WASHINGTON — An American government-sponsored Arabic language satellite television channel may be up and running before the end of this year, beaming news with an American style and spin to the Arab world. But doubts persist over whether such a station can change attitudes in the region.
Broadcasting mogul Norman Pattiz, who a year ago created Radio Sawa, America’s new Arabic voice in the Middle East, said last week that he “strongly feels” he could receive funding from Congress by this fall to launch such a television station in six months. Thirty million dollars have already been dedicated for that purpose in the fiscal year 2004 budget; Pattiz is now lobbying Washington for another $32 million in a supplemental spending bill. If the extra funds are approved, Pattiz said, the station would be able to go on the air by October.
Congressional sources confirm that the $62 million Pattiz is seeking to kick off the project are likely to be appropriated soon. “The need for this is obvious,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who sits on the House international relations committee. “We’re waging a battle on many battlefields. And the battle on the air is not only for airplanes.”
In a briefing in Washington to a group of Middle East experts and reporters, Pattiz described his mission as being an airwave warrior at the forefront of a broadcast war against a multitude of Arab outlets saturated with hate and incitement. “In the past, we didn’t have a horse in this race,” he said. Voice of America’s Arabic service, broadcast to the Arab world via shortwave and AM transmitters, attracts only 2% of local listeners.
Several months after the launching of Radio Sawa, it has achieved tremendous exposure in Arab countries that allotted it FM frequencies. According to surveys commissioned by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, a new umbrella organization that supervises all American government and government-sponsored international broadcasting services, Radio Sawa is by far the most popular station in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Among listeners aged 17 to 28, it enjoys a 43% share of the audience. Surveys show high ratings for Radio Sawa in Gulf states, Egypt and North Africa as well.
The popularity of Radio Sawa — sawa means “together” in colloquial Arabic — stems mainly from its ability to deliver popular music, both Arabic and American, in a slick format. The station broadcasts blocks of pop, hip-hop, techno and dance music, equally divided, roughly, between English and Arabic. Twice an hour, 10-minute newscasts air between music blocks.
At first, listeners would listen to the music and change the station when the news came on. That is no longer the case, maintains Pattiz. In June 2002, only 1% of listeners in Amman named Sawa their favorite station news. In a recent poll commissioned by the station, however, 42% chose Sawa; 39% said Sawa’s news is the most reliable.
Pattiz said that to some extent, Arabs hate American policies “because they are only getting one side of our policies.” Giving them both sides of the story may not produce a drastic change in opinions, he said, but it should make some difference. Recent polling data shows that Radio Sawa listeners express about 5% more favorable attitudes toward America than those who listen to other stations. That may not be much, Pattiz said, but it is a start.
Pattiz said the radio station’s success should encourage Washington to focus on satellite television. “We think that there needs to be a U.S.-sponsored Arabic language television station in the region, because 90% of the population gets their information from TV.”
A television station could gain more exposure than a radio station in the region because its penetration is not contingent upon the approval of Arab regimes, Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson recently told a Senate committee. Some Arab governments have refused to authorize FM transmitters for Radio Sawa in their territory.
If launched, the television station would be the centerpiece — and most expensive component — of the Bush administration’s “public diplomacy” efforts in the Middle East. But some experts question whether such a project could truly make a difference.
David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, is dubious about how useful Radio Sawa has been, and how useful a television station might be. Mack, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and as American ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, said he recently returned from a trip to the Persian Gulf, where he asked Arab media professionals about Radio Sawa. “Their answer was, basically, good music but the news was laughable and unprofessional,” Mack said. “[While] Radio Sawa has not been very successful in terms of promoting the credibility of news from the U.S., it hasn’t cost a lot of money. But the cost of television is horrendous.”
Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor who specializes in Arab public opinion and conducts frequent polls in the Middle East, is largely dismissive of Radio Sawa and the effectiveness of America’s public diplomacy in the region. “The mistrust is so deep,” he told the Forward, “that it won’t make a substantial difference.” Telhami suggested taking Jordan as an example. “For the past decade, Jordan’s government has not wanted to see anger toward America. It wants the friendship with America. It wants to make it public that it is friends with America. And yet anti-Americanism in Jordan is among the highest in the Middle East.”
In Jordan — where Radio Sawa is allegedly the most popular radio station — Telhami’s poll results from last week show that the public in many ways is the most radicalized in the region. Only 1% of Jordanian respondents said their view of the United States was “very favorable,” and 5% said it was “somewhat favorable.” Eighty percent said it was unfavorable, more than in Egypt or Lebanon.