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THE WORLD AFTER 9/11: Influencing Arab Opinion

Va.-Based, U.S.-Financed Arabic Channel Finds Its Voice

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2004; Page A01

When a U.S. military helicopter swooped into Baghdad and began spraying bullets into a crowd of civilians believed to be looting an Army armored vehicle, most Arab news channels aired a video of the scene that captured the last words of a journalist killed in the attack.

"Please help me. I am dying," pleaded the reporter, Mazin Tumaisi. His network, al-Arabiya, showed the footage again and again, as did al-Jazeera.

White House correspondent Dalia Al-Aqidi, left, works with producer Larissa Aoun as producer Mohamed Mokhtari confers with senior producer Imad Musa, sitting, in the Alhurra newsroom. Alhurra transmits two hour-long newscasts to Middle East viewers daily. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

Video: To compete with state-sponsored TV outlets in the Middle East, the U.S. government decided it needed to fund its own voice. Enter Alhurra, the "Free One."
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Alhurra TV, however, deemed the video too disturbing to air. The story could be told without such graphic images, news directors for the new U.S. government-funded network concluded.

Editors at U.S. news channels routinely decide that some images are too graphic to air. But to critics and competitors of Alhurra, its decision was evidence that the young network airs U.S. propaganda. "It is very questionable for them not to show it," said Hafez al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief of al-Jazeera, the Arabic news channel based in Qatar.

Alhurra, a network with 150 reporters based in Springfield, is the U.S. government's largest and most expensive effort to sway foreign opinion over the airwaves since the creation of Voice of America in 1942.

The 24-hour channel, which started operating in February, airs two daily hour-long newscasts, and sports, cooking, fashion, technology and entertainment programs, including a version of "Inside the Actors Studio" dubbed in Arabic. It also carries political talk shows and magazine-type news programs, including one about the U.S. presidential election.

Its programs are produced in a two-story building that once housed local NewsChannel 8. It is staffed by a handful of journalists recruited from Arabic stations and newspapers and dozens of employees scurrying around in jeans and running shoes or kitten heels. A mixture of Arabic and English fills the newsroom as journalists answer phones and click away on their computers.

Congress last year approved $62 million to pay for Alhurra's first year. In November 2003, Congress committed $40 million more to launch a sister station in April aimed solely at Iraq. The operation is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency that is also in charge of Voice of America. The U.S. government launched Alhurra after deciding that existing Arab news channels displayed anti-American bias. The aim is to promote a more positive U.S. image to Arabs.

Khalid Disher, 24, who owns a shop in the Mansoor neighborhood of Baghdad, likes Alhurra. "Their news covers everything, the good news and the bad ones. They cover all of Iraq. As a new channel, it is a very good start."

Others are suspicious. "I know that this channel is funded by the U.S. Congress," said Atheer Abdul-Sattar, 24, who owns a sports-equipment store in Mansoor. "The Americans want their interests to be achieved. They will direct the kind of shows or ideas they want the Iraqis to believe."

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