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Al Hurra faces uphill task

The US government’s new Arabic language television station fights to gain respect.

The US government has taken the wraps off Al Hurra, its long awaited Arabic language television station. It completes the ‘set’ of American funded media launches designed specifically to target Arabs in their own language.

Radio Sawa, just ten months old, is a runaway success and the glossy magazine ‘hi’, about American culture and lifestyle, was launched last summer and is now available across the Middle East.

Al Hurra, meaning The Free One, is a free to air 24 hour news and entertainment station. It has cost the US taxpayer $62 million and began broadcasting in the last week of February with a programme and information mix that, according to President George W. Bush, would “cut through the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world.”

A further $40 million has been set aside for a special Al Hurra Iraq, which will be available both via satellite and terrestrially throughout Iraq.

The channel’s opening was marked by an exclusive interview with the US leader, but, as the whole operation is funded by the US government, nobody was expecting that it would be the hardest of interrogations.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told the Associated Press that the interview allows Bush to tell of, “his commitment to spreading freedom and democracy in the Middle East.”

Al Hurra’s pre-launch publicity said it would strive for objectivity and tolerance as a counter to official America’s view of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which it sees as anti-US. Its executives have also done their research on the region.

They want Al Hurra to be in tune with its Arabic audience, relying for that on its Lebanese-born news director Mouafac Harb, who is a former Washington bureau chief for the London based Arabic daily Al Hayat. Bert Kleinman, the network’s public relations director, said that people in Egypt and Bahrain who had taken part in focus groups during the planning stages had used words like “tolerant”, “empowering” and “fair and balanced” when presented with the station’s agenda.

Kleinman did, however, admit that when they were asked whether they thought such a fair and balanced channel could be American, some answered “definitely not.”

Washington’s hope is that a fashionably produced Arab-language station will help stem anti-American sentiment fuelled by the war on terrorism, the occupation of Iraq and US support for Israel. It was designed along the same lines as the hugely successful Arabic language Radio Sawa, which appeals to the region’s youth with a mix of music and news.

It only began transmissions in April 2003, shortly before Saddam Hussein was toppled, and within six months a well respected audience researcher named it as one of the most popular stations in the region, even if its listeners did seek their news elsewhere.

The task for Al Hurra is, however, clearly going to be an uphill one. “The main goals of launching such a channel are to create drastic changes in our principles and doctrines,” said Jamil Abu-Bakr, spokesman for Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood. “But the nature of Arab and Muslim societies and their rejection and hatred of American policies will ultimately limit the impact.”

“Al Hurra, like the US government’s Radio Sawa and ‘Hi’ magazine before it, will be an entertaining, expensive, and irrelevant hoax,” added Rami G. Khouri, executive editor of Lebanon’s The Daily Star. “Where do they get this stuff from? Why do they keep insulting us like this?”

The Arab Broadcasting Union and Egypt’s Ministry of Information were also heavily criticised for providing Al Hurra with satellite space from which to broadcast into the region.

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