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U.S. Network Falters in Mideast Mission

Safe and Small

Al-Hurra, an Arabic-language television network financed by the U.S. government, attracts a far smaller audience than its chief competitors, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. Video by washingtonpost.comEditor's Note: An earlier version of this video included incorrect footage.

In April 2003, Congress created al-Hurra as a counterweight to al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based network that built a large following in the Middle East with aggressive coverage of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

After scrambling to hire staff, al-Hurra began broadcasting via satellite in February 2004 from an office park in Springfield, Va. Arabic-language programming now airs commercial-free 24 hours a day, with news updates at least every 30 minutes.

The station's mission is to provide objective news for a region where hostility to U.S. policy is widespread. Executives said they have accomplished that goal.

"It's taken time to show that we're not the propaganda channel, that we're not the Bush channel," said Brian T. Conniff, president of Middle East Broadcasting Networks, the nonprofit founded by Congress to run al-Hurra.

Conniff said the network gives priority to covering democracy and other sensitive subjects in the Arab world. Key programs include "Town Hall," a talk show that rotates among different cities, and "Equality," which focuses on women's issues. Al-Hurra has also emphasized U.S. news, such as the 2008 presidential campaign.

There have been a few journalistic coups, such as when the station broke word of Saddam Hussein's execution. But there have been plenty of embarrassments, too.

In 2004, when an Israeli airstrike killed the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, virtually all Arabic news channels interrupted their regular programming. Al-Hurra continued with a cooking show.

Internal surveys show that al-Hurra's audience has expanded by roughly 28 percent over the past four years. The most recent figures show that an estimated 25.8 million adults in 13 countries, with a combined population of more than 200 million, tune into al-Hurra at least once a week, according to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency that oversees it.

It is difficult to verify those numbers, however. In a report two years ago, the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, questioned their reliability, citing "weaknesses" in sampling methodology and documentation.

Independent surveys indicate that al-Hurra attracts a far smaller audience than its chief competitors, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. In a public opinion poll of six Arab countries released in March by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, 54 percent of those surveyed said they watched al-Jazeera most often for international news, compared with 9 percent for al-Arabiya. Al-Hurra got 2 percent, tied with al-Manar -- Hezbollah's satellite propaganda channel.

Al-Hurra executives said their goal is not necessarily to outdraw those networks, but to offer a credible alternative news source. "We're not saying we're winning the race," said Bruce Sherman, director of strategic planning for the Broadcasting Board of Governors. "What we're saying is we have a horse in the race."

Al-Hurra's largest audience by far, with about 9 million weekly viewers, is in Iraq, where the network operates a separate dedicated satellite channel. But it has found it harder to make inroads elsewhere. In Egypt, which has a population of almost 82 million and is the cultural heart of the Arab world, fewer than 8 percent of adults watch al-Hurra weekly, according to U.S. government surveys.

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