U.S. raising new voices to counter Arab media

Old VOA hands say Alhurra TV, Radio Sawa are less news than propaganda


August 01, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Va. M-y On a blue-and-orange paneled set in a gleaming new television studio, the U.S. government is hard at work here trying to win the hearts and minds of people throughout the Arab world.

From this studio in an office park off Interstate 95, Lebaneseborn Mouafac Harb directs coverage of world events by government- owned and operated Alhurra satellite television, as well as its sister service, Radio Sawa, which has its headquarters several miles north in Washington. On any given day, Harb might oversee stories on elections in India, treatment of Muslims in Europe, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The news programs he directs complement the talk shows and commercial entertainment programs aired on Alhurra and the U.S. and Middle Eastern popular music broadcast by Radio Sawa. All are part of a new and conscious effort by U.S. officials to reach out to broader and younger audiences in the Arab world.

With the war against terror, U.S. officials say, the nation has entered an urgent new age of public diplomacy. They are trying to combat the strength of Arab media, such as Qatarbased Al Jazeera television, that they say foment anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

The best way to do that, says Norman J. Pattiz, founder of the radio company Westwood One and an influential member of the U.S. panel that oversees government broadcasting efforts, is to draw in listeners with a mix of appealing programs.

The federal government has set aside $62 million for AlhurraM-Fs first year M-y about one-third of which is designated for start-up costs. (Radio Sawa has an annual budget of $12 million.)

M-tIt is entertaining, it is informative, itM-Fs credible,M-v Pattiz says of the six-month-old effort.

VOA cut back

But as Alhurra and Sawa have blossomed, the older government- sponsored Voice of America Arabic-language radio services have been scrapped. And not everyone is happy with the changes. More than half of the staffers of the Voice of America, the six-decades-old U.S.-sponsored broadcaster, have signed a petition protesting the gutting of its Arab-language services.

The petition called on Congress to investigate the creation of Sawa and Alhurra by Pattiz and his peers on the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. The new outletsM-F programs, the VOA staffers charge, fail to meet the same journalistic standards of fairness as those found on the Voice of America M-y required under a congressional charter to maintain neutrality in presenting the news. Instead, the broadcasts are more likely to skew to official U.S. positions, they say.

The changes threaten M-tlongcherished values at a time, in the post 9/11 world, when itM-Fs more important than ever to provide food for thought for people in the Arab and Muslim world,M-v says former VOA deputy director Alan L. Heil Jr., the author of Voice of America: A History (Columbia University Press, 2003).

AlhurraM-Fs Harb disagrees.

M-tWe just play it straight. We are journalism,M-v says Harb, who has worked for Middle Eastern and U.S. media outlets. M-tI can personally claim that I run the largest Arabic language newsroom, and the freest one there is M-y not under the pressure of anyone.

M-tThe only people who are concerned about the loss of the Arabic VOA are the people who worked there,M-v Harb says. M-tIn the Middle East, no one noticed the Arabic service was gone because no one was listening. Are you relevant in the market or not?M-v

In the days of the Cold War, the U.S. government sponsored the straight news of the Voice of America and the cultural programs of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to inform and inspire people in countries controlled by the Soviet Union. Begun in World War II to beam news into Axiscontrolled lands, the Voice of America has long been considered the gold standard of government broadcasting abroad. Its shows originate in 44 languages through television, radio and the Internet.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, says the new broadcast services vary only in format, not quality, from the Voice of America.

M-tThe standards for Sawa and the standards for Alhurra are every bit what they were for VOA,M-v Tomlinson says. The difference lies in the way the news is presented, he says, like the difference between MSNBC and CBS. M-tItM-Fs a question of whether you go with something thatM-Fs quick, with better legs.M-v

At a time when the impression that Arabs have of the United States has never mattered more, Radio Sawa and Alhurra are attempting the twin tasks of reporting the news honestly and reminding their Arab audiences of all the good America does, its officials say.

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