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Sell me your earsThe Al Hurra TV station, which broadcasts in Arabic to the
“The channel is dedicated to presenting accurate, balanced and comprehensive news. Alhurra endeavors to broaden its viewers’ perspectives, enabling them to make more informed decisions.”
It is hard to argue with that. Except that when vying for increased funding, the committee which runs the station, the US Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), explained its mission in a rather different way:
“We have become convinced that to advance
foreign policy goals, we must dramatically improve our performance in key markets across the globe.” U.S.
On its website, the station describes its management and funding arrangements with a certain coyness:
“Alhurra is operated by non-profit corporation ‘The
Middle EastBroadcasting Networks, Inc.’ (MBN). MBN is financed by the American people through the U.S Congress.
“MBN receives this funding from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent and autonomous federal agency.”
This is stretching the truth somewhat. Under the
Financially, the governors have been highly successful. Official US government spending on the international broadcasting media run by the BBG has risen from $420 million in 2000 to $650 million in 2006-2007, with a proposed increase to $670 million next year- and these figures do not include the projects financed through the US government’s National Endowment for Democracy and the quaintly-named US Institute for Peace, nor the covert projects of the CIA. This increased funding has enabled the BBG to greatly increase the coverage and variety of its broadcasting channels.
But in respect of advancing US foreign policy goals, the BBG has enjoyed what might be described as negative success. A report for the
“U.S.-funded broadcasters are competing in a wide-open global environment, but some experts wonder about the message generated by these outlets.”
Commenting on the increased funding, the author of the report, Robert McMahon, (who is a former correspondent for the BBG’s Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty), remarks:
“At nearly $670 million, it would represent a continued spending surge for such broadcasting since 9/11, and is comparable to funding levels during the height of the Cold War. In scope and technology, the new broadcasters have moved far beyond the shortwave-radio era… There are new programs in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and other languages deemed crucial in contesting the ‘global war on terror.’ In addition to radio transmissions,
U.S.broadcasters now stream broadcasts online, send text information via cell phone, and beam satellite television to the Middle East…”
But while the media has been upgraded, the message which it carries has not been getting across. McMahon suggests that one difficulty is that the international audience of the 21st Century has very many options available when it chooses who to listen to. Contrasting the modern information environment with that of the Cold War period, Robert McMahon quotes ‘public diplomacy’ expert Bruce Gregory:
“What is different today for the broadcasters as well as everyone else in public diplomacy is that information is not today’s scarce resource, attention is.”
Which is only part of the problem. After all, Al Jazeera operates in the same competitive environment and has been getting no shortage of attention.
Warriors of desperation
Touted as a rival to Al Jazeera, the
Appearing before the USA’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations (Committee on International Relations) in November 2005, the Lebanese-born US citizen Mouafac Harb, News Director of Al Hurra, used heroic language to explain his endeavours:
“Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to be here today to talk about Alhurra Television.
“From the beginning, we at Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa have considered ourselves a vital component in the war on terror, as we use professional journalism to advance the cause of freedom and democracy. We fight on a battlefield of ideas; our enemies are the biased perceptions that have ruled unchallenged in people’s minds since their childhoods.
“Our battlefield is on the televisions and radios, in the mosques and coffee houses of the Arab world, where we can take on twisted dogma that may seek to kill the innocent and make saints of their murderers. This is a war of words where the United States - until lately - had no voice…”
But how many people in the mosques and coffee houses were interested in listening to this voice? Although the BBG cited surveys to show that Al Hurra, its allied Arabic radio station Radio Sawa, and Radio Farda which broadcasts to
“…measuring the impact of the U.S.-funded entities has proven difficult. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) has repeatedly called on the BBG to come up with a strategy for gauging the results of its Muslim-focused broadcasts. A report released in August 2006 repeated these concerns and found the
Middle Eastbroadcasts, which receive the lion’s share of new funding, use flawed methodology in measuring audiences. The BBG has pledged to respond to the GAO concerns. Meanwhile, it continues to fend off criticisms that its music-based programming to Arabic- and Farsi-speaking audiences lacks credibility.”
Despite the channel’s mix of sex, propaganda and rock ‘n’ roll, it was attracting audience ratings which were close to zero. Alvin Snyder, a retired executive of the United States Information Agency (which was replaced by the BBG under the 1998 Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act), put on a very a brave face to report the following in October 2006:
“During the month of September, when more stable viewing habits were in play following the war [the Israeli bombing and invasion of Lebanon], the independent TV rating service IPSOS-STAT, in its ‘day after’ report of actual TV viewing, ranked Alhurra number 56 out of the top 100 Middle East Satellite channels viewed in Saudi Arabia. While that may not sound impressive, at least
's Middle East TV channel is now ranked, which, much like in college football, raises attention. There are also hundreds of satellite channels competing for viewers in the America Middle East.
”While rated well behind news leaders Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, Alhurra shows up far ahead of the American news channel CNN, which ranks 83rd. In
Saudi Arabia, Alhurra was also ranked ahead of other Middle East channels including those of Syria, Oman, Qatar, and in September. It also ran ahead of the U.S. Discovery Channel's Animal Planet, which ranked 79th. Jordan
”In July and August, with the Israel-Hezbollah war raging, IPSOS-STAT’s rating surveys ranked Alhurra number 54 in the United Arab Emirates; number 85 in Egypt, and a stronger number 32 in Kuwait, well ahead of CNN and CNBC. During the war, Al Jazeera showed up a strong number one in most places.”
