The Image War

U.S. Has Begun Its Own Arab-Language TV News Channel

Like most Americans, most Arabs also get their news from television -- from Arab television networks that the Bush administration has criticized for inaccurate, irresponsible and distorted reporting.

This has contributed to raising Arab hatred of the United States to an all-time high. By last year, the White House had grown so frustrated with the influence these channels have on Arab public opinion that the Bush administration decided to do something about it.

The result? A new Arab television network broadcasting from new state-of-the-art studios. It's called Alhurra, which means "the free one," and it uses Arabian horses as its signature.

Arab journalists from all over the world have come here to join a news department that says it's committed to fair, balanced and objective reporting.

But Alhurra is not based in the Middle East. It broadcasts from an office building in an industrial part in Springfield, Va., just 15 miles from Washington, D.C. Correspondent Ed Bradley reports.
Launched three months ago, Alhurra is financed by the U.S. government, and is being promoted as an independent vehicle to improve America's image in the Arab world.

"Our role is not to be a mouthpiece of the U.S. government. This is not our role," says Mouafac Harb, Alhurra's news director.

Harb was born in Lebanon, educated in the United States and is now an American citizen. "America is my country of choice. After 9/11, I took it personal. I mean, these are two worlds that I love, both of them," says Harb. "And in my capacity as a journalist, as a broadcaster, I see the need in Middle East for a media outlet to tell the truth, and to provide information to that part of the world."

Does he want to change America's image in the Middle East?

"I look at it differently," says Harb. "I believe America's image in the Middle East is not bad. It's distorted."

According to Harb, a distorted image of America is beamed by Arab satellite news channels to a potential audience of nearly 300 million Arabs. He wants them to switch channels to Alhurra.

"We're competing with everyone. We're trying to steal an audience from anyone who's telling lies in my view," says Harb.

His target? "Anyone who speaks Arabic living in the Arab world," says Harb, who has traveled to the Middle East to recruit Arab journalists for Alhurra.

Efrem Kosaifi was working for a TV station in Beirut, Lebanon, when he heard the Americans were hiring. "We talk about America all the time. Our news bulletins are full of American stories about American politicians," says Kosaifi. "We have never been to this country. I have never been to this country. And I've been writing about America for four years now in my job."

Kosaifi's new job is as an Alhurra anchorman. He's one of 90 Arab journalists who have signed up to work for Alhurra in Washington.

Dalia Ahmed, who is Sudanese, also comes from a TV station in Beirut. She and most of her colleagues had mixed emotions about coming here, excitement about the opportunity and concern the government could use them to broadcast propaganda.

"Of course, I have concerns. I don't want to be a mouthpiece for anybody. I was assured that it's not going to be propaganda. It's only going to be balanced news," says Kosaifi. "I was still concerned, but when I first came here and started to write and talk to my bosses, I think that, 'Yes, they were right. There is going to be a balance.'"

"We're not here for the sake of money. Money is a very important issue. But we're not here for the sake of money," says Ahmed. "I'm here for professional reasons. I wanted to learn more, especially from people who created media."

Realistically, what kind of impact do they think Alhurra could have on the Middle East? "Personally, I think it could help to change the Arab world," says Sam Menassa.
Radio entrepreneur Norm Pattiz, the driving force behind Alhurra, says the budget for the first year is $62 million. As a member of the Broadcast Board of Governors, the federal agency that controls all foreign non-military radio and TV broadcasts, including the Voice of America, Pattiz produced a video that persuaded the Bush administration that a U.S. government television network for Arabs was a good idea.

"We showed the negative images that people get of the United States on Middle Eastern television," says Pattiz. "There was lots of anti-U.S. demonstrations -- burning the president in effigy, stomping on the American flag. We then said, 'And this is what you see from America.' And we had about 4 seconds of black screen."

That was enough to get President Bush to request funding. Construction started last fall to convert an old TV station in Springfield, Va., into a sophisticated high-tech broadcast facility. In less than six months, Alhurra was up and running. It went on the air on Feb. 14.

