Al Hurra’s dueling voices

Arabic-language network suffering identity crisis

Whose Al Hurra is it, anyway?

Criticisms of the U.S.-funded Arabic-language newscaster during a May 16 congressional hearing have only served to highlight an inherent paradox in the net’s underlying mission.

Founded in 2003 with a view to winning over Arab hearts and minds in a post-9/11 landscape, and partly to counterbalance the likes of Al Jazeera, the net has had trouble from its inception in persuading Arab auds that it’s unbiased and credible.

Al Hurra has begun to gain some credibility in the Mideast, but American lawmakers are unhappy with how it’s done so. Congress, for instance, questioned the wisdom of airing a 67-minute speech by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in December containing anti-American and anti-Israeli vitriol, as well as coverage of an Iranian conference that same month disputing the Holocaust.

“How does it happen that the terrorists take over?” asked Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) last week.

Al Hurra apologized for the segments, saying, “Some items went on air that should not have been broadcast. These were errors and not indicative of an editorial position.”

But because they demonstrate a willingness to report matters critical of the U.S. and Israel, such segments are one reason why the channel has seen its Arabic auds grow.

“It’s a case of damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” says Jihad Ballout, former rep for both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. “They have to decide if this is a media thing, a political entity or an extension of American foreign policy. It’s quite clear that trying to get a journalist to carry out a foreign policy function will get you in trouble.”

The law that governs U.S. government broadcasting states that it must “be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism.” But it also states that all broadcasts “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States (and) with the international telecommunications policies and treaty obligations of the United States.”

As critics have sometimes asked about Voice of America broadcasts: Is this journalism or propaganda?

To that, add the question of how best do you change hearts and minds — by adhering to U.S. policy, or by showing no fear or favor?

“There has always been controversy over what U.S. international broadcasters should put on the air,” says Larry Hart, spokesman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, under whose purview Al Hurra falls. “Our broadcasters are striving to maintain a balance between giving accurate and objective news and information using the highest standards of professional journalism and carrying out the mission mandated by Congress.”

It may be difficult for some U.S. commentators to grasp just how suspiciously Al Hurra was viewed by some Arabs just after its bow. While the net’s dedicated Iraqi version, Al Hurra Iraq, has enjoyed solid viewership and respect in the country, the pan-Arab satcaster has consistently struggled to compete with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya in terms of ratings or impact.

Even Al Hurra’s show on film suffered . At the 2004 Biennale of Arab cinema in Paris, the show’s Iraqi host was turned down for interviews by countless Arab thesps and helmers after disclosing she was with the net. She ended up saying she was with an Iraqi channel to persuade them to appear on-air. At this year’s Cannes, however, attitudes among Arab helmers had noticeably shifted, and several granted interviews to Al Hurra.

“It’s funny that they don’t have any Arabic speakers in charge of programming,” adds Ballout in a reference to Al Hurra’s non-Arabic speaking VP of news, Larry Register. “They’re trying, and it has gotten better, but I think the whole thing has been misconceived from the beginning. Their journalists are being asked to do their job with one hand, and sometime more, tied behind their backs.”

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