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Yanks have their say

U.S. to launch net in Middle East

WASHINGTON — Amid worries about another round of terrorist attacks, the U.S. is turning to the power of American television to try to shape public opinion in the Arab world.

A mix of media execs and longtime Arab journalists are busy rehearsing and finalizing the sets for the first U.S.-government-sponsored TV project in the Middle East.

The 24-hour news and entertainment channel is set to launch by the end of January or beginning of February.

“The countdown has started,” says an excited Mouafac Harb, the new net’s Lebanese-born news director.

Congress appropriated $62 million for the first year of the project and an additional $40 million just for its Iraqi operations. Harb has hired some 200 mostly Arab employees and promises the channel will have bureaus throughout the Middle East. About two-thirds of the staff will operate out of the main bureau in a Virginia suburb of D.C., where a satellite will beam the content to the Arab world.

Although the net is dubbed Al Hurra (The Free One), critics are already arguing the Arab public won’t see it that way.

“Anything that is state-sponsored will have a high barrier for credibility,” says Edward Djerejian, director of the James A. Baker Public Policy Institute at Houston’s Rice U.

After studying the U.S. public relations efforts in Muslim countries, Djerejian contends the U.S. government should have created an organization similar to the Corp. for Public Broadcasting. Funded by both private sector and U.S. government funds, the org would provide content created by Americans and subsidized through the U.S. government to Arab media outlets.

Norman Pattiz, who heads the Middle East committee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors — the U.S. agency that is overseeing the project — rejects those views.

“Our mission is a journalistic mission,” he explains. “We are committed to being an example of the free press in the American tradition. We can’t be viewed as a mouthpiece of the American government.”

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