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Saturday, October 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

U.S.-funded Arabic channel is working to find its voice

By Ellen McCarthy
The Washington Post

Sherif Amer, left, and Dalia Ahmed anchor an Alhurra news program. The U.S. government-funded Arabic news operation got off to a rocky start but is finding its voice, producers say.
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Alhurra vs. Al Jazeera
WASHINGTON — When a U.S. military helicopter swooped into Baghdad and began spraying bullets into a crowd near a disabled Army armored vehicle, most Arab news channels aired a video of the scene that captured the last words of a journalist killed in the attack.

"Please help me. I am dying," pleaded the reporter, Mazin Tumaisi. His network, Al Arabiya, showed the footage again and again, as did Al Jazeera.

Alhurra TV, however, deemed the video too disturbing to air. The story could be told without such graphic images, news directors for the new U.S. government-funded network decided.

Editors at U.S. news channels routinely decide that some images are too graphic to air. But to critics and competitors of Alhurra, its decision was evidence that the young network airs U.S. propaganda. "It is very questionable for them not to show it," said Hafez al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera, the Arabic news channel based in Qatar.

A 24-hour lineup

Alhurra, a network with 150 reporters based in Springfield, Va., is the U.S. government's largest and most expensive effort to sway foreign opinion over the airwaves since the creation of Voice of America in 1942.

The 24-hour channel, which started operating in February, airs two daily hourlong newscasts, and sports, cooking, fashion, technology and entertainment programs. It also carries political talk shows and magazine-type news programs.

It is staffed by a handful of journalists recruited from Arabic stations and newspapers. A mixture of Arabic and English fills the newsroom as journalists answer phones and click away on their computers.

Congress last year approved $62 million to pay for Alhurra's first year. In November 2003, Congress committed $40 million more to launch a sister station in April aimed solely at Iraq. The operation is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency that is also in charge of Voice of America. The U.S. government launched Alhurra after deciding that existing Arab news channels displayed anti-American bias.

Fans and critics

Khalid Disher, 24, who owns a shop in the Mansoor neighborhood of Baghdad, likes Alhurra. "Their news covers everything, the good news and the bad ones. They cover all of Iraq. As a new channel, it is a very good start."

Others are suspicious. "I know that this channel is funded by the U.S. Congress," said Atheer Abdul-Sattar, 24, who owns a sports-equipment store in Mansoor. "The Americans want their interests to be achieved. They will direct the kind of shows or ideas they want the Iraqis to believe."

Mouafac Harb, Alhurra's news director, bristles at that notion. "We're state-funded, but not state-run," Harb said. "I don't recall getting a phone call from someone trying to steer the news. Ever."

Alhurra may have a problem standing out in a crowded field. Middle East viewers generally get about 120 satellite-television channels, including Al Jazeera, Dubai-based Al Arabiya, London-based Arabic News Network and state-run operations.

William Rugh, a former ambassador to United Arab Emirates and Yemen who wrote a book on Arabic media, said Alhurra has "been a big waste of money" so far, in part because it must compete in a saturated field of Arabic networks.

One man's vision

The moving force behind the birth of Alhurra, which means "the Free One" in Arabic, was Norman Pattiz, the California radio executive who created Westwood One, the nation's largest radio network. Pattiz was appointed in November 2000 by President Clinton to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees federally funded international media efforts such as the Voice of America and Radio and TV Martí, which is aimed at Cuba. Pattiz quickly focused his attention on the Middle East, and, he said, he soon concluded that newscasts on Middle East stations often offered "incitements of violence, hate-speak and disinformation."

In 2002, the broadcasting board launched Radio Sawa, a radio station that mixes American and Arabic pop music with five hours of daily news programming. Meanwhile, Pattiz, armed with a video of scenes of Arab citizens stomping on American flags and burning an image of President Bush, lobbied Congress to fund a TV station.

"These are the kinds of visions of America that people in the Middle East see every day," Pattiz said, recalling his sales pitch.

The news director

Pattiz helped hire Harb as news director of Radio Sawa. Harb, a Lebanon-born U.S. citizen, attended George Washington University and had been working as the Washington bureau chief of the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat. After Congress approved funding for Alhurra, which had strong backing from the Bush administration, Harb became Alhurra's news director as well.

Alhurra and Alhurra Iraq are owned by a nonprofit corporation, the Middle East Television Network, which was set up as a holding company for the Arabic television stations.

Harb said editorial decisions rest with him, but that he reports to the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Bert Kleinman, president of the Middle East Television Network, which oversees the station's finances. Alhurra does not air commercials or generate any revenue and thus is dependent on the U.S. government for its money.

Eighty of Alhurra's 150 journalists moved here from Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. Fifty remained abroad to work in the network's bureaus in Amman, Baghdad, Beirut and Dubai.

Alhurra had a bumpy start. When the channel was launched in February, government officials in some countries condemned it.

In Alhurra's first days, there were many technical problems. And when President Bush appeared on the station to discuss the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, he ended the interview by telling Harb he'd done a "good job," prompting more questions about the station's independence.

A missed opportunity

In March, when Israeli missiles killed Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin as he emerged from a prayer session, most Arab news channels switched immediately to the story. Alhurra stuck with its regular program, a cooking show.

Harb agreed that it was a mistake. "This happened very early in the life of Alhurra. ... When they assassinated the next leader of Hamas, we were more ready to give more comprehensive coverage by then," he said.

Harb does not, however, think Alhurra was wrong when it decided not to show the video of the dying Al Arabiya journalist.

In U.S. media, "the idea of publishing graphic images is shied away from, frowned upon universally," said Keith Woods, who teaches journalism at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Everybody has a sense of a line that you don't cross without good reason."

Some Middle East experts assert that the very assumption under which Alhurra was created — that existing Arab news stations contribute to disdain for the United States — is flawed. "The managers of Alhurra have stigmatized the competition and stereotyped it as being totally anti-American, and that's simply not true," said Rugh, the former ambassador.

Rather than compete in such a crowded field, Rugh said, U.S. policymakers should appear more on Al Jazeera and other widely watched channels. More than 400 Voice of America staffers signed a petition sent to Congress in July charging Alhurra and Sawa were draining VOA's budgets and not being held to the same editorial standards.

Some legislators have said that if Alhurra is not promoting U.S. views, the government should not be funding it. "Do not tell us it's not propaganda, because if it's not propaganda, then I think ... we will have to look at what it is we are doing," Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said at a hearing in April.

Harb countered that fair news is what will promote democracy. "Our track record will speak for itself," he said.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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