WASHINGTON — After two months on the air, Alhurra, America’s Arabic satellite TV network, has become a favorite punching bag of Arab commentators and religious leaders throughout the Middle East.
Cartoonists ridicule it. Columnists dismiss it. One Saudi cleric went so far as to issue an Islamic edict outlawing Muslims from watching the network or even cooperating with it.
But the directors and editors of Alhurra — Arabic for “the free one” — don’t seem worried.
“At this stage, any publicity is good publicity,” said radio tycoon Norman Pattiz, who, as a member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, spearheaded the creation of the new channel. “We’ve been out there for no longer than a whisper, and we are already having a tremendous effect on how the Arab media are viewing themselves. That’s almost worth the price of admission, isn’t it?”
Pattiz, founder and director of the entertainment empire Westwood One, two years ago established Radio Sawa, a federally funded radio station that replaced Voice of America’s Arabic service with a controversial mixture of news and popular music broadcast through powerful transmitters to the Arab world. Sawa — Arabic for “together” — succeeded in carving out a niche on the Arab airwaves, paving the way for Pattiz to secure an additional budget of $64 million from Congress last year for a satellite TV network that would seek to advance freedom and democracy in the Arab world and improve America’s image there.
The results, at least in terms of infrastructure, are impressive: The network boasts an ultramodern complex of studios, newsrooms and editing rooms just outside of Washington built in only three months. A staff of more than 75 journalists was recruited in the Middle East, mostly from Lebanon, issued visas and flown to America. Correspondents were appointed in every major Arab capital, as well as in London and Paris. “We are building a CNN in Arabic with very little money and in very little time,” boasted Pattiz at Alhurra’s executive wing in Springfield, Va., overlooking the vast blue-lit CNN-style news studio. The network broadcasts 18 hours a day, seven days a week to the Arab world (it cannot be received in America) and will soon run 24/7.
The studio looks as good — if not better — than those of the Arab satellite news networks, with which Alhurra competes. The set is crisp and elegant. The presenters are polished, and the hourly newscasts flow smoothly. Some of the staffers were recruited from the competition, satellite networks including Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya, as well as local stations in Arab countries. “Some of the people I chose are known in the Middle East, they have not been burnt in any way, and are considered credible,” said Mouafac Harb, who doubles as the news director of Alhurra and Radio Sawa. Combined, Harb said, he manages the largest Arabic news-gathering operation in the world.
“We are an undeniable part of the Arab media scene,” said Harb, an energetic Lebanese-American with experience in both print and broadcast Arab journalism. “Now we have to build our credibility.”
Which is to say: Now comes the really hard part. A TV operation that carries the stigma of the American government, officially stating in an Alhurra fact-sheet that it strives to advance the “long-term U.S. national interests,” is trying to elbow its way into the living rooms of Arab societies, where attitudes toward Washington range from ambivalence to hostility.
“Sure, they may hate our policies,” said Pattiz, “but our job is to present, not promote, U.S. policy. It is to accurately present it at a place where it may not be accurately presented, and then to have free and open discussion about it and let people make the determinations themselves.”
That could be Alhurra’s key to success, said Marwan Kraidy, a professor of international communications at the American University in Washington and an expert on Arabic satellite TV networks. “It is hopeless for Alhurra to try to get to Arab hearts. But it has a chance to get to Arab minds,” Kraidy said. “Anti-American sentiments will not decrease by one ounce because of this, but if an alternative picture is portrayed in the region, then maybe among some people — among people under the age of 30, who comprise about half of the Arab population — particularly the educated liberal elite, this may have some influence.”
What Alhurra should not be doing, Kraidy emphasized, is trying to capture the typically highly politicized and often Islamist audiences of Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya. “There is a niche out there for Alhurra, of both liberal intellectuals and younger, nonfundamentalist, open-minded Arabs, who have not yet formed their political outlook.”
The challenge facing Alhurra was on full display last month, after Israel’s assassination of the leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya immediately ran long, live emotionally narrated feeds from the Gaza Strip. In contrast, Alhurra took some time to interrupt a translated American cooking show and then updated the story with a matter-of-fact voice-over from the studio. Even critics agree, however, that Alhurra is not trying to sugarcoat America’s difficulties to pacify and stabilize Iraq. Last week, when Iraqi militias displayed American and Japanese civilians whom they had taken hostage, Alhurra showed footage that was not broadcast on Al Jazeera.
Alhurra’s directors say that they are not presuming to win over Al Jazeera viewers. But the Qatar-based success story is a pivotal point of reference — and a near-obsession — for the people running Alhurra. Take Harb, who has two TV screens in his office: One beams Alhurra’s live feed; the other is tuned to Al Jazeera.
But Pattiz insists that Al Jazeera is “afraid of us,” noting that days after Alhurra went on the air with a black Sudanese anchorwoman, Al Jazeera added a black Sudanese anchorwoman. Within days of the American network’s launch on February 14, Al Jazeera also revamped its set to look as fresh and crisp as Alhurra’s, according to Pattiz.
A veteran Arab journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the only way for Alhurra to become credible is to distinguish itself by bravely exposing the corrupt and repressive nature of Arab regimes. That, he said, can happen if its reporters take advantage of their association with the U.S. government by capitalizing on the semi-immunity that Arab regimes will have to grant them. “Al Jazeera attempted to expose corruption and tyranny, and had six of its bureaus shut down across the Arab world,” said the journalist. “Which Arab government will dare kick out a reporter backed by America?”
Alhurra demonstrated such independence when it aired a debate between a Syrian reformist, who was banned from demonstrating against the Syrian regime, and a representative of Bashar Assad’s government.
At the same time, by dwelling on the lack of freedom and democracy in the Arab world, Alhurra is developing a condescending, patronizing image.
“They are basically saying, ‘Be free like us,’ and people don’t particularly like that kind of preaching,” said Rami Khouri, executive editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star, one of the Arab world’s leading English newspapers.
“The others may be catering or pandering to public opinion, but they are straightforward commercial operations,” Khouri said in a telephone interview from his Beirut office. Although “the propagandistic element is pretty low key, this is an ideologically driven operation,” and therefore highly suspect in Arab eyes, Khouri noted. “The fact that the U.S. government is behind it just seems to me as too much of a handicap to make a difference.”
Still, Pattiz maintained that it’s premature to dismiss Alhurra and too early to conduct viewer polls. But, he added, initial anecdotal feedback, mainly from hundreds of viewers’ e-mails, is positive.
“After being on the air for a month, we have already created debate within the Arab media industry itself as to their own standards and norms,” Pattiz said. “If our mission is to promote pluralism and democracy, then hey: We have already begun.”