The Magazine

Hip, Hip, Al Hurra!

Explaining America to the Arabs--with no help from the State Department.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By ROBERT SATLOFF
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Instead, I concluded that Al Hurra should be the home for viewers starved for a free-thinking, progressive, intelligent alternative. It should be television for Arabs who want the unvarnished truth about what is going on in their own countries. And most of all, Al Hurra should be the preferred option for Arabs who want to understand what makes America tick--its politics, government, and society. Those curious, open-minded, eager-to-know Arabs are America's natural allies in the ideological contest against Islamic extremism. Done right, Al Hurra could connect with them--individually, on a daily basis--in a way not possible for any other public diplo macy initiative.

After a rocky start, the station has vastly improved its program content. Although not a disinterested observer, I say this as one of the few Americans who regularly watch Al Hurra, which is not available inside the United States. These days, the network is bolder than it was two years ago, much less risk-averse. Every week, for example, it airs a show called Equality, which stars a courageous Saudi woman who travels to Dubai to talk about the aspirations and frustrations of Arab women. For the Israeli elections last March, Al Hurra provided U.S.-style immersion coverage, bringing the mechanics of Israeli democracy to the TV sets of Arab viewers. The network even holds unprecedented town hall meetings in Arab cities during which usually taboo topics are the regular fare.

The A.C. Nielsen statistics show that more than 20 million Arabs watch Al Hurra each week. And the audience should be expanding: Just three months ago, Al Hurra extended its broadcast reach to the millions of Arabic-speakers in Europe. But perhaps the best measure of its progress is that it has gotten the attention of Arab regimes. The Syrian government kicked Al Hurra out of the country after the first of three scheduled town hall meetings, and a number of brave Arab liberals have been arrested after giving provocative interviews to the station. Critics whose views about Al Hurra were formed by the network's problematic early months on the air have a responsibility to give it a second look.

To be sure, Al Hurra has a long way to go. Two areas where it should be leading the pack are local and investigative reporting inside the Middle East and programming that explains America to Arab viewers.

Precisely because Al Hurra is not beholden to any Arab government, it is uniquely positioned to speak truth to power. Solidly reported local stories that expose waste, fraud, and corruption can both empower popular opposition to our adversaries and strengthen the institutions of accountability among our friends. Some of those friendly Arab governments throw towering obstacles in the way of Al Hurra journalists and technicians. Their hostility toward a U.S. satellite station that broadcasts over their heads into the cafés and living rooms of their people should be no surprise.

As for covering America, Al Hurra has a comparative advantage over its competition that it has not yet exploited. For all the poll data about how much Arabs hate America, my own experience is that they actually can't get enough of it. If Al Hurra performs no other service, it should at least be the satellite channel to which Arabs turn when they want to know what the U.S. government and the American people are thinking.

But this turns out to be more difficult than it sounds. The professional community of U.S. Middle East scholars is no help; its members universally dismiss Al Hurra as irrelevant. Most of these people hold remarkably strong opinions about a network few have ever watched. But since most academic Middle East experts believe anything connected to the U.S. government is toxic, their dismissal of Al Hurra is fore ordained.

Among key constituencies inside Washington, the situation is little better. Traditional government broadcasters, like the Voice of America, dislike Al Hurra because the upstart took assets and funding from existing operations. The old USIA crowd dislikes Al Hurra because its own hard-earned expertise--reaching out to captive nations under the thumb of Communist dictatorships--isn't directly applicable to a station seeking to appeal to viewers in countries whose friendly dictators we don't want to overthrow, but do want to prod toward democracy.

Most damaging of all, many in the State Department strongly disapprove of Al Hurra. Some believe the station unnecessarily complicates relations with Arab capitals. Others are irked because Al Hurra's sizable chunk of funding is controlled by the semi-autonomous Broadcasting Board of Governors, not by Foggy Bottom. Especially dismaying to me, as the host of a show trying to boost Arab understanding of Washington, is the stunning indifference to the success of Al Hurra shown by those people in the Bush administration who should be among its strongest supporters.