- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 29, 2004

The United States is waging its war against terrorism on several public fronts, but the least-known is the administration’s stepped-up broadcasting activities in the Arab world. The strategy is a simple one: Win the hearts and minds of younger people and you win the long-term war against terrorism.

Delivered through satellite hookups and AM-FM transmitters, this offensive weapon delivers the truth about the United States and the killer terrorists who want to impose their repressive despotism on the Arab people.

I see this as one of the great success stories in the administration’s war on terrorism as it has deep, long-range implications for a freer and more stable Middle East. I touched on a similar program months ago, but accomplishments such as this continue to deserve much wider attention.

Begun in the wake of the September 11 tragedy, through the Voice of America’s broadcasting board of governors, the United States is engaged in an innovative operation to reach the younger Arab population with a mix of news, music and public affairs programming about democracy, freedom and religious tolerance.

For decades, VOA, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty contributed to the good fight during the Cold War. Many Eastern Europeans may recall that, during those dark days, the only credible news came from these radio broadcasts.

“Lessons from U.S. broadcasting during the Cold War may be applied to what we hope to achieve in the Middle East,” says Ken Tomlinson, the broadcasting board’s take-charge chairman, who has been the driving force behind the new message offensive to Arab countries.

“When that wall finally came down, populations in many countries in Eastern Europe were prepared for change in no small part because they had been informed about the outside world through international broadcasting,” he told the House National Security subcommittee earlier this month.

Mr. Tomlinson’s latest and most ambitious broadcasting venture is a new television network facility just outside of Washington that is beaming news and other information into the Middle East. The Arabic-language satellite TV service is called Alhurra (Arabic for “the free one”). Its mission, he says, is “to challenge the voices of hate and repression with truth and the voices of tolerance and moderation.”

The new TV programming, barely a week old, is being broadcast from a state-of-the-art Northern Virginia facility, the location of which remains a secret because of security concerns. It is seen as an alternative to al Jazeera television’s apparent tilt toward those who threaten security in the Middle East.

When Arab viewers tune in to Alhurra, they will see the faces of Arab-speaking, Middle Eastern broadcasters delivering the news and features. They will hear free and open discussions about the Middle East conflicts, but also about economic development, human rights and tolerance for minorities.

Three months after the VOA’s new Farsi-language satellite television program “News and Views” was beamed into Iran, an independent viewer survey found it was reaching a surprising 12 percent of that country’s over-18 population.

While human rights remain severely repressed in Iran, “News and Views” is breaking through such barriers by asking its viewers to send in e-mails about the need for open and free parliamentary elections, which are read over the air.

The VOA has substantially expanded its radio broadcasts as well, with a lot of new, hip programming aimed at the Arab youth culture — and it seems to be reaching its target.

The Afghan Radio Network is broadcasting in Dari and Pashto, the regional languages. The youth-oriented Radio Farda is beaming news and music into Iran. Radio Sawa, the newest and perhaps the most successful radio venture of all, is reaching young Arabs throughout the Middle East.

A Nielsen survey last fall found that Radio Sawa had quickly achieved market dominance with an average daily listenership of 42 percent in the pivotal 15-to-29 age group in Middle Eastern countries.

There were the doubters who said that the younger Arab population would not listen to radio broadcasts clearly labeled as coming from the United States. Yet Nielsen reports that Sawa’s 24-hour daily news broadcasts were found by 73 percent of its listeners to be “a reliable source of news and information.”

Of strategic importance is Sawa’s varied programming, which includes pop music as well as programs such as “The Free Zone,” a discussion of freedom and democracy developments in the Middle East. Another show, “Ask the World Now,” has U.S. policymakers answering questions from Arab listeners, while “Sawa Chat” sends its reporters into the streets of Middle Eastern cities with a question of the day.

And more outreach efforts will soon follow: A new youth-oriented Urdu broadcast to Pakistan, delivering Western and Pakistani music with news and current affairs features, is in the works.

This is a bold, far-reaching effort to change the Islamic world with the truth about Americans and our policies. None of this is going to remake the Arab world overnight, but it is setting the groundwork for our longer-term security. It needs all the support we can muster.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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