In his 2004 State of the Union address, President Bush
announced: “To cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda, a new television service will begin providing reliable news and information across the region”.
The result was al-Hurra (“The Free One”) which began broadcasting in February 2004 with an initial budget of $62 million and the declared objective of countering “media campaigns used by terrorists by providing accurate reporting and analysis of the news and by explaining US policies”. It
was to be “among the sources that audiences turn to in the Middle East for news and information, to increase the standards of other broadcasters in the region, and to offer distinctive and provocative programming unavailable on other stations”.
But al-Hurra was based on a flawed concept from the beginning.
In the words of Marc Lynch, one of the leading experts on the Arab media:
Al-Hurra's founders seemed to think that the Arab world was like the former Soviet space, deprived of information and desperate for an objective, credible source of news and free public debate. That would have been true in the 1980s. But at the time of its launch the Arab world was actually drowning in satellite television, with multiple sources of information and talk shows which already discussed all the issues which al-Hurra claimed to be introducing. Al-Hurra, with its stigma of American funding, never had a chance to be more than a drop in the ocean.
Basically, the Bush administration had fallen victim to its own war propaganda. Besides the constant tendency to look for parallels between the Middle East and the former Soviet Union it had an intuitive hatred of al-Jazeera television.
Established by the emir of Qatar in 1996, al-Jazeera had rapidly become the most popular news channel in the region; it had actually set new standards for the Arab world in factual reporting and had brought an unprecedented degree of openness to Arab political debate. But that was not how the Bush administration and its supporters regarded the channel. Some characterised it as “Terror TV” and the “propaganda arm” of al-Qaeda. In one outburst, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld
Al-Jazeera has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again. What they do is when there is a bomb goes down, they grab some children and some women and pretend that the bomb hit the women and the children, and it seems to me that it's up to all of us to try to tell the truth, to say what we know, to say what we don't know, and recognise that we're dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case and to the extent people lie, ultimately they are caught lying and they lose their credibility, and one would think it wouldn't take very long for that to happen, dealing with people like this.
Having been established to counter al-Jazeera and the other Arabic channels, al-Hurra’s first challenge was to build an audience among an unreceptive Arab public. Its birth was greeted with derision by most of the Arab press. The Emirates-based al-Khaleej newspaper echoed many commentators in viewing the new media offensive as no different from American “military, political and economic invasion” and
added: “If US policy in the region was sound and convincing, they would not resort to cosmetic means to improve their image.”
In the event, the lack of audience probably spared the US some embarrassment: “Arab viewers who bothered to tune in often expressed astonishment that America, home of Hollywood and CNN, could possibly be producing such a shoddy, unappealing product,” Marc Lynch
wrote. “Questionable news selection, weak journalism, and uninteresting talk-show topics and guests made the American stigma almost redundant.”
In the longer term, the crucial the question for the United States was how, exactly, to use al-Hurra. Should it be a straightforward propaganda channel or attempt something more subtle by becoming a model of free media – even if that sometimes meant broadcasting negative material about the US?
Initially, al-Hurra seemed to be adopting the former approach – for example by continuing to broadcast a cookery programme when other Arabic news channels were covering the assassination by Israel of Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. In 2006, however, al-Hurra’s founding director of news, Mouafac Harb, stepped down following
a critical report by the Government Accountability Office about the station’s management and was replaced by Larry Register, a former CNN producer. Register sought to build an audience and
give the station credibility “by covering issues which Arabs actually cared about, featuring a wider, more diverse range of voices”, but this annoyed American conservatives, who then launched a campaign against him, alleging that al-Hurra had been
taken over by
Before long, the issue of al-Hurra’s news coverage reached Congress, where Gary Ackerman (a New York Democrat)
told a subcomittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs:
Press reports have detailed instances where Hassan Nasrallah [the leader of Hizbullah in Lebanon] was broadcast live, giving a speech inciting a crowd to violence and death against Israel and Israelis, in clear violation of the network’s guidelines prohibiting terrorists from using their programmes as a platform.
Similarly, Alhurra broadcast Palestinian Authority prime minister, Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh discussing the
Mecca Accord and, most distressingly, carried sympathetic coverage of the
Holocaust Deniers Conference in Tehran.
The last incident is particularly offensive. There is absolutely no doubt that the Holocaust occurred, none, and to provide news coverage in such a way as to legitimise those who suggest that it simply did not happen is outrageous.
Why are American taxpayer dollars used to spread hate, the lies and propaganda of these nuts, when our goal was to counter them? The Broadcasting Board of Governors has provided explanations for both Nasrallah’s speech and the Haniyeh coverage. The coverage of Haniyeh, one of the parties to the Mecca Accord, I understand.
I do not like it, but I understand it. The explanation for the Nasrallah speech, however, just does not stand up. Was it really a miscommunication? He spoke for more than 30 minutes live on our network, inciting violence against Israel. Doesn’t anybody watch the broadcasts are they are occurring to ensure that what is supposed to be broadcast actually is?
Notwithstanding the BBG’s explanation, I can only conclude, based on the trend of the last few months, that al-Hurra’s new executives have decided that pandering is a way to greater audience share. I am sure many members agree with me that if this is the new direction of al-Hurra, it is the wrong direction, and the American taxpayers certainly should not be made to pay for it if it
The exact nature of al-Hurra’s offences during this period is difficult to judge because the channel was not available in the US and did not provide transcripts of its programmes. The Tehran “holocaust denial” conference was widely reported in other news media, but the main complaints about Al-Hurra’s coverage appear to be that it allowed various statements to
pass unchallenged and that it exaggerated the significance of a group of anti-Zionist Jews who attended.
The two other complaints – about its broadcasting of the Hizbullah leader’s speech and remarks by Ismael Haniyeh of Hamas – highlighted the near-impossibility of providing coverage that was relevant to an Arab audience without arousing the ire of those who claimed to speak on behalf of US taxpayers.
Just eight months after his appointment, Larry Register resigned and, in Lynch’s view, any hope of establishing al-Hurra as a credible voice in the Middle East went with him. “Register's resignation,” he
wrote, “likely seals the fate of al-Hurra, which looks ever more like Radio and TV Marti - the anti-Castro stations beloved of American conservatives and Cuban exiles which maintains exorbitant budgets year after year even though hardly any Cubans ever tune in.”
In 2009, under the Obama administration, Congress
provided a further $112 million for al-Hurra, bringing the total up to $650 million. Around the same time, Brian Conniff, president of the Middle East Broadcasting Network which controls al-Hurra, argued that programme quality had improved. “Our audience has steadily grown and we are starting to hit our stride,"
General information from Wikipedia
Official website, in English and Arabic
Al Hurra TV
The Second Invasion, by Mike Whiney. Counterpunch magazine, 22 October, 2004
Comments on Radio Sawa and al-Hurra Television
by William Rugh. Testimony to Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, 29 April 2004. (PDF)
Al Hurra, still "A bad idea"
By James Zogby. Huffington Post, 28 December 2009.