- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2017

The stylistic look of the U.S. government’s Arabic-language news operation in the Middle East is outdated. Neither the programming nor the social media push behind it is aggressive enough to sway Arab public opinion about America’s position in the region.

That’s all according to a man who says he can fix it.

“The entire operation is right now in the process of being revamped,” said Alberto Fernandez, the diplomat-turned-media mogul who recently assumed the helm of the U.S.-funded Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

MBN, as it’s known in foreign policy circles, includes the satellite TV channel Alhurra and Radio Sawa. Both are broadcast across the region, and if Mr. Fernandez has his way, both are about to become “much stronger and much more overtly American” than they’ve been since first going live in the years after 9/11.

They’ve “been too bland, too safe and too unfocused,” Mr. Fernandez told The Washington Times. “That’s not to say everything they put out is terrible [but] these are American stations. They should look like American stations and sound like American stations and have a predisposition toward universal liberal values.

“This doesn’t mean forcing democracy down the throat of people in the region,” he said. “We’ve seen the complications that can arise from that. But it’s certainly about talking about free thought, enlightenment, tolerance, respect for others and especially challenging the pillars of the jihadi discourse.”

Whether the reach and impact of MBN can grow remains to be seen. With an annual budget of about $105 million and some 770 employees, the operation claims Alhurra, Radio Sawa and various websites linked to both already have an audience of some 27.5 million people.

Total viewership is on par with BBC Arabic. But it’s little more than half that of the notably flashier — and occasionally anti-American — Al-Jazeera network owned by the government of Qatar. There’s also evolving competition from the Russian government’s RT Arabic, Sky News Arabia in the United Arab Emirates, Al Mayadeen in Lebanon and Al-Alam Arabic in Iran.

The market’s so packed it will take more than shiny new stage sets for MBN to grow, let alone have a measurable impact. But Mr. Fernandez, a 59-year-old Cuban-American who once served as ambassador to Equatorial Guinea and charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Sudan, has a reputation for making a mark.

He was head of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications in 2015 when it produced and circulated a controversial anti-Islamic State video that had repurposed some of the terror group’s own grisly propaganda footage. Critics went wild over the video. But it drew nearly 1 million views on YouTube.

These days Mr. Fernandez sounds more like a battle-hardened information warrior than the president of a media company. “Just as we have to be empowered on the [actual] battlefield, we have to be empowered on the media battlefield,” he said. “We need to go to where the audience is. If we don’t, we’re irrelevant.”

To make Alhurra and Radio Sawa more influential, he added, “we need to be more aggressive.” He pointed to a recent Alhurra documentary series on Islamic State defectors. “We’re going to do more of that, but we’re also going to challenge the worldview that exists in the region,” Mr. Fernandez said.

“The political lineup in the region is either regimes or Islamists-jihadis,” he said. “U.S.-supported media has to amplify the voice of the voiceless. Giving space to Arab and Muslim liberals, secularists, reformers and freethinkers is one thing MBN has to do.”

Overhaul coming to U.S. programming in Arabic

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