Falling on Deaf Ears?

Critics flay a new US government-backed Arab satellite station with questionable appeal

In mid-February, the United States government began its latest endeavor to change hearts and minds in the Arab world, as its new Arab-language satellite news station, Al-Hurra, began broadcasting to a mostly dubious Middle East audience.

Al-Hurra, or the “free one,” is a $62 million project funded by American taxpayers that will fall under the authority of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors, a public body. It currently employs some 200 staff and will be headed by Lebanese journalist Muaffaq Harb, formerly a correspondent in Washington. Almost immediately, critics in the Middle East dismissed the station as a propaganda tool of the United States. Some observers pointed out that the station merely repeated a pattern of American public diplomacy efforts that had already been shown to fail. Indeed, the State Department last year launched a radio station, Radio Sawa, and an Arabic-language lifestyle magazine titled Hi, to offer Arabs a friendlier image of America. The magazine in particular was met with crushing indifference. In an interview last year, the US ambassador to Lebanon, Vincent Battle, fended off a skeptical interviewer: “Hi and Sawa are part of a public diplomacy campaign that is growing. There is a perceived need to increase our communications with the Arab world, and for the Arab world to increase its communications with the United States as well. We’re making efforts to do that.” He did add, however, in an implicit admission of problems with such attempts, that: “Some of those efforts are more successful than others.”

In condemnation fairly typical of that in the region, Jordanian columnist Rami Khouri thumped the chairman of a US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, who had said that “creating a credible communication channel from the United States to the Arab world is the greatest diplomacy challenge since the end of the Cold War.” Khouri responded: “Wrong again. People in Washington who think like this are offering counterproductive projects, reflecting inappropriate policies, based on inaccurate analyses, stemming from faulty diagnoses. Perhaps not since the Emperor Nero blamed the fledgling Christians for Rome’s domestic troubles … has a world power so flagrantly engaged in misguided policies that scapegoat others, instead of rationally analyzing the collective mistakes…of all concerned.”

Meanwhile, a serene Norma Pattiz of the Broadcasting Board of Governors waved all the criticism away. “People can sit there and say whatever they want before [Al-Hurra] launches … I think they may be interested in the fact that we may bring a different perspective,” she said.

The first thing that comes to mind is, why so much animosity in the Arab world against the station? After all, $62 million is fairly modest in the satellite news world, so Arab viewers won’t risk being unfairly enticed by sparkling production quality. And if viewers do find Al-Hurra objectionable, all they will have to do is switch to another channel. Surely the fact that the US government is keen to “reach out” to the Middle East, no matter how mawkish that may sound, hardly invites such annoyance.

What Al-Hurra’s critics miss is that Arabs suffer not at all from an additional station — whether it is a propaganda outlet or not. The only ones who do are US taxpayers. The real difficulty with Al-Hurra is that it is solely an American public policy liability.

There are two reasons for this, one general, the other specific. In general, there seems little reason for Americans to put money into a station over which they have no influence, which they will probably never see, or little understand if they do, and all in an enterprise that seems doomed from the start. However, making things even more absurd is that the station’s overseers, in the hope of attracting viewers, have promised to follow a balanced approach to regional politics. Al-Hurra is to be a propaganda station without propaganda. Somehow, that misses the point, doesn’t it? Not only does “being balanced” not explain why Americans should foot the bill — if the goal is to distance the station from official proselytism, why not just turn the whole thing over to the private sector? It also doesn’t explain what will make Al-Hurra different from countless other Arab satellite news stations, or those non-Arab stations freely available to viewers in the region. In other words, if the US government insists on going into the news business, it might as well use its outlet to disseminate official policy. However, to set up a station and then shy away from turning it into a mouthpiece seems a contradiction in terms.

In the end, what the US government has not considered is the market. In starting up Radio Sawa, Hi and Al-Hurra, it failed to ask whether public funding was truly necessary. Had the projects been potentially successful (and Al-Hurra may yet work), the ideas could have been sold to private-sector investors from the start. When it became clear they were not likely to be a hit, the government got involved anyway. Is that smart? Not especially. It showed the US government failed to understand the market it was supposed to appeal to. Worse, it ignored it, and now Americans are paying.

Michael Young is a contributing editor at Reason Magazine in the US.

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