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

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wants to expand the effort. He has introduced a bill calling for similar broadcasts in Farsi, Kurdish and Uzbek, among other languages. The expansion would require $222 million in start-up funding, plus a $345 million annual budget on top of Voice of America's budget of $570 million for 2005.

Eighty of Alhurra's 150 journalists moved here from Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. Fifty remained abroad to work in the network's bureaus in Amman, Baghdad, Beirut and Dubai.

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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Harb said most of the journalists were initially skeptical but agreed to join for the opportunity to try something new.

"Journalism is difficult in Lebanon. It's difficult to say everything you want to say," said Larissa Aoun, who previously worked for a state-run station in Beirut. "I was really looking for an opportunity where I could be more open."

Alhurra had a bumpy start. When the channel was launched in February, government officials in some countries condemned it. A cleric in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa, or religious decree, against watching the channel, writing in Al Hayat that Alhurra was staffed by "agents in the pay of America."

In Alhurra's first days, there were many technical problems. And when President Bush appeared on the station to discuss the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, he ended the interview by telling Harb he'd done a "good job," prompting more questions about the station's independence.

Harb said he wishes that Bush had not made that comment, but that he also believes the incident was misconstrued. "I don't believe I was soft on the president," he said.

In March, when Israeli missiles killed Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin as he emerged from a prayer session, most Arab news channels switched immediately to the story. Alhurra stuck with its regular program, a cooking show.

Detractors pounced on that. "Whatever the reason, Al-Hurra's not pursuing the story in real time will be interpreted by many Arabs as politically motivated," wrote an opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

Harb agreed that it was a mistake. "This happened very early in the life of Alhurra. . . . When they assassinated the next leader of Hamas, we were more ready to give more comprehensive coverage by then," he said.

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