Thursday, December 30, 2004

Iraq’s first democratic elections in 80 years are being heavily promoted by an Arab language television network operating out of Northern Virginia that will offer an American-style election night coverage from voting places across Iraq.

Begun this spring as part of a strategic, U.S.-backed media offensive against terrorism in Iraq and the Middle East, and bankrolled with more than $100 million in federal funding, Alhurra TV’s mission is to explain and promote democracy throughout the war-torn region, with its chief focus on the Jan. 30 elections that could decide Iraq’s future and, with it, the success of the U.S. military mission there.

“We are telling people why it is important to take part in the elections and how they can decide their own future by voting,” news director Mouafac Harb said in an interview at Alhurra’s state-of-the-art, high-tech broadcasting headquarters in Springfield.

“We are interviewing people who lost families under Saddam Hussein’s rule, who were tortured, and the message is if you do not take part in these elections, they can come back and rule you again,” Mr. Harb said.

A series of public-service ads are also being broadcast repeatedly by Alhurra to encourage Iraqis to get out and vote. One of them shows Iraqi victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime talking about their suffering, followed by a voice-over and screen caption that says, “So the horrors won’t recur … be a part of drawing your future. … Vote!”

Despite a dangerous and intimidating political environment in which election prospects have been threatened by brutal terrorist attacks on election officials, campaign workers and candidates, dozens of parties have nevertheless sprouted across the country, fielding hundreds of candidates for seats in a provisional legislature that will write the country’s constitution.

Alhurra’s programming is geared to reporting profiles on who the candidates are, as well as their platforms and promises, and live broadcasts of major campaign speeches. “All of Alhurra Iraq’s production is done in Iraq by Iraqis,” said Mr. Harb, an intense broadcast journalist who was born in Lebanon, studied at George Washington University and is now a U.S. citizen.

First and foremost, however, Alhurra’s election focus is aimed at educating and motivating Iraqi voters and getting them to understand the election process, he said. Among its programing:

• “”Iraq Decides,” a weekly show on the latest election news and interviews with experts about how the election process works, as well as with political and religious leaders. “You see clerics on our channel, telling people to go and vote,” Mr. Harb said.

• “Vote,” a weekly program that shows Iraqis where and how to vote and what they can expect to happen on election day.

• “Iraq Today,” a daily program of election news that leads the first 20 to 30 minutes of each news broadcast, which will be lengthened as election day approaches.

• “Half of Iraq,” a new series aimed at encouraging women to participate in the political process.

All of this programming is leading up to Alhurra Iraq’s intensive coverage on election week “when we will have up to 50 correspondents and TV technicians all over Iraq, in the north and south, in every Iraqi city,” Mr. Harb said. “We’re in the process of building the technical support system so that we can go live in key Iraqi cities. That’s our story and we want to own it.”

Mr. Harb acknowledges the difficulty of airing election night reports in areas where terrorists will try to prevent Iraqis from voting, but he says Alhurra will not be intimidated by the insurgents. “If we see people voting in Fallujah, I’ll send my truck to Fallujah,” he said.

Alhurra, which in Arabic means “the free one,” is also beamed to 22 countries in the Middle East on two satellite systems, Arabsat and Nilesat. But it has lots of competition from Qatar-based Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, though recent polling and e-mails from viewers suggest that Alhurra is gaining in popularity.

There is more than politics on Alhurra, too. It also carries local reports, something the two other major Arab networks do not, about school openings, profiles of teachers and business people, as well as Iraqi sportscasts in a country where soccer is immensely popular and its top players are considered national heroes.

“There’s life in Iraq. It’s not only violence,” Mr. Harb said.

Alhurra has its critics who say its association with the United States has undermined its public appeal and thus will not be able to surpass its Arab television competitors.

“Alhurra does not have that great a credibility in a region where the U.S. link is damaging. It is viewed as a U.S. government mouthpiece,” said Peter W. Singer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World.

“The people working in it are really talented, really good journalists. But it’s a bit misguided. We could be using those millions of dollars in a public policy effort,” he said.

But a poll of Iraqis conducted for Alhurra in June by Oxford Research International found that 61 percent of adults said they had watched Alhurra in the previous week, and 64 percent said they found its news programming “very or somewhat” reliable.

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