Bizarrely, the report was headlined ‘
Dissatisfied with these minimal audience figures, and irked by persistent allegations of corruption against Mouafac Harb, the
Mr Register has more sophisticated ideas about how to ‘advance
On the 12th March 2007, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Joel Mowbray, attacking Larry Register for allowing the channel to broadcast the views of people who oppose US and Israeli actions. The article, entitled ‘Television Takeover’, accused Register of turning the station into a platform for terrorists:
“Ken Tomlinson, the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- the congressionally-created panel charged with overseeing Al-Hurra, among other government-funded broadcasters -- is currently demanding answers about the network’s decision last December to broadcast most of a speech by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah.
“Sitting up straight and raising his index finger, he [Ken Tomlinson] states emphatically, ‘It's the single worst decision I've witnessed in all my years in international broadcasting.’
“The airing of the Nasrallah speech is a sign of the network's new direction since it was taken over by a longtime CNN producer, Larry Register, last November…
“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…”
Apparently, the Wall Street Journal article produced rapid results. On 17th March, Joel Mowbray posted an update which appeared on several neo-conservative websites, reporting that Mr Register had been summoned to
“Al-Hurra’s new news director, longtime CNN producer Larry Register, was summoned to the Hill on Wednesday, where he was grilled for roughly an hour. Register denied he was responsible for some of the bad calls, but otherwise was unapologetic about his editorial decisions…
“Expressing outrage at the WSJ column, Register forcefully declared that he does not support terrorists. Though that charge was not made, it is understandable he felt the need to clarify given al-Hurra’s recent record…
“Register told congressional staffers that he did not personally approve airing Nasrallah’s speech—a dubious claim, given that he knew of the speech in advance, and it occurred in the afternoon on the east coast. But if he conveyed afterward to employees his strong disapproval, as he maintains, then why did the network just over a week later cover live the 19th anniversary celebration of Hamas?
“…Register stressed that he does not simply turn the airwaves over to terrorists. At a different point during the hour, however, he explained that in order to have legitimacy as a network, al-Hurra must air live speeches from terrorist leaders because they are part of the discourse.”
The fine art of propaganda
The Washington Post editorial referred to a broadcast by the Voice of
“One of the two guests provided by VOA, Dr. Mansour Farhang, ‘uses a Farsi term best described as “baseless statement” to describe your State of the Union speech,’ Mr. Coburn wrote. ‘Dr. Farhang's hostility is further expressed when he describes your
policy as having “no connection to reality.” ‘Dr. Farhang then went on to blame the Iraq United Statesfor increased violence and instability in . The only other guest, who was supposed to balance the criticism, said he agreed with this harsh assessment of Iraq policy.’ ” U.S.
Senator Coburn’s horror at VOA’s broadcast of the comments by Dr Farhang and his fellow panellist about President Bush’s State of the Union speech and the effect of the
One tactic in such situations is to carry programmes which include strong criticisms of US policies – this does no harm, because the audience is hearing nothing which is not already being stated in local news sources and in general conversation - alongside other news items and commentaries which subtly undermine resistance to these US policies. Such is the fine art of propaganda. But unfortunately for the more sophisticated propagandists, their output can come to the attention of political and journalistic figures back in the
A further difficulty for the BBG’s broadcasters is illustrated by the testimony of an emigré Iranian dissident, Amirabbas Fakhrava, to Senator Coburn’s Homeland Security Subcommittee on Government Information. According to the
“Mr. Fakhravar told the subcommittee in July that Radio Farda and VOA [Voice of America] ‘are presently giving more assistance to the regime than to the dissident movement’ in
by touting fraudulent efforts to institute reforms within the Islamist regime. Subsequent complaints from native Farsi speakers who monitor Iran U.S.broadcasts to and a report commissioned by the State Department and National Security Council mirrored Mr. Fakhravar's testimony.” Iran
Words and deeds
Words and deeds
“…BBG officials cite heavy jamming by Cuban authorities. Critics say the broadcasts are not credible for Cubans but others say the jamming efforts prove the Cuban regime fears their impact.”
“The TV Marti transmission system delivers grade-A television signals to the
area. Massive jamming efforts by the Cuban government make it difficult to receive the signal in center city Havana . However, mobile monitoring indicates that international reception is possible in some outlying areas of the city and in other parts of the Havana province. As a result, the TV Marti signal is now shifted to include areas east and west of Havana randomly during the broadcast in an effort to lessen the effects of jamming… Cuba does not directly jam Radio Marti’s 1180 kHz AM signal but, instead, counter broadcasts on the same 1180 frequency in an attempt to drown out Radio Marti’s popular programming. Havana does, however, use electronic jamming transmitters to try to block Radio Marti shortwave broadcasts but has had limited success in all but major population centers.” Cuba
And, according to the Chicago Tribune:
“…beginning in August 2004, an Air Force C-130 outfitted with electronic warfare gear and based in
Harrisburg, Pa., made a once-per-week 2,000-mile round trip to transmit four hours of TV signal from U.S. airspace into Cuba… the military flights do not come out of OCB’s budget…
”In 2006, Congress boosted OCB’s funding so that the agency could pay for more airborne broadcasting, and in August, a leased private plane, dubbed Air Marti, began transmitting TV and Radio Marti’s signals six days a week in prime time. The weekly Air Force flight also continues…”
Yet, as McMahon suggests, very few Cubans can be bothered to make the effort required to pick up the signals from the
“The number of listeners to Radio Marti has reportedly dropped in recent years and TV Marti’s audience is negligible.”
One reason for this is that Radio Marti and TV Marti are not run by people with an understanding of how to engage with their potential listeners and viewers in
But even if the BBG was able to overcome the political pull of the highly organised ‘Miami mafia’, and put its Cuban programming into the hands of somebody with the sophistication of Larry Register, it would still have insuperable problems in finding a mass audience interested in its pro-US message. People in
Socialist Cuba has the mini-hell of
The world knows the