- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Recent figures from marketing information company A.C. Nielsen show that the U.S. government-funded Arabic language satellite broadcaster Al Hurra (“the Free One”) has made significant gains in Syria, despite sharp disagreements between Damascus and Washington.

The survey, conducted in December and January, showed that the channel had a weekly audience of 39 percent among Syrians 15 or older in homes with satellite television. Sixty percent of those viewers said they found Al Hurra’s news coverage “reliable.” The survey of 1,516 adults was conducted using face-to-face interviews and has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Al Hurra, which began airing Feb. 14, 2004, is part of the Bush administration’s ambitious agenda to win over public opinion in the Arab and Muslim world. The reputation of the United States in the region was battered by the war in Iraq and the perception that Washington is biased toward Israel in the latter’s conflict with the Palestinians.

Previous Bush administration efforts at public diplomacy have been criticized. A report by Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, urged an overhaul of efforts directed at the Middle East.

“Hostility toward America has reached shocking levels,” said the report, issued in 2003. “What is required is not merely tactical adaptation, but strategic and radical transformation.”

As part of President Bush’s commitment to change some of that perception, the administration, in its 2006 budget, proposed approximately $758 million for public-diplomacy programs.

This does not include an additional $652 million for U.S. government-funded broadcasters such as Al Hurra, Radio Sawa, Voice of America and others. U.S. spending on broadcasting is now comparable to that during the Cold War.

Al Hurra, which reaches 120 million people in 22 countries, has provoked debate in the United States and the Arab world.

Supporters of the channel say it is bringing diversity of views into the Muslim world, where broadcasts by Qatar-based Al Jazeera, which Washington regards as biased, and Saudi-funded Al Arabiya, dominate. Critics say Al Hurra is a U.S. propaganda tool and view it with suspicion.

“We have been successful by almost any measure,” Norman Pattiz, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Middle East Committee, told UPI. “We are well ahead of where we expected to be at this time.”

Mr. Pattiz was careful not to say that Al Hurra is taking viewers away from Al Jazeera, the most popular satellite network in the Arab world. He noted, however, that Al Jazeera had a nine-year head start and is, in some countries, more popular than their governments.

“We’re unlikely to be the first choice in television,” he said. “But we’re doing well against Al Arabiya and other satellites.”

“Al Hurra television is helping promote media plurality, and it is a worthwhile project that contributes to the diversity of opinion and thought,” said Al Arabi Shoueikha, a professor at the Institute of Journalism and Media Sciences in Tunis, Tunisia.

Although exact figures were not available, a survey by A.C. Nielsen in July and August showed inroads in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Seventy-one percent of those surveyed found Al Hurra’s news coverage either “very reliable” or “somewhat reliable.”

More telling were weekly viewing rates among people 15 or older in the countries where the survey was conducted. Although the channel fared well in more Westernized countries such as Jordan (29 percent) and Kuwait (33 percent), Al Hurra’s reach in traditional allies such as Egypt was relatively low (12 percent). Others include Lebanon with 20 percent, Morocco with 22 percent and Saudi Arabia with 24 percent.

“If those numbers hold true in countries where we haven’t surveyed, then we have 20 million regular weekly viewers,” Mr. Pattiz said.

Despite the optimism, Al Hurra faces several obstacles in the Middle East, not least the notion that it is American propaganda. U.S. foreign policy in the region, which many Arabs view as pro-Israel, also does not help.

Farouk Ahmed, a professor in the school of information at Cairo University, said many of his compatriots dion’t tune into the channel for those reasons.

“The people here feel deep anger over American policies in Palestine and Iraq, and … prefer to watch channels that express their frustrations. This is one thing that Al Hurra does not do,” he said. “Al Hurra might win some audience if it continues to provide objective criticism of Arab politics in a way that Arab channels cannot do due to censorship.”

Such comments have been echoed by many in the United States.

William Rugh, a former ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates who is with the Washington-based Public Diplomacy Council, listed for lawmakers on Capitol Hill a litany of complaints he had heard in the Arab world about Al Hurra.

In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April shortly after its startup, Mr. Rugh said Al Hurra paid more attention to Americans in the news than to Arabs. Mr. Bush’s praise for an Al Hurra reporter after an interview was seen as further proof that the channel was used for U.S. propaganda, Mr. Rugh said.

He added that Arab viewers were disappointed — and surprised because of their association of the channel as a U.S. outlet — that Al Hurra could not get news out of Iraq as well as Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya did. He also cited problems with its coverage of the Arab world and of the United States.

Mr. Rugh noted that during his visits to the region, Arabs told him the channel failed to aggressively support democracy and human rights in the Middle East, and attributed this to deference to Arab governments.

“It was to be expected that those implacably hostile to America would criticize Al Hurra no matter what it did, but it is telling that the specific comments mentioned here have come essentially from America’s friends in the region who want us to succeed and be understood,” he told the committee.

“My conclusion is that while it is still too early to be sure, early indications are that Al Hurra cannot succeed in this very competitive market.”

Mr. Pattiz acknowledged many of the complaints, but said changes were being made that would draw more viewers.

“We have to continually get over the notion that since we are funded by the U.S. Congress that we’re in the propaganda business and a mouthpiece for the administration,” he said. “We have to constantly reinforce that’s not the case.”

He said Al Hurra’s news broadcasts did include criticism of the United States and that the channel will look to expand its coverage of more events in the Arab world.

In April, Al Hurra launched a channel for Iraq called Al Hurra-Iraq.

The 24-hour Al Hurra combines news and entertainment and is run by the nonprofit Middle East Television Network Inc., which is financed by Americans through Congress. It is funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency that serves as both oversight and firewall to protect Al Hurra and other U.S.-funded broadcast outlets.

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