AlHurra Satellite Television: Getting the Message Out (slowly)

Broadcast | Familiarity
Recently, I was curious about what sort of programming was going out on the U.S.-sponsored Arab satellite television channel, Alhurra. (I had wanted to suggest certain movies to be aired in place of news). I had a look at its website, which was rather abysmal for a network with so important a mandate. It has an email address which appears to bounce and lists no phone number. I figured that Americans ought to have some oversight of our newest outreach effort to the Arab world.

After twelve days, I got this form letter in response:

Dear Mr. Garfunkel:

Thank you for your email to Alhurra. We are sorry that it has taken us so long to answer you. Alhurra receives so many emails every day it is hard to answer them all immediately.

We appreciate you taking the time to send us your comments and suggestions for our channel. We will discuss them.

Alhurra is just starting and we are all working hard to make it a television station for the needs of our audience.

Your friends at Alhurra

Barney Frank’s office was much more helpful. His assistant Dan McGlinchey was able to locate some recent hearings on April 29th in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (where my Senator ordinarily sits, but is otherwise occupied). Though the statements for the Finding the Right Media for the Message in the Middle East are online, the testimony is not available yet, so Dan was kind enough to forward it to me via email.

The hearings featured Kenneth Tomlinson and Norman Pattiz, of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (which oversees Alhurra, plus Radio Sawa, the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and other stations), as well as Mouafac Harb, News Director for Alhurra. All testified how pleasantly surprised they were about the growing acceptance of Alhurra and Radio Sawa. Pattiz related that polls were showing that the number of Alhurra viewers was finding the news reliable in Israel’s neighbors was 37-54 percent, while among Gulf states viewers it was over 60 percent. Harb put this in context: “it’s very important to mention here that most of the vicious articles that came and were directed at Alhurra came before we launched Alhurra, and they came from media outlets funded by so-called friendly Arab governments.”

Such an attitude can also attributed by the competitive nature of the business. Chairman Tomlinson defended his turf by knocking what many Americans believe to the new bully of Arab media, the independent Al-Jazeera: “They’re willing to go with false information, willing to distort for the purposes of stirring up the people in that region.” Many might say the same about Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s Excellence in Broadcasting network, or of Michael Moore and Al Franken.

Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland later reminded the panel that only five years ago, Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was balanced enough that many Arabs accused it of having a Zionist agenda: “Al Jazeera was a pioneer in putting on the screen Israeli representatives on a regular basis, the Israeli point of view, somebody in the Knesset, sometimes even putting live the debate in the Knesset.” Still today, Al-Jazeera’s pressures are to compete with Hezbollah’s al-Manar, which is the number one news channel in Jordan. (What particularly shocks American viewers, an Egyptian coworker of mine tells me, is that Al-Jazeera does not hide the raw carnage of war.) On the whole, Telhami felt that the network was a good start, but much more resources needed to committed: “Alhurra’s annual budget is only one-third of what we spend daily in the war on Iraq. When you consider that it’s an important part of the fight, I think it isn’t a huge budget.”

John Sununu of New Hampshire, who chaired the panel, asked near the end whether it might more effective to simply translate the content developed by private producers. Edmund Ghareeb of American University, reacted positively to that suggestion:

As to the types of American programs could translated, if they could translated well, some of them could perhaps find an audience in the Arab world. For example, I think something like “The Lehrer Newshour” might an excellent program, and I think that program would also have an audience in the Arab world.

But, at the same time, I don’t think you can use all programs because the values here are very important and the way you communicate with people in the Middle East is a little different from communicating with people in the United States.

I’ll add to Ghareeb’s point: let’s get C-SPAN content up there: Congress and BookTV. Legislative deliberations are, after all, much like baseball. Both are mundane, to the point of utter boredom, for many. But they get viewers more educated in the routine, and prepare them to anticipate the truly great moments– the perfect games, the impeachment hearings.

Alhurra has already broadcast some hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, translated into Arabic. Bill Nelson of Florida pressed them to air more. This is in the tradition of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasting the Watergate hearings live, a controversial decision for its time. At Tomlinson remarked early in his testimony: “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’ve had so many people in Eastern Europe, so many people in the former Soviet Union say to me, ‘You know, broadcasting those hearings was absolutely essentially to demonstrating to us what democracy is really all about.'”

July 6th update: Steven Cook, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, came to the same conclusion in an Op-End piece for the Times, Hearts, Minds, and Hearings: “One of the most effective ways in which the United States can pursue this goal is to transform Washington’s Arab satellite news channel, Al Hurra, into a kind of C-Span for the Arab world.”
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    Al Hurra pamark Feb 25 ’05 4:53PM