Washington's Arabic TV Effort Gets Mixed Reviews
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Feb 20 18:53:19 UTC 2004
>>From the NYTimes,
February 20, 2004
Washington's Arabic TV Effort Gets Mixed Reviews
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
CAIRO, Feb. 19 An American-sponsored satellite television station
broadcasting in Arabic, probably Washington's biggest propaganda effort
since the attempts to undermine the Soviet bloc and the Castro government,
is drawing mixed reviews in the Middle East, ranging from praise for slick
packaging to criticism for trying to improve the image of "Satan." Those
watching the station, which started over the weekend with an interview
with President Bush, find some appeal in the mix of news and pop culture.
But many remain wary of the underlying political message.
The Bush administration began Al Hurra, whose name means the Free One,
with the announced intent of challenging Al Jazeera and other Arab
satellite stations frequently critical of American policy. Some
differences in tone between Al Hurra and the Arab broadcasters were
immediately apparent, like references to the "coalition forces" in Iraq
rather than the "occupation forces."
Instead of referring to Palestinians trying to free themselves from the
Israeli occupation, one anchor asked an analyst whether the Palestinians
were ready to abandon their "historical dispute" for the economic
prosperity surely to follow. The station is being pilloried in the Arab
press as a propaganda arm of the United States government, trying to gloss
over America's anti-Arab bias. Analysts have labeled it "Fox News in
Arabic" and a spiritual descendant of TV Mart, the American government's
anti-Castro broadcasts in Cuba.
The station is not yet available in all markets. Given that it has been on
the air just a few days, academics and other professionals say it is too
early to say whether its journalistic credentials will overcome the taint
of being underwritten by the American government. "The people they have
hired look modern, hip, and the beat is fast, but it won't have an impact
on the perception of the United States," predicted Mustafa B. Hamarneh,
director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.
"I think the Americans are mistaken if they assume they can change their
image in the region," he said. "People became anti-American because they
don't like American policies." The Virginia-based station, with a budget
of $62 million for the first year, is the latest in a series of attempts
to improve the dismal standing of America in the Arab world. Some have
fallen flat, like a series of television spots called hopelessly nave
because they focused on non-issues like freedom of religion in the United
Another effort, Radio Sawa, or Together, proved more resilient since it
started broadcasting two years ago with a combination of pop music and
rapid-fire news broadcasts, much like AM radio fare in the United States.
But it also spawned competitors, and some Jordanians, for example, say
those who tired of the relentlessly American point of view abandoned the
station. Much criticism of Al Hurra in the Arab press and among people
interviewed on the streets focused on the vast gap in perception between
Washington and the Arab world.
While President Bush spoke about the need to foster freedom and democracy
in the Arab world in his interview, for example, critics say he has done
nothing concrete to encourage Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to end Israel's
occupation of Arab lands and note that the United States has now occupied
Iraq. "As long as this policy continues, any attempt to improve this image
will ultimately be no more than an attempt to market a new face for
Satan," wrote Muhammad Abdalah Nab, a columnist on the news Web site
Elaph. "Only one Apache, which American policy makers gave to Sharon for
free to kill unarmed children, women and elderly Palestinians, makes the
mission of this channel not only difficult, but impossible and stupid at
the same time."
Salem Hamad, 22, a resident of Gaza City, said he had watched the station
a few times but would most likely switch back to Al Jazeera. He was
bracing for the day that Al Hurra station labeled a Palestinian attack
against the Israelis as terrorism. "They will renovate the image of the
Americans, but they will sell the idea that Palestinians are terrorists,"
Al Jazeera's critics in the Arab world find its news analysis or talk
shows overly influenced by old Arab nationalist ideas or those of Islamic
movements, but it broke taboos with its coverage of breaking news and its
discussions of repression in Arab countries and other touchy topics. One
reason Al Jazeera won such a huge following is by broadcasting
unvarnished, often gory reports about the Arab-Israeli dispute, something
government-run stations in the Arab world long avoided for fear of
igniting restive populations.
Al Jazeera also gives a higher priority to breaking news on the
Palestinian front than any other story, again reflecting widespread Arab
sentiment. In the newscasts on Monday, for example, Al Jazeera led its
afternoon broadcasts with a report that the Palestinian prime minister,
Ahmed Qurei, might meet with Mr. Sharon. On Al Hurra the report was the
third or fourth news item broadcast for much of the day, but it ultimately
led the main evening news bulletin. While Al Jazeera was broadcasting live
the afternoon briefing from Baghdad given by a United States general and
the senior United States civilian spokesman, Al Hurra was showing a
documentary about the actor Anthony Hopkins.
Al Hurra broadcasts only 14 hours a day, and many programs are repeated
several times. There is a technology program subtitled in Arabic, with
segments called "Hot Topic" and "Cool Stuff," as well as a magazine show
that talks about exercise, fashion and movies. Some of the segments would
be unlikely to appear on other Arab channels. The technology show
included a report about a man arrested in the United States for going on
the Internet pretending that he was his aunt and soliciting sex, because
he was mad at her. A segment on a chic Moscow night club included a shot
of a bare-chested male bartender.
Some viewers praised the documentaries, also shown in English with
subtitles, which are a rarity on Arab channels. Viewers also suggested
that the calm tone of the talk shows might influence the scream fests on
Arab satellite shows. Between programs, Al Hurra presents unsubtle
promotional spots. Heavy orchestral music surges behind images of horses
running free, or men walking against the crowd, or eye after eye opening
wide. "You think, you aspire, you chose, you express, you are free, Al
Hurra, just the way you are," read the text on one.
There was some public giggling about the channel's name. "I've neither
watched Al Hurra nor Al Abda," joked Sad Saleh al-Folihi, a laborer in the
Yemeni capital of Sana, using the Arabic word for slave. Hussein Amin,
chairman of the department of mass communication at the American
University in Cairo, noted that the station had been introduced when the
standing of the United States was at an all-time low in this part of the
world. It takes years for any station to establish its credibility, even
one not facing such a hurdle, he said.
"Their credibility is open to question right now," he said. "If they take
the position of the U.S. and color everything with its policies, then
people will reject the message and it will not achieve success in any
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