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

Harb does not, however, think that Alhurra was wrong when it decided not to show the video of the dying al-Arabiya journalist.

In U.S. media, "the idea of publishing graphic images is shied away from, frowned upon universally," said Keith Woods, who teaches journalism at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Everybody has a sense of a line that you don't cross without good reason."


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)

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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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Imad Musa, 34, was working in al-Jazeera's Washington bureau before he joined Alhurra as a producer. Musa, an American who is the son of Palestinian immigrants, liked the idea of shaping a new channel. He said he received assurances of journalistic freedom before taking the job and has not felt pressure to slant a story.

There are, he acknowledged, differences between the policies of his current and former employer. Alhurra's reporters are told not to refer to the U.S. presence in Iraq as an occupation. Those who set off explosive devices attached to their bodies are called suicide bombers, not martyrs.

And in Iraq, Alhurra reporters "focus on more human-interest and positive stories. For instance, 'electricity has arrived in this neighborhood,' not 'this neighborhood still doesn't have electricity'," Musa said.

Musa also has to deal with the fact that some Arab politicians refuse to appear on his channels or are criticized for appearing. One member of the Jordanian parliament who agreed to be on Alhurra in August was criticized for appearing opposite an Israeli.

Overall, however, Musa said news judgment at Alhurra is not very different from that of al-Jazeera. Last month, on the day Musa was being interviewed, al-Jazeera began its 5 p.m. newscast with video of violence in Najaf that was almost identical to the scene Musa picked to lead his program.

The Alhurra program's two anchors were positioned in front of a blue map of the Middle East in the Springfield studio. During that day's broadcast, one of al-Jazeera's female anchors wore a head scarf. Alhurra's anchors were dressed in modern business attire. Both stations used a classical form of Arabic in presenting the news. But unlike al-Jazeera, Alhurra didn't sign off with the traditional Islamic greeting assalamu alaikum, or "peace be upon you."

Alhurra is transmitted to the Middle East on two satellites, Nilesat and Arabsat. Viewers in Iraq can also get the network over broadcast television. The network is available to 70 million satellite television viewers in 22 countries. There are few reliable statistics on how many people watch it regularly. One survey conducted for the network by ACNielsen found that 29 percent of Jordanians and 24 percent of Saudi Arabians with satellite-TV receivers tuned in during a seven-day period in July and August. But a Zogby poll of six Middle East countries done in May for the University of Maryland found that Alhurra barely registered as a primary source of news.

"There is a psychological barrier, and this . . . affects people's perceptions in dealing with things coming from across the Atlantic," said Badran A. Badran, a professor of media and communications at Zayed University in Dubai. "The U.S. is viewed in a negative light."

Some Middle East experts assert that the very assumption under which Alhurra was created -- that existing Arab news stations contribute to disdain for the United States -- is flawed. "The managers of Alhurra have stigmatized the competition and stereotyped it as being totally anti-American, and that's simply not true," said Rugh, the former ambassador.

Rather than compete in an already crowded field, Rugh said U.S. policymakers should appear more on al-Jazeera and other widely watched channels. More than 400 Voice of America staff members signed a petition sent to Congress in July charging that Alhurra and Sawa were draining VOA's budgets and not being held to the same editorial standards.

A draft of a report by the State Department's inspector general, obtained by The Washington Post, said Radio Sawa is failing to meet its mandate to promote pro-American attitudes because it is preoccupied with building an audience through music -- an assertion disputed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The State Department said it is revising the report.

Some legislators have said that if Alhurra is not promoting U.S. views, the government should not be funding it. "Do not tell us it's not propaganda, because if it's not propaganda, then I think . . . we will have to look at what it is we are doing," Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) said at a hearing in April.

Harb countered that fair news is what will promote democracy. "Our track record will speak for itself," he said.

Staff writer Jackie Spinner and special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report from Baghdad.


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