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Al Hurra, a U.S.-funded Arabic-language satellite television station has taken to the airwaves to democratize the Arab world and serve as a counterweight to Al Jazeera. But will it work?
Al Hurra for the Arab world: All U.S. propaganda?
"We are being hurt by Al Jazeera in the Arab world," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters in Germany earlier this month, referring to the controversial Qatar-based Arabic news network, which has often come under fire for an overtly anti-American approach.
"There is no question about it. The quality of journalism is outrageous -- inexcusably biased -- and there is nothing you can do about it except try to counteract it," Rumsfeld said.
Last weekend, the Americans did exactly that when a Arabic-language satellite television station financed by the U.S. government began broadcasting to the Arab world from the Washington area.
Anchors and cameraman at Al Hurra news studio, Washington, DC.
Called Al Hurra or "the free one," the new channel, outfitted with over $60 million and a largely Arab staff, is being seen as America’s answer to Al Jazeera. U.S. officials have said they hope the new satellite channel will counter what President Bush has called "hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world."
Al Hurra faces skeptical audience
Al Hurra is keen to stress that it will remain independent in its reporting and has promised credible journalism and a balanced approach.
At the same time, those involved with the new channel are well aware that they will be viewed with deep mistrust and suspicion among their target audience in the Arab world.
"There will be a whole lot of people who will assume that we aren’t objective and that we are a mouthpiece of the American government and doing propaganda," Norman Pattiz, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the government agency that oversees Voice of America and now Al Hurra, told Deutsche Welle.
"That means we will have to overcome this hurdle and convince our audience that we want to promote democracy through uncensored and accurate reporting," Pattiz said.
U.S. foreign policy a sore point
But convincing the Arab world of its good intentions is likely to prove an uphill task for the channel.
Reactions from Arab countries so far have hardly been favorable. "The channel doesn’t have very good prospects, given the fact alone that it’s broadcast from Washington," Aktham Suliman, Al Jazeera correspondent in Germany told Deutsche Welle. "After all it’s a government channel. Many in the Arabic press think that it’s difficult to separate the issue of a government-backed station from U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East," Suliman said.
Indeed, U.S. foreign policy towards the Arab world is a recurring theme among the Arabic press in response to the launch of Al Hurra.
"Can a good television station cover up (America’s) bad policy in the Middle East?" asked a report in Lebanon’s leading An-Nahar daily this week.
A fresh perspective in the Arab world
But Al Hurra is convinced that it can offer a fresh view to an Arab world saturated with one-sided images of conflicts involving Muslims.
Al hurra logo
"Our perspective will be different. If you look at what Al Jazeera and the other Arabic satellite programs are airing, it’s basically limited to two stories: Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- as if there are no other things," Pattiz said.
The station kicked off its first program with a short videotape showing a symbolic opening of windows and a short interview with President Bush in which he expressed optimism about achieving democracy in Iraq.
The channel also aired a lively discussion between commentators, including one of Al Hurra’s journalists, on whether the Arab world will view the station as a free and independent news source.
Battling anti-American prejudice
Al Hurra will also focus on the situation in Iraq. The station even has its own offices in the country, financed from the $87 million reconstruction budget earmarked by the U.S. government.
News chief Moufak Harb told Deutsche Welle that Al Hurra was in a unique position to combat a classical prejudice in the Arab world.
"Every time when Arab affairs are reported, there’s a dangerous tendency to hold the U.S. responsible for the Arab malaise, for everything that goes wrong there -- from corruption to brutal regimes, unemployment to oil prices," Harb said. "Arab politicians also use these conspiracy theories, and it’s hardly any different in the media," he added.