- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In an effort to replicate the success of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America in breaching Eastern Europe with American culture during the Cold War, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in February 2004 launched the Arabic language satellite TV station Al Hurra (“the free one”). Al Hurra is produced in Springfield, Va., and broadcast throughout the Arab world as part of U.S. public-diplomacy efforts and as a competitor to the Qatari government-sponsored Al Jazeera network, which broadcast news with an anti-American bias. Proponents hope that Al Hurra, as an objective news source, can help smooth the way for the spread of democracy in the Middle East.

Al Hurra has faced stiff competition in a satellite market dominated by Al Jazeera and the Dubai-based Al Arabiya. Even though Al Jazeera is state-controlled, it is perceived as a more independent voice. This perception is mostly due to Al Jazeera’s editorial opposition to U.S. policies, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. (In its coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom, for instance, Al Jazeera dubbed the action “The war against Iraq,” and Al Jazeera reports refer to suicide attacks as “martyrdom operations.”) Al Hurra’s programing features more neutral, objective reporting along with more balanced round-table discussions of U.S. policy.

An A.C. Nielsen survey released earlier this year indicates that since its inception, Al Hurra has increased both its market share and its perceived reliability. These respectable gains, however, leave the network still trying to overcome its image of a mouthpiece for American propaganda. According to the Nielsen survey, which spanned nine Middle Eastern countries, 21.3 million people watch Al Hurra every week, a 15 percent increase over last year.

While the survey results are encouraging, the net effect of Al Hurra’s coverage has yet to be effectively measured. To take a lesson from another BBG outlet, Radio Sawa, a commanding market share does not necessarily mean good public diplomacy. Radio Sawa, which plays American and Arabic pop music, features frequent news updates. Critics have pointed out, however, that while Radio Sawa is very good at attracting listeners, it does a poor job of delivering the message that its supporters would like. The lack of genuine discussions of U.S. policy, in particular, has hamstrung Radio Sawa’s public-diplomacy efforts.

Also, Radio Sawa does not create the portrait of a land of freedom that Voice of America and Radio Free Europe were able to paint during the Cold War.

Should Al Hurra fulfill its purpose, and we hope it does, it would become a valuable asset in winning hearts and minds across the Middle East. To become successful, Al Hurra needs to continue to develop and tout its independent and objective reporting.

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