FIXING ALHURRA: SOME SMALL STEPS
Alhurra, the U.S. government-funded satellite television facility that airs its product to the Middle East, hasn’t caught on. Kicked off with much fanfare on Valentine’s Day, 2004, the $100-million-plus station (the name of which means “The Free One” in Arabic) has been met with more disdain than acceptance in the Arab world. But abandoning it altogether is not an option at this point. What is urgent is determining how to fix it.
In theory, there is hope for Alhurra. Formally “independent” as part of the Middle East Television Network, Inc., a non-profit cooperation that receives U.S. government dollars, it can provide an objective window on America — and its foreign policy — not to be found in biased, anti-American local media. (There are over 100 TV stations in the Middle East). The station can provide a nuanced expression of the interest Americans have toward Arab lands in an effort to establish a dialogue. It could also stimulate audiences to find out more about the United States in all its complexity.
Alhurra’s strategy, however, does not jibe with these objectives. Its focus has been to win audience share in perceived Middle East “media wars” by aiming for slick commercial television — by trying, if you will, to out-Aljazzera Aljazeera, the Qatar-based satellite broadcaster that is by far the most popular in the area and the one that has been compared to Fox News. Privately, Alhurra staff boasts about the attractiveness of its female news presenters as one of its strong points. This attempt at public relations slickness, after more than a year, hasn’t worked, this despite the fact that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) http://www.bbg.gov/, the independent U.S. agency that oversees the station, has used scientific audience surveys to demonstrate its putative impact.
Judging from the Arab and other media, Alhurra is in fact widely considered dull U.S. propaganda, unsubtle American imperialism in electronic form, which does little to stir audience interest in the United States. Indeed, it causes the opposite reaction, with viewers complaining about the pro-American tilt and cultural insensitivity — all of which can muddy the reputation of the United States even more than Al-Jazeera.
Fixing Alhurra is a huge undertaking. Its purpose needs complete rethinking, including consideration of the extent to which the U.S. government should be involved in television broadcasting in the first place. The value of “winning” audience share — rather than informing opinion makers — should be reexamined. How “local” as contrasted with “regional” Alhurra programs should be also needs to be debated. And the question arises: Shouldn’t scarce resources go to supporting local independent media (through, for example, grants and training programs), rather than for expensive broadcasting facilities based in the United States?
These questions may have no conclusive answers. Nonetheless, at this stage in Alhurra’s evolution certain matters appear obvious. Given the limited nature of its funding ($100 million is really not that great a sum in international broadcasting) and its links with the U.S. government (despite a BBG “firewall” protecting its independence), there are a few things Alhurra should not attempt. This is so because it can never do them professionally — unless its budget is greatly increased and its connections with the U.S. government are totally broken. These unrealistic programs that should not be undertaken are:
Abandoning Alhurra altogether at this stage, it must be noted at this point, is not a viable short-term option. Shutting it down would be interpreted by the Arab world as an admission that the United States is unable to communicate. Further, millions thus far have been invested in the station.
With the fact that it cannot or should not be shut down, here are some thoughts on how to fix Alhurra, how it could better inform the Arab world in a way suited to America’s interests:
These small steps, while not a magic bullet for Alhurra’s problems, would earn it greater respect among the increasingly important educated “chattering class” in the Middle East, importantly including younger people interested in policy and ideas.
John Brown, a former U. S. Foreign Service officer, compiles a daily “Public Diplomacy Press Review” available free at email@example.com. He is based at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, Washington DC.