Al Hurra's top executives don't know Arabic

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 17 13:01:11 UTC 2007

ay 17, 2007
Unfriendly Views on U.S.-Backed Arabic TV

WASHINGTON, May 16 Toward the end of a Congressional hearing on Wednesday
on American efforts to win more popular support in the Arab world,
Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, got sidetracked.
Mr. Ackerman was in the middle of chastising representatives from the
United States-financed Middle East television channel Al Hurra for
broadcasting the views of leaders of the militant Islamist groups Hamas
and Hezbollah. But when a Hurra executive mentioned in the stations
defense that it broadcasts uncut, live versions of President Bushs
speeches, Mr. Ackerman interrupted.

You carry President Bush live? he asked. Then, incredulously, Hopefully we
find this helpful to the mission? There was laughter throughout the
committee room, but the exchange highlighted the central quandary
surrounding American public diplomacy efforts. In recent weeks both
conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats have attacked Al Hurra for,
in the words of The Wall Street Journals editorial page last week,
providing friendly coverage of camera-ready extremists from Al Qaeda,
Hamas and other terrorist groups. In particular, critics of the network,
which was founded in 2003 as an Arabic-language, American-financed counter
to Al Jazeera, are particularly annoyed that the network broadcast a
30-minute speech by the Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, in

Mr. Ackerman also complained during the hearing that the network gave
extensive coverage to Irans conference in December on denying the
Holocaust and, more recently, showed Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime
minister (and Hamas leader), discussing the faltering Palestinian unity
government. How does it happen that terrorists take over? Is there no
supervision? Mr.  Ackerman asked. But there was also tacit acknowledgment,
even from Republican critics of Al Hurra, that blaming the network might
be a little like shooting the messenger. The State Department has devoted
many resources lately to public diplomacy, including taking Muslim
students to the World Cup games in Germany, serving as host for Arab
journalists at training seminars in Washington, and dispatching the under
secretary of state for public diplomacy, Karen Hughes, to talk to Muslim
women around the world.

But those efforts do little to counter the rising anger among Arabs over
the American role in Iraq and the Bush administrations refusal to shut
down the military prison at Guantnamo Bay in Cuba. One witness before this
subcommittee last week argued that, Quote, Its the policy, stupid, close
quote, acknowledged Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana,
although, he added, Im not one who believes we should significantly
reorder our policy toward the Middle East. For decades, the United States
has provided funds for radio and television stations dedicated to
promoting American values and views. During the cold war, Radio Free
Europe sought to counter the state-controlled Soviet media by broadcasting
pro-American views.

The first President George Bush created TV Mart, to beam American
programming into Fidel Castros Cuba, though Mr. Castro managed to jam it
for years so people in Cuba could not actually see it. Al Hurra was
supposed to follow that tradition. But the stations executives admitted
Wednesday that they could not be completely sure that Al Hurra was doing
so, because none of the top executives speak Arabic. How do you know that
theyre being true to the mission if you dont know whats being said? Mr.
Ackerman demanded.

Joaquin F. Blaya, a Hurra executive, testified that network officials made
sure to question the Arabic-speaking staff about what went on the air. Mr.
Blaya and State Department officials acknowledged that the speech by the
Hezbollah leader, Sheik Nasrallah, violated the networks policy not to
give a platform to those whom Washington considers to be terrorists. But
Mr. Blaya also contended in an interview on Wednesday that Al Hurra would
lose all credibility if it did not give air time to people who disagree
with American policy. He said that complaints about air time for Mr.
Haniya were unjustified because he legitimately holds the post of
Palestinian prime minister.

Mr. Blaya also said it was ironic that the government was seeking to
promote American values like democracy and a free press while at the same
time trying to censure what is shown in the station.

Thats the difference between a free media and propaganda, he said.

He said during the hearing that Al Hurra had appointed a new vice
president for news, Larry Register, to make sure the mistakes did not
happen again. But he admitted that Mr. Register did not speak Arabic

State Department officials acknowledged that the lack of Arabic speakers
remained a major failing of American public diplomacy efforts in the
Middle East.

Gretchen Welch, the director of policy, planning and resources in the
State Departments public diplomacy department, said part of the problem
was that the standard source of Arabic language instruction is two years,
while the departments hardship postings, a label applied to many in the
Middle East, last only one year.

To meet the need, she said, the State Department is putting people into
language training who would otherwise be filling overseas posts, and those
posts are going empty. It is absolutely a priority, she said.

But Representative David Scott, Democrat of Georgia, expounded on the
problem of trying to promote America in the Arab world. It begs the
question, then, in spite of all the myriad programs that the State
Department has initiated to win over foreign peoples, why does the world
the Muslim world in particular  continue to hate us so? he said.


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