- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

New in-depth Arab-language radio news and policy programs slated to debut in the Middle East on May 1 are an attempt by the U.S. government to recreate the way Radio Free Europe countered Soviet propaganda during the Cold War.

Programs such as "Behind the News" and "View from Washington," which will be broadcast on the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors' new Middle East Radio Network (MERN), which went on the air last month, will provide Palestinians and other Arab listeners with something they rarely receive: accurate, unbiased information about U.S. actions and policies.

"In a week, we'll begin broadcasting policy programs, editorials, questions of the day and reviews and critiques of Arab press reports. We'll try to pinpoint and refute misinformation in the state-controlled media," Norman J. Pattiz, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors' (BBG) Middle East Committee and the driving force behind MERN, yesterday told a panel of the House Appropriations Committee.

"Accurate, fair, objective news will be the lifeblood of MERN," which is known as Radio Sawa in the Mideast region, "and, we hope, will do much to combat hate media and misinformation," Mr. Pattiz told the House subcommittee on commerce, justice and state. He noted that Sawa means "together" in Arabic.

The network has expanded rapidly. When it first went on the air March 22 it had a music-only format: one that mixed American and Arabic music. "We now have regular newscasts and international headlines on a 24-hour cycle," Mr. Pattiz said.

"We carried President Bush's April 4, 2002, speech on the Middle East, translated into Arabic, giving listeners across the region a chance to hear the full text. During Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East, we were able to put his words on the air within minutes. Such immediacy was rarely possible in the past," he said.

The BBG oversees all non-military U.S. international broadcasting: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Radio/TV Marti, which broadcasts in Cuba.

The federal government spent $35 million in this fiscal year to put Radio Sawa on the air. Nearly half of that cost went for the purchase of transmitters, a one-time expense. The BBG is seeking funding of $21.7 million in fiscal 2003.

Asked what sort of issues will be addressed on the new breed of shows that BBG describes as "policy features" and "news analysis," BBG spokeswoman Joan Mower gave as an example an article published in a Saudi government daily in early March that told how Jewish rabbis extract the blood of Christians and Muslims for use in Purim holiday pastries.

Turki Al-Sudairi, editor in chief of the newspaper Al-Riyadh, subsequently checked out the article by Umayma Al-Jalahma of King Faisal University and said he found it to be "not based on scientific or historical facts" in fact, "nonsense."

Mr. Al-Sudairi published his statement of retraction at the Middle East Media Research Institute's Web site, which is where the article's English translation first appeared. But MERN hopes to make more Arabs aware of the editor's findings through its shows, which are broadcast in Arabic.

"Eventually, the broadcasts will be tailored to five different [Arabic] dialects" targeted to Jordan and the Palestinian areas, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan and the Persian Gulf states, Ms. Mower said.

Radio Sawa debuted on FM stations in Amman, Jordan, and Kuwait City, Kuwait. Since then, two FM stations in the United Arab Emirates in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have also joined the Middle East Radio Network.

Ms. Mower said Palestinians are able to hear MERN broadcasts on the FM station in Amman.

In its first month of operation, the results have been very encouraging, BBG officials say. In his congressional testimony yesterday, Mr. Pattiz gave an anecdote from a stringer in Jerusalem, who "told us they're playing Radio Sawa at his gym, and everyone is listening."

MERN is designed to reach people in the Middle East currently not served by the 40-year-old Voice of America Arabic service, which is broadcast on short-wave only. Only about 1 percent of the 300 million people in the Mideast have access to short-wave transmissions.

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