Iraq — most people in the region won’t forget that.” Somehow, I believe that his viewpoint is popular.
Those who do watch the channel are unconvinced. Hamid Al-Twairqi, a 37-year-old Saudi teacher, has been watching the new network regularly. He said Al Hurra has not been fair in covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “They have not been fair in showing how the Israeli soldiers destroy the houses of Palestinians and the killing of innocent children and women. So far, they have no credibility in the region and people still turn to Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya to get the facts,” he added. He told the newspaper that most of his friends feel Al Hurra is short on credibility and long on arrogance.
Muhammad Al-Samman does not believe Al Hurra will be able to change the attitude of the Arabs toward the US. “I think their attempt to influence Arab public opinion in favor of the US will fail because people are fed up with what they see as the worst-ever American policy in the region,” he said, adding that the best way to change perceptions in the region would be for the US to change its policy.
One newspaper editorialized thus:
The fate of Al-Hurra will be that of the Israeli channel Al-Maqboura [the Arabic-language satellite TV station launched by the Israeli government in 2001] and most of the government-owned Arab channels: It will create jobs for government employees. The public reaction and the ratings are a different matter.
Al Hurra provides less than an hour of hard news per day, and is widely ridiculed in Iraq as the gardening channel because of the pablum in which it specializes. Even when it does news, it can't be very effective. Juan Cole saw a program list recently, "it started off with an interview with Elie Wiesel about how he can't support the Palestinian cause because Palestinians engage in violence. At a time when the US siege of Fallujah was fresh in everyone's minds, this must have struck Arab viewers as the crock of steaming excrement that it is. And if that is the lead segment on the US-provided 45 minutes of news, then the US may as well not bother." Only 6% of Iraqi viewers watch Al Hurra anyway, according to one poll.
"It is just like everything America does, they say every other Arab station is wrong and they the US are right," commented one Yemeni. Lately the channel has been showing lots of documentaries, some in English with Arabic subtitles (bad idea because many people are illiterate). Al Hurra seems to be losing as it's more and more obvious that their news coverage is slanted. When Ayman Al-Zawahiri released an audiotape message, Al Jazeera played it, while Al Hurra only briefly mentioned that it existed without analysis or discussion of it, making virtually everyone change the channel. "That's it," one former fan said. "It is just one more state-run news agency, and we already have plenty of official news." According to one reporter, few tuned to Al Hurra for coverage of Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, nor to coverage of the Pakistani Army's fierce battle with Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, because by that point, people had already become fed up with the bias.
It appears that Al Hurra is a sunk venture. The US siege of Fallujah, where Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya showed video of bombing, bloodied women and children, and decapitated corpses of women on the street, as well as the soccer stadium with hundreds of graves, was given poor coverage on Al Hurra. Iraqis and many other Arabs changed the channel; Al Hurra was either whitewashing or ignoring the lurid scene. As one Lebanese-American editor in Washington noted: "The training wheels came off when Alhurra carried cooking and fashion shows during live coverage by Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and others of violence in Fallujah and during the Israeli assault on Rafah. It's ridiculous, and Alhurra was not being taken seriously during a recent visit I made to the region. There's nothing worse than not being taken seriously when you are a journalist." The real nail in the coffin seemed to be when the photos of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal hit the press; Al Hurra paid it little heed and didn't even show it, waiting days until the Sunday show to air a debate on it. George W. Bush was interviewed on the station, but many didn't bother to watch, the US' credibility was already in tatters by then. Margaret D. Tutwiler, former US ambassador assigned to become undersecretary of state for public affairs, quit in disgust after only four months on the job, saying it was impossible to compete with Al Jazeera's and Al-Arabiya's coverage of Iraq. She is the third to do so for that position.
I asked a Lebanese Arab professor from Notre Dame what his impressions of the channel were. He basically agreed that it was doing a lousy job, and related the following anecdote. On one of the discussion shows, a question was put to someone on the American side, asking what is the purpose of having so many American troops in Iraq if so many are getting killed? The response was that the roads in America are dangerous, and the risk of dying is high. Therefore, less Americans would die if they were operating in Iraq than if they were home and on America's highways. His conclusion was that Al Hurra was a faling effort composed of apologists.
The year-old Al Hurra draws similar complaints from the Arab press. Arab journalists say it employs too many Lebanese nationals (not much of a surprise given that it is staffed by Lebanese-American journalists) and foolishly sticks to a regular schedule of nature documentaries and cooking shows, even during important events like the 2004 Tsunami and the killing of the head of Hamas. Six months after the station’s launch, Tariq Al Humayd, the editor of the pan-Arab paper Asharq al-Awsat, which has shown more sympathy to America’s presence in the region than others, lamented Al Hurra’s sorry state: “We hoped that Al Hurra would emerge as the voice of reason and a source of information and investigative reports at the level of those produced by the U.S. media. The last thing we expected was that the United States would try to sell us its bad goods.” Mamoun Fandy argues that Al Hurra undercuts America’s proclaimed hopes for the Middle East by failing to promote free speech and women’s rights. Some of the channel's detractors like to call it Al Hurayrah ("the kitten"), which is a near-homonym.
Its anemic English web site can be found at: http://www.alhurra.com/
It is currently being broadcast through Arabsat Digital, Arabsat C-band analog, and Nilesat digital. As of this writing, I cannot locate it on any International satellite television packages viewable in the US. Guess you have to be there.
In September 2006, a ratings study showed A Hurra at 56th place out of 100 channels, putting it ahead of CNN at 83rd place but far, far behind Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. It also ran ahead of the Discovery Channel's Animal Planet, which ranked 79th.