Wow, is al-Hurra doing something right?

Like most people who pay attention to the Arab media, I’ve long since stopped paying much attention to the American Arabic satellite TV station al-Hurra, other than the morbid “16 car pileup on the highway” fascination over the occasional story I hear. From its launch in 2004 until last year, when its director Muwafic Harb resigned/was removed and the original incarnation of the station finally put out of its misery, al-Hurra simply made no impact on Arab politics. Virtually nobody watched it, it never established an identity or a reason for being, and it pretty much disappeared into the ocean of Arab satellite TV without a ripple. The worst part about it was that its existence misled Congress and many Americans into mistakenly thinking that the US was “doing something” on public diplomacy. Piles of money were shoveled onto it with little to show, while other programs were starved and the urgency surrounding revamped public diplomacy after 9/11 was dissipated.

One notable characteristic of this era of al-Hurra was that there was frustratingly little accountability or oversight. As a blistering GAO report last year demonstrated, there was very little evidence that al-Hurra was meeting performance benchmarks as would be expected of other governmental agencies. The al-Hurra administration often seemed more concerned with defending its budgets than with engaging in the real Middle East – hence the endless stream of peppy press releases proclaiming dramatic increases in audiences and market share (progress which no other market surveys ever seemed to capture). Finally, scrutiny of the station’s content was virtually impossible for anyone in the United States: no feed was available for Arabic speakers in the United States to monitor, no transcripts of programs were made available on the station’s rudimentary website, and nobody in Congress had the language skills or access to information to even begin to evaluate what it was doing. I was told that al-Hurra could not provide such access because it would violate the Smith-Mundt Act against the domestic dissemination of foreign propaganda – but that’s obviously untrue, since Radio Sawa – which falls under the same BBG mandate – offers a live feed online with no evident problems.

Anyway, Harb is gone now, as are his (and al-Hurra’s) main bureaucratic backers – Norm Pattiz and Ken Tomlinson – and the CNN veteran Larry Register was brought in to try to salvage what could be salvaged…. so the old regime is now complaining, as old regimes do.

That’s the context of Joel Mowbray’s attack on al-Hurra’s new management in the Wall Street Journal. Mowbray is incensed about the new al-Hurra:

Within weeks of becoming news director, Mr. Register put his own stamp on the network. Producers and on-air talent quickly understood that change was underway. Investigations into Arab government wrongdoing or oppression were no longer in vogue, and the ban on turning the airwaves over to terrorists was lifted. For those who had chafed under Mr. Register’s predecessor — who curbed the desire of many on staff to make Al-Hurra more like al-Jazeera — the new era was welcomed warmly. “Everybody feels emboldened. Register changed the atmosphere around here,” notes one staffer. “Register is trying to pander to Arab sympathies,” says another.

Mowbray’s critique actually makes it look like Register is doing a decent job. By Mowbray’s own account, Register revived a demoralized newsroom and actually began trying to compete for market share. Imagine that, trying to address issues that Arabs care about on an Arabic TV station! Register is also apparently allowing a politically more diverse array of guests to speak live and uncensored. To Mowbray, “he should know that live TV is the wrong venue for firebrands or guests prone to outrageous commentary.” To most observers of Arab media, live TV is both very attractive to Arab viewers (one of al-Jazeera’s calling cards) and a far more liberal approach (live talk shows suggest a “public sphere”, while edited programs allow for state control and censorship). If it’s true that Register is pushing for live interactions rather than scripted, controlled settings then he’s doing something else right. Mowbray grudgingly admits that “it is true that al-Hurra has increased its coverage of U.S. politics.” That’s great – since, as a certain critic of al-Hurra advised its new management on arrival, “there remains one niche which has not really been filled in which al-Hurra could actually have a competitive advantage: coverage of America and of American politics.”

His main charge is that al-Hurra had been instructed to stop pushing investigations of “Arab government wrongdoing”. Now, even if true, this would greatly exaggerate what it did under Harb, which rarely bothered any Arab government except occasionally Syria. I did see some al-Hurra coverage of the Egyptian anti-torture/police brutality campaign, which Wa’il Abass greatly appreciated… but that happened under Register, not Harb. Alas, even if Mowbray’s allegations were true, it would accurately reflect the change in American foreign policy over the last year, which has abandoned democracy promotion in the region in favor of building an anti-Iranian coalition – so Mowbray might take it up with the Bush administration.

I’m in no position to judge whether Mowbray’s charges about al-Hurra’s content are accurate, though, since as I’ve been complaining for years the station still offers no live feed available in the United States or transcripts of its programs – an ongoing problem which will continue to plage oversight. In an update posted on a conservative blog, Mowbray says that the BBG responded with a letter that accused him of “”accept[ing] — lock, stock, and barrel — imprecise information” that resulted in creating a “generalized web of inaccuracies.”” The real problem, as I’ve been saying for years, is that the lack of access to the station’s programming shields it from scrutiny and makes it difficult for anyone to either criticize or defend it with any credibility. After citing one example of al-Hurra’s malfeasance, Mowbray says “Translations were provided by a fluent Arabic-speaking U.S. government official.” That’s nice. Did this helpful official also provide translations of the rest of the content to judge the context of the remarks and their representativeness, or was s/he just – god forbid – cherry-picking in order to score political points? How would we know? Wouldn’t it be nice if the transcripts (like audience market survey data) were available to the public to see in context and judge for themselves? He also says that “Faced with my Wall Street Journal column on U.S. taxpayer-financed al-Hurra is becoming a platform for Islamic terrorists, as well as an outlet for the jihadists’ propaganda, the panel that oversees the network could have chosen to comb the archives to see if reform is needed.” Could they? Are such archives available? Not by my experience, but I’d be happy to learn of their existence and availability to scrutiny – and to note the irony of this suddenly becoming an important issue, after I’ve been writing about it for years.

Best part? Mowbray writes: “If al-Hurra doesn’t talk about human rights abuses across the Arab world, who will? Unfortunately, no one with the same potential reach.” How about al-Jazeera (which not only reported on the American human rights report, and regularly reports and discusses issues of human rights and political freedoms, but also recently ran a long interview with the director of Amnesty International on “open issues in human rights”) and al-Masry al-Yom… you know, the real Arab media that Arabs actually watch and read? (I couldn’t find anything on the human rights report in the allegedly liberal Saudi al-Arabiya, but that will surprise only those who think that al-Arabiya is really liberal, as opposed to just Saudi and currently pushing a pro-American line because that’s the current Saudi agenda.)

Basically, if Ken Tomlinson and Muwafic Harb are upset with al-Hurra’s new direction, then odds are Register is doing something right. Tomlinson and Harb presided over a legendary failure, a white elephant which achieved few of its goals and became a laughing-stock on those rare occasions when it was even noticed. I doubt that Register will be able to turn al-Hurra into a player in the Arab media market, simply because of how competitive that market is and because of the stigma attached to a US-government station. But it sounds like he’s on the right track, trying to do the best he can with the hand he’s been dealt. The squawking from Mowbray, Tomlinson, Pattiz and Harb should be taken as a good sign.

Ref: Abu Aardvark
Read an excerpt from Voices of the New Arab Public (in PDF format)
Listen to an interview
Al-Hurra website

Abu Aardvark started in 2002 as a pseudonymous blog about Middle East politics, especially Iraq and the Arab media. In 2005, it was revealed to be the work of Marc Lynch, professor of political science at Williams College and author of Voices of the New Arab Public (Columbia University Press).

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