Tuesday, December 22, 2009

al-Hurra and Propaganda

Most Americans have never heard of Al-Hurra, for good reason. The Arabic language station, based in northern Virginia and funded by the U.S with a $100 million yearly budget, is legally barred from broadcasting in the U.S by the Smith-Mundt Actwhich stipulates government funded propaganda cannot target domestic audiences. Of course not many people outside the U.S watch the station either. A poll by Zogby International indicated the station's audience share fell from 2% in 2008 to .5% in 2009. Spokespeople for the agency overseeing al-Hurra, the Broadcasting Board of Governors prefer to focus on how many people could watch the station, if they wanted to. "Alhurra now reaches 26.7 million people weekly across the Middle East, up almost one million in the last year," declared Letitia King, a spokeswoman for the group "these are solid numbers by any measure. Fran Mires, host of the al-Youma news show, boasts of filling a niche in the Arab market: showing from both Beirut and Jerusalem on the screen on the same time. “That’s what our competitors don’t do,” she says. Yasser Thabet, a former editor for the station offers a different image. "If some problem happened on the air," he said "people would just joke with each other, saying, 'Well, nobody watches us anyway."

Given the number of problems, that is perhaps a blessing for its producers. Along with interviews with U.S favorites and officials the station has featured favorable coverage of a Holocaust denial conference. In 2004, when other Arabic stations interrupted their programming to cover the assassination of the spiritual leader of Hamas al-Hurra broadcast a cooking show. The official tasked with managing the station can't even understand Arabic. The news director has no background in journalism. The station has taken to adding Arabic subtitles to English language shows and has purchased programming from BBC Arabic in attempt to boost ratings, which have now declined to less than the margin of error in viewership surveys.

Photo: Incompetence has so thoroughly characterized recent U.S government policy in the Middle East that it has failed even in the information war. Its al-Hurra propaganda network broadcast an uninterrupted hour long speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Past the incompetence of this operation, though, lies an important issue: why is the U.S government funding propaganda broadcasts to the Arab world. It isn't a novel policy. Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia have been in operation for decades. The Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq spent $100 million to commander the infrastructure of Saddam's media network and establish the Iraqi Media Network, which unlike the bungled al-Hurra network is regularly viewed by about 40% of Iraqis. In the early days of his Presidency George W. Bush realized the U.S had an image problem in the Middle East. The policies that created this problem were non-negotiable, so the focus necessarily shifted towards spinning them in a positive direction.

American officials hoped what they dubbed Bush's answer to al-Jazeera, the most expensive propaganda project since the launch of Radio Free Europe in 1942, could sway Arab public opinion and mitigate the impact of coverage by al-Jazeera, whose Doha headquarters President Bush reputedly considered bombing during the siege of Fallujah. That seriously misinterprets the U.S's unpopularity in the Middle East. Americans are easy to propagandize. In the U.S, the media market is saturated, indeed dominated, by outlets subservient to U.S interests. That is not the case in the Arab world. Juxtaposed against the images of a more ruthless American power being exercised visible on mainstream networks, commentaries by American spokespeople only serve to add hypocrisy to their government's perception in the Middle East. More importantly, Arabs understand more about global power structure by living their lives than American do by viewing their mainstream media. How much anti-U.S propaganda does it take to radicalize someone whose relative has been killed by an American soldier in Iraq, who has been tortured by an American backed dictatorship, whose neighbor's home has been destroyed by an American supplied missile? No amount of spin will change that.

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