What's the difference between what is seen on Alhurra and what is seen on the other Arab channels?

"Accuracy of information. Accurate information," says Harb. "And because of who is funding us, American taxpayers, we guarantee when we talk about American point of view or American policy, we'll make sure that that policy is presented clearly and in context."

"We know American policies. We watch Bush, and Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice every night, on live TV," adds Rhami Khouri, the executive editor of Beirut's "The Daily Star," one of the most influential newspapers in the Middle East.

"People just assume that people in the Middle East don't really get impartial news. I mean, this is simplistic and it's just wrong. It's the policy that we object to."
The policies Arabs object to the most are U.S. support for Israel and the occupation of Iraq by 135,000 U.S. troops. The United States routinely criticizes Arab coverage of these stories -- especially from Al-Jazeera, the most popular Arab television news network. It's especially critical of Al-Jazeera's reporting of civilian casualties in Iraq.

With so much controversy surrounding Al-Jazeera, we compared their broadcasts with Alhurra's. Al-Jazeera's promos highlight the difference, and underscore the suffering the war in Iraq has caused. Their news reports emphasize chaos, instability, and civilian death and suffering -- at the hands of what are referred to as "the occupiers" or "occupying forces" -- meaning the Americans.

The terms used in the reports are not neutral. In a report from Fallujah, the Al-Jazeera correspondent says that "hundreds of families are fleeing…. after every home has become a potential target of American planes," and that the youth of the town are filling graves "crowded with the bodies of martyrs."

Alhurra's coverage of the war in Iraq has been extensive. But the language Alhurra uses and the emphasis and tone of its broadcasts are very different.
In a recent report, also on Fallujah, American forces are called just that --"American forces," not "occupiers." Their bombing of the town is described as "targeting gunmen there," not civilians.

While noting "the death of civilians -- including women and children," the Alhurra report says "the bombing was focused, precise, and accurate." It goes on to say that the coalition forces' stated objective, "is to prevent chaos and restore order in Fallujah."
According to Harb, the difference in emphasis between the two networks is deliberate.

"The main difference is it's not in what we are doing mainly. It's in what we are not doing," says Harb. "The others are there to incite and mobilize. Our job and our function is to provide accurate information and to widen people's perspectives."

So how did Alhurra cover the biggest story of the war in Iraq -- the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison?

Alhurra broadcast the pictures of American soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners. It also broadcast President Bush's first public reaction to them.

But while pictures of the abuse dominated the news on Al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite news channels for several days, they weren't the top story on Alhurra, which led its news broadcasts with other stories from Iraq.

Alhurra also waited four days before "The Free Hour," its flagship daily talk show, discussed the scandal for the first time.

When President Bush wanted to speak directly to Arabs about the abuses, Alhurra was one of two Arab channels he chose.
Ken Tomlinson, chairman of The Broadcast Board of Governors," which runs Alhurra, says imparting those ideals is part of Alhurra's mission and will change Arab journalism.

"For the first time, a real and honest debate is going to occur for the people in the Middle East to watch and hear. And that will make all the difference," says Tomlinson.

"It's just a massive, wasted effort in my view," says Khouri. "I think it's two things really that people object. It's the policy itself, and it's also the manner in which the United States conducts that policy: ordering people around, threatening them, sending in armies to redraw the map of the region. This sort of predatory kind of attitude, a kind of Marlboro man of Middle East diplomacy, that we are constantly subjected to."

"People in the Arab world are not focusing on the issues that are most important to them," says Tomlinson. "They should be focusing on what went wrong with this great society, which 400 years ago was -- ahead of the West? They should be asking those questions."

But what gives America the right to preach to them about our values instead of letting them decide what values they would like to have?

"These are universal values. These aren't our values. Minority rights, rights of women, freedom, democracy, free press. These are the values of civilization," says Tomlinson.

Khouri, however, doesn't think this new network will be able to promote freedom, democracy and moderation in the region.

"I think those are values that people here often aspire to," says Khouri. "But they don't see them coming either through the barrel of American Army guns, or the lenses of American television cameras."

  • Rebecca Leung

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