Hearts and Minds: A Broadcast Flop
U.S. Network Falters in Mideast Mission
Monday, June 23, 2008
CAIRO First of two articles
The Egyptian bureau of al-Hurra, an Arabic-language television network financed by the U.S. government, boasts a spectacular view of the Nile River and the capital's bustling streets. But inside, all is quiet.
The bureau's satellite link was unplugged with little explanation a few weeks ago by a local company, making it impossible to broadcast live. Since then, staffers have had to use a studio controlled by the Egyptian secret police, who have warned guests not to say anything controversial on the air.
Al-Hurra -- "The Free One" in Arabic -- is the centerpiece of a U.S. government campaign to spread democracy in the Middle East. Taxpayers have spent $350 million on the project. But more than four years after it began broadcasting, the station is widely regarded as a flop in the Arab world, where it has struggled to attract viewers and overcome skepticism about its mission.
Propaganda has become a primary front in the war against terrorism, with the United States and al-Qaeda each investing heavily to win over hearts and minds. This article examines one aspect of the U.S. effort to influence people through the airwaves. Tomorrow, another will look at al-Qaeda's online propaganda campaign.
Since its inception, al-Hurra has been plagued by mediocre programming, congressional interference and a succession of executives who either had little experience in television or could not speak Arabic, according to interviews with former staffers, other Arab journalists and viewers in the Middle East.
It has also been embarrassed by journalistic blunders. One news anchor greeted the station's predominantly Muslim audience on Easter by declaring, "Jesus is risen today!" After al-Hurra covered a December 2006 Holocaust-denial conference in Iran and aired, unedited, an hour-long speech by the leader of Hezbollah, Congress convened hearings and threatened to cut the station's budget.
"Many people just didn't know how to do their job," said Yasser Thabet, a former senior editor at al-Hurra. "If some problem happened on the air, people would just joke with each other, saying, 'Well, nobody watches us anyway.' It was very self-defeating."
According to critics, the U.S. government miscalculated in assuming that al-Hurra could repeat the success of Radio Free Europe during the Cold War, when information-starved listeners behind the Iron Curtain tuned in on their shortwave radios.
Al-Hurra, by contrast, faces cutthroat competition. About 200 other stations beam Arabic-language programming to satellite dishes reaching even the poorest neighborhoods in the Middle East and North Africa. The BBC launched an Arabic-language news channel this year, and more rivals loom.
"Arabs sit in their homes in front of the television, and they surf like crazy," said Hisham Melhem, a Washington-based anchor for al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned satellite TV network. "You rarely find someone who says they watch al-Hurra. It may be number 10 on their dial. But definitely not first, not second, not third, not fourth."
"They failed in finding their own niche, and they failed in presenting something different about America to the Arab world," he added. "It's a glitzy operation, a costly operation, with very little impact."