But will they tune in?

September 24, 2002|By Tara Sonenshine

WASHINGTON -- It seems so simple, so obvious.

If only we could use the power of television and the exponential reach of satellite technology to broadcast our ideals to the Arab and Muslim worlds, maybe they would like us, understand us, believe us.

It's an idea motivating some in the U.S. government to contemplate spending millions of dollars to build an Arab language satellite TV network that can reach viewers in Arab and Muslim countries with a more positive view of America. But before we spend upward of $60 million to beam American-made ideas into the Arab and Muslim world, let's ask a fundamental question: Will it work?

Other governments are already experimenting with satellite networks throughout the Middle East.

In Israel, the state-run Israel Broadcasting Authority has started a new Middle East Channel, an Arabic-English international satellite network that will operate throughout the Middle East and Europe to win over regional public opinion, which has grown increasingly hostile toward Israel.

At the same time, Arab League governments are preparing to spend up to $22 million on their own satellite television channel, with English and Hebrew-speaking services, in hopes of changing public opinion about the Arab world.

The problem with these expensive, high-tech satellite plans is that they fail to take into account certain fundamental media realities that limit how much governments can change hearts and minds.

First, there is the problem of credibility. Government-sponsored information is often met with resentment and suspicion. Citizens differentiate between propaganda and objective information.

Second, government satellite television channels will face stiff competition from existing private channels that operate throughout the region -- CNN, MSNBC, Middle Eastern Broadcasting, al-Jazeera and a host of other news outlets.

Last, regional satellite networks don't provide the kind of local news and information that many citizens want about their own neighborhoods and communities.

A better alternative to building large, expensive satellite systems is to strengthen local, independent media outlets in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is the local media that most influence "the street" and where views of the world can shape public perception.

Rather than engage in a full-fledged global satellite competition, akin to an arms race, in which countries simply beam government propaganda at each other, let's devote resources to supporting indigenous news outlets with fact-based, objective reporting.

History is full of examples of the power of local media to change societies. In the 1980s, when Congress began to give modest amounts of foreign aid to develop independent media in the former Soviet Union, the results were astonishing. Hundreds, then thousands, of independent broadcasters and media professionals developed, creating a multiplicity of voices and a vibrant and open media able to withstand even current challenges to its independence.

Independent media made the critical difference in Yugoslavia, where the power of local independent radio stations such as B92 helped overthrow the dictatorship of President Slobodan Milosevic.

The critical challenge facing the U.S. government is how to change local media in countries that spew hatred of America and the West on their evening news. We need to create a diversity of opinion as well as the ethics and standards of good reporting. We need to provide professional journalism training and legal advice and assistance on how to build strong independent information systems.

We need media exchange programs and journalism training that come not directly from the U.S. government but through qualified nonprofit organizations that have credibility in the region.

And we need to start pressuring Arab and Muslim governments to expend resources on opening their own media, not building expensive propaganda systems that perpetuate misperceptions about the West.

This is not to suggest that there is not a role for government media. Overseas broadcasts such as Voice of America or Radio Free Liberty can be a lifeline to people who live in closed societies.

But as we contemplate the expenditure of enormous resources on international television networks and channels with content generated by our government, we must ask ourselves some questions:

Who's on the other end of the remote? How will they receive our message? And is it better to create change from within rather than beam from outside?

Tara Sonenshine is former editorial producer for ABC News' Nightline and served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. She is a consultant to Internews, a nonprofit organization that promotes independent media worldwide.

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