Unspinning the spin

Amidst all the talk about bridging the cultural gap and encouraging dialogue between Arabs and the West, one radio station believes it is doing just that. But some Arabs say, ‘No thank you.’

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  November 25, 2002

|~||~||~|Radio Sawa has taken the Middle East by storm. Well, it’s caused a stir at least. You hear it at the shopping malls, in taxis, and you can tune in on the internet. The station, which means ‘together’ in Arabic, was launched in March 2002 with US $35 million of US government funding.

The station says it is reaching out to the young population of Arabs (under 30s). But there is a profound difference in how Americans view the station and what Arabs think about the new replacement for the Arabic service of Voice of America (VOA). The station, which broadcasts in Amman, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and Kuwait, aims to reduce anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. Its mission says, Joan Mower, Radios Sawa’s communication’s director, “is to deliver news and information in a balanced and accurate form.”

The music is OK, Arabs say. Mixing Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys with local Arab pop stars is palatable, making Radio Sawa enormously popular among Arab youth. Of 500 people surveyed in Jordan between August and September 2002, 41% of the respondents in the Radio Sawa target audience (17-28 year olds) said they listened to Radio Sawa more than any other station, according to Edison Media Research of Somerville, New Jersey. “It’s no secret 65% of the Arab population is under the age of 25 so you try and reach the widest audience as possible. We want to be heard, we want people to listen and we want the widest audience possible,” says Sawa’s news editor, Mouafac Harb, formerly head of the Washington bureau of the Al Hayat newspaper based in London.

“Sawa in Jordan is now the number one station in terms of listeners, it has achieved its goal of getting the layman interested in Western pop, by playing one Arabic song followed by one foreign song. If that’s not an example of successful Westernisation, I don’t know what is,” says Zeid Nasser, a Jordan-based writer and media specialist. The next most listened to station was the Jordanian Government’s Amman FM at 18%. The one other figure Arabian Business was able to obtain was that 39% of the respondents in Jordan said Radio Sawa had the most trustworthy news. The radio station did not supply figures for the Gulf.
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Some argue that the VOA was a genuine news organisation dedicated to independent journalism, which was always getting into trouble with Congress for that reason. Radio Sawa, which has replaced it, is seen more of a propaganda tool and that its news division, in particular, is highly ideological. For example, its news editor, Lebanese Mouafac Harb, boasted to the Los Angeles Times, “The only news bite I will use for Saddam Hussein is when he says, ‘I am surrendering.’”

This attitude, some might argue, is in stark contrast to that of professional journalists and reinforces the notion that the new face of the US media in the region is glib, superficial, and as unbalanced in its news coverage, some say, as US government policy is in its diplomacy.

“The people in Washington who came up with the idea [of Radio Sawa] actually think they are pushing an agenda. But in reality, who cares? In this age where you have satellite, internet and mobile phones, who needs a radio station to promote a political agenda?” says Fares Ghneim, a public relations professional in Dubai. “I think the radio Free Europe concept has outlived its purpose and Uncle Samuel Rubenstein needn’t bother with us. And in any case, the Yanks won’t sway Arab public opinion with a few bits of propaganda on a radio station; their actions on the ground in Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere more than cancel out any positive gains in public opinion that might be gained through Sawa.”

Harb, however, emphasises the station’s journalistic credentials. “I don’t think we are there to make foreign policy, we are journalists, we are not policy makers,” says Harb. “We are a radio station, we have a journalistic mission and we report the news. Definitely, we would love to clear any misunderstanding. If we can get Arabs and Americans to love each other and understand each other that would be a plus.”

But mention the station’s news to Arabs and you risk unleashing an endless barrage of criticism. Although the station is widely listened to, many Arabs say that beneath this attractive veneer is an attempt to propagate US views of the world. Arabs are suspicious of the station; they say it spews propaganda, that it is deceptively innocuous and that the job of a news station is to deliver news and not send out cosmetically packaged propaganda.

“They don’t call a spade a spade. I am talking about extremists in Israel or the US; they call them rightist but this is wrong. As is the case with Palestinians or Arabs and Moslems, they are always called ‘extremist radicals’ or ‘terrorists’. If a Palestinian is defending himself, he is a terrorist that must be exterminated; if Israeli settlers are killing civilian Palestinians, they are defending democracy,” says Samer Batter, a journalist in Dubai.

A chief executive of a software company, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he pays a lot of attention to the news Sawa beams out, and to its choice of words. He singles out examples of using a ‘terrorist attack’, ‘terrorist attacker’ or ‘suicide bomber’ to replace ‘Shaheed’ (martyr), ‘Ameliya estash-hadiya’ (martyr mission).
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But Harb says all the allegations of partiality are “not true.”
“I oversee the news. People give their opinion about Radio Sawa based on misperceptions of Radio Sawa and most of the accusations that we get, no one ever presented us with fact that this is how you reported it and it is wrong,” says Harb.

Some listeners say the two brief newsbreaks that Sawa has at quarter past and quarter to the hour, are “a ploy to catch people at a time when there’s no other news on.” Harb says this is nothing more than a programming gimmick. “We think this is the right spot to put our newscast. It is a programming exercise that we decided to do it that way,” he says. Arabs who have tuned in to the radio station dismiss the news slant as ‘propaganda.’ Nonsense, says Harb. “This word propaganda is from the Cold War. I don’t think there is a hidden agenda in what we are doing. We are reporting the news and I think the people are smart enough to tell the difference between propaganda and news,” says Harb.

However, a well educated public relations executive begs to differ. “Radio Sawa has a political agenda to send out key political, social and cultural messages packaged in a way to appeal to America’s target audience in the Arabic and Islamic worlds,” says the public relations executive. “It wants to attract the younger population and create an appealing platform that makes the Arab youth more accepting of, and probably to adopt, the American culture and way of life. Those messages are contradictory to the factual political messages that are coming through the actual actions and foreign policy of the US. If the US wants to regain the confidence of the Arabs, it will take more than Radio Sawa. The whole point of having this radio is a bit dubious,” she adds.

Comments made by an American educated Jordanian woman that she, “feels Arabs are under scrutiny, that Americans want to get to the Arab community through media manipulation,” don’t bode well with Sawa’s news editor. “People in the Arab world, rightly so, mistrust anything that comes on their airwaves and what they are doing is applying certain guidelines of the state run radio and TV outlets in the Arab world to our radio,” says Harb.

Moreover, he feels responsible to the American people, not the government. “The US government may fund us, but we are funded by taxpayers, by the people. We are not a mouthpiece for the [US] government. I understand why people would think we are that way but we are not that way and it takes time for them to discover the we are not that way. They believe anything that is state run means covering up the news, spinning, manipulation, and American taxpayers are not going to fund a radio station to hide the truth or not tell the truth.”

But Waleed Gumaa, a technology consultant, says, “I believe they are airing an American point of view which is fair. However, the one sidedness is that they don’t do the same in America!”

Others believe the criticism maybe excessive. “I am not sure what all the fuss is about. Sawa Radio is a station that plays a good mix of Arabic and English music geared mainly towards the younger generation with what seems to be an objective news programs,” says Johnny Abedrabbo, an economist in Saudi Arabia. “ The question is not whether the station has an agenda or not, every station has an agenda. The question is will this format succeed or not,” he adds. ||**||

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