John Brown, author of the article below, is a former US Foreign Service Officer who resigned his post at the State Department to protest the invasion of Iraq. He is now a research associate at the Georgetown University Center for Public Diplomacy.
By John Brown
Alhurra, the U.S. government-funded satellite television facility that airs its product to the Middle East, hasn't caught on. Kicked off with much fanfare on Valentine's Day, 2004, the $100-million-plus station (the name of which means "The Free One" in Arabic) has been met with more disdain than acceptance in the Arab world. But abandoning it altogether is not an option at this point. What is urgent is determining how to fix it.
In theory, there is hope for Alhurra. Formally "independent" as part of the Middle East Television Network, Inc., a non-profit corporation that receives U.S. government dollars, it can provide an objective window on America -- and its foreign policy -- not to be found in biased, anti-American local media. (There are over 100 TV stations in the Middle East). The station can provide a nuanced expression of the interest Americans have toward Arab lands in an effort to establish a dialogue. It could also stimulate audiences to find out more about the United States in all its complexity.
Alhurra's strategy, however, does not jibe with these objectives. Its focus has been to win audience share in perceived Middle East "media wars" by aiming for slick commercial television -- by trying, if you will, to out-Al-Jazzera Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite broadcaster that is by far the most popular in the area and the one that has been compared to Fox News.
Privately, Alhurra staff boasts about the attractiveness of its female news presenters as one of its strong points. This attempt at public relations slickness, after more than a year, hasn't worked, this despite the fact that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (http://www.bbg.gov/), the independent U.S. agency that oversees the station, has used scientific audience surveys to demonstrate its putative impact.
Judging from the Arab and other media, Alhurra is in fact widely considered dull U.S. propaganda, unsubtle American imperialism in electronic form, which does little to stir audience interest in the United States. Indeed, it causes the opposite reaction, with viewers complaining about the pro-American tilt and cultural insensitivity -- all of which can muddy the reputation of the United States even more than Al-Jazeera.
Fixing Alhurra is a huge undertaking. Its purpose needs complete rethinking, including consideration of the extent to which the U.S. government should be involved in television broadcasting in the first place. The value of "winning" audience share -- rather than informing opinion makers -- should be reexamined. How "local" as contrasted with "regional" Alhurra programs should be also needs to be debated. And the question arises: Shouldn't scarce resources go to supporting local independent media (through, for example, grants and training programs), rather than for expensive broadcasting facilities based in the United States?
These questions may have no conclusive answers. Nonetheless, at this stage in Alhurra's evolution certain matters appear obvious. Given the limited nature of its funding ($100 million is really not that great a sum in international broadcasting), and its links with the U.S. government (despite a BBG "firewall" protecting its independence), there are a few things Alhurra should not attempt. This is so because it can never do them professionally -- unless its budget is greatly increased and its connections with the U.S. government are totally broken. These unrealistic programs that should not be undertaken are:
Providing up-to-the-minute local news at the scene of events, which Alhurra's dedicated but overstretched field staff simply cannot do because of financial and other restraints;
Airing expensive "entertainment" shows; and
Being on the air twenty-four hours a day.
Abandoning Alhurra altogether at this stage, it must be noted at this point, is not a viable short-term option. Shutting it down would be interpreted by the Arab world as an admission that the United States is unable to communicate. Further, millions thus far have been invested in the station.
With the fact that it cannot or should not be shut down, here are some thoughts on how to fix Alhurra, how it could better inform the Arab world in a way suited to America's interests:
Focus on C-Span-type programming relevant to Middle East audiences. To be sure, such "unexciting" programming would not be as audience-grabbing as, for example, the scandal-mongering local show aired on Iraq's U.S.-funded al-Iraqiya channel, "Terrorists in the Hands of Justice." (This program is criticized for violating the Geneva Conventions). With more low-key, unfiltered information programs, however, Alhurra would be seen as a reliable and objective outlet -- especially in times of crisis -- about what the U.S. government really thinks and does. Alhurra's live continuous coverage of the Congressional Hearings regarding the Abu Ghraib photos is a fine example of this.
Air in-depth documentaries on serious, relevant issues produced by local filmmakers. A priority theme should be the historical links between the United States and Arab countries. Such documentaries are all too few; funds should be made available to produce them.
Create an effective website. Alhurra's current site at http://www.Alhurra.com/ consists of only one page, an almost offensively simple listing of its programs in English and Arabic. Given the increased importance of the Internet in the Middle East, especially among young people, the site should be far more detailed and user-friendly, providing up-to-the-minute news and links. It should be interactive, with streaming video and audio. It should contain an archive, always a valuable resource for scholars and researchers.
Establish a legal mechanism that would allow Alhurra to be seen more widely in the United States, making it possible for interested laypersons and specialists to view its programs easily and thus be better able to critique it constructively. The spirit of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 that prohibits, with certain exceptions, the dissemination in the United States of U.S. Government-provided information intended for overseas audiences must be preserved. Nonetheless, there should be a better way to inform Americans -- including Arab-Americans, who could provide valuable feedback on Alhurra's programs -- about what their government is doing in the field of information in the Middle East.
These small steps, while not a magic bullet for Alhurra's problems, would earn it greater respect among the increasingly important educated "chattering class" in the Middle East, importantly including younger people interested in policy and ideas.