- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

Frustration is rising within the ranks of the U.S. foreign broadcasting empire over a major shifting of resources from Europe and Asia to permit increased outreach to the Islamic world.

The latest focus of that frustration is Al Hurra television, which went on the air Feb. 14 with a program lineup including talk shows and investigative reports aimed at Arabs and other Muslims.

Heralded as the latest step in the battle for the hearts and minds of Arab viewers, Al Hurra is intended to counter a perceived anti-American bias in regional satellite stations such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. But questions are being raised about its cost-effectiveness, its effect on U.S. efforts in other regions and the usefulness of its programming.

“It’s clear the administration feels the need to get the American message out to the Muslim world, with a change in emphasis after the war on terror,” said Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute. “But the Middle East will continue to have a fair amount of skepticism unless we do more than just script a media message.”

Like others, he echoed the views of Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian, who supported the public diplomacy shift toward the Middle East in a congressional report last year but questioned the need for a new TV station.

The Arabic-language programs — which include another recent State Department initiative, Radio Sawa — have accompanied deep cuts at other broadcasting arms, such as Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia (RFA). All the outlets operate under the supervision of the bipartisan Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG).

Al Hurra’s introduction came shortly before the Feb. 27 termination of VOA’s radio services to 10 Eastern European states, while programming by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has not increased to fill the gap. VOA’s London, Hong Kong and Tokyo bureaus also have shrunk.

The cuts have prompted grumbling at VOA, where one senior staff member, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, described the moves as shortsighted.

“It seems self-defeating to leave English-language broadcasting primarily to the [British Broadcasting Corp.], which sometimes displays a certain hostility to the United States,” he said. “We are going silent at a time when misinformation about America is louder than ever on the world’s airwaves.”

Others feared that the focus on the Middle East will compromise America’s ability to influence closed societies in other parts of the world. An RFA staff member said Cantonese-language broadcasts are slated for termination next year even though many citizens in North Korea and China depend on RFA broadcasts for objective news. She declined to be identified.

VOA spokesman Joe O’Connell said the changes came in response to global trends.

“After September 11, it’s a shifting of resources to areas of greater need,” he said. “We move our broadcast services to where they will make the most difference.”

He said Al Hurra is administered on a corporate model, ensuring greater separation from governmental pressures, and that Radio Sawa is expected to follow suit in a few months.

The popularity of Radio Sawa, founded in 2002, is well-documented, with a Nielsen survey reporting market dominance among 42 percent of 15- to 29-year-olds in the Middle East. It features a mixture of pop music in English and Arabic in hopes of attracting a younger audience for its twice-hourly newscasts — a formula that a VOA senior staffer described as “55 minutes of pop, and five minutes of wire stories.”

“Radio Sawa is very effective at getting market share,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. “It’s ineffective in getting the foreign policy message out. Is it enough to bring Britney Spears to the Muslims?”

James Glassman, a fellow at the AEI, said he was concerned about the cost of founding a new station from scratch.

“The BBG gets half of all our public diplomacy funding. When they start taking fliers on a $100 million TV station, that’s a real risk.”

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