Wednesday, January 5, 2005

One of the most important forces against terrorism in the Arab world has no army and fires no conventional weapons, yet wages an effective long-term offensive for democracy in the Middle East.

As Iraq’s first democratic elections in 80 years are about to be held at month’s end, a U.S.-backed Arab-language TV network has been heavily promoting the upcoming event as the ultimate counteroffensive to defeat the terrorist criminals. Their only weapon: the truth.

Operating out of Northern Virginia in sleek, state-of-the-art studios, Alhurra Iraq television broadcasts news, interviews and other programming across the war-torn region, reaching out to millions of Iraqi voters. Its chief focus is the Jan. 30 elections, which will decide Iraq’s future and, with it, the success of the U.S. military mission there.

Beamed via satellite into Iraqi cities (and elsewhere in the Middle East), Alhurra’s election news reports have one overriding message: Vote as if your life depended on it.

“We are telling people why it is important to take part in the elections and how they can decide their own future by voting,” said Alhurra news chief Mouafac Harb.

“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 told me.

A series of public-service ads also are broadcast repeatedly by Alhurra to encourage Iraqis to vote. One of them shows Iraqi victims of Saddam’s terror talking about their suffering, followed by this voiceover and screen caption: “So the horrors won’t recur, be a part of drawing your future. Vote.”

Despite brutal attacks and killings of election workers, candidates and other officials, scores of political parties have sprung up across the country, fielding hundreds of candidates for seats in a provisional legislature that will write Iraq’s new governing constitution.

Thus far, the Bush administration has poured more than $100 million into this new broadcast venture, launched last April, and there is evidence the investment is paying off. A poll of Iraqis in June by Oxford Research International found 61 percent said they watched Alhurra in the previous week, and 64 percent found its news programming “very or somewhat” reliable.

Alhurra’s programming over the last several months has been geared to reporting profiles on who the candidates are, their platforms and their promises, often airing live C-SPAN-style broadcasts of major campaign speeches, with no editorial spin by the broadcasters or pundits.

“All of Alhurra Iraq’s production is done in Iraq by Iraqis,” said Mr. Harb, an intense Lebanese-born broadcast journalist who studied at George Washington University and is a U.S. citizen.

First and foremost, Alhurra’s election focus is on educating and motivating Iraqi voters and getting them to better understand the election process. Among its programs:

• “Iraq Decides,” a weekly show on the latest election news, along with interviews explaining the election process. There is a steady parade of political and religious leaders on this show. “You see clerics on our channel, telling people to go and vote,” Mr. Harb says. (That’s something you never see on the nightly news here.)

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

• “Iraq Today,” daily election news that leads the first 30 minutes of each day’s newscasts, which will be lengthened as the election nears.

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

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

Mr. Harb and his ground crew know there will be dangers in reporting this story and its outcome, and are ready. “If we see people voting in Fallujah, I’ll send my [news] truck to Fallujah,” he says.

But Alhurra’s programming goes beyond the elections. It carries local reports, something its competitors do not, about school openings, profiles of Iraqi teachers, clerics and business people.

And something else we do not associate with Iraq, a country where soccer is immensely popular and its top players considered national heroes: sportscasts.

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

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

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