Profile: New Arabic Language Network The Bush Administration is Launching Called ALHurra

All Things Considered: February 7, 2004

Live from Virginia, It's Alhurra



STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Secretary Rumsfeld also complained today about the Arabic language media calling channels like Al-Jazeera `inexcusably biased.' `There is nothing you can do about it,' he said, `except try to counteract it.' That's exactly what the US government is trying to do by building a new television channel intended as a kind of bridge to the Middle East.

SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION

INSKEEP: Construction workers are installing wires in the ceiling of an office building outside Washington, DC. It's the home of a new government-run television channel. It will broadcast by satellite to all 22 Arab countries in Arabic starting later this month. The staff is already working amid rows of computer terminals.

Mr. NORM PATTIZ (Broadcasting Board of Governors): We're standing right now in the newsroom of Alhurra, which is going to be our new 24/7 Arabic language television network.

INSKEEP: That's Norm Pattiz, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. That US government board oversees the Voice of America broadcasts. Now it's spending $62 million to start up Alhurra, which is Arabic for `the free one.'

Mr. PATTIZ: There's going to be a lot of people who are going to assume that we're not going to be objective. They're going to assume that we're going to be the mouthpiece for the United States government. They're going to assume that we're going to do propaganda. So it's going to be very, very important for us to get past those hurdles, to let them know that our mission is to promote democracy through the free flow of accurate, reliable and credible news and information.

INSKEEP: As soon as your anchors say they're broadcasting from this studio in Washington...

Mr. PATTIZ: Right.

INSKEEP: ...don't they have a strike against them?

Mr. PATTIZ: I don't think so. I mean...

SOUNDBITE OF OBJECT CRASHING

Mr. PATTIZ: I guess they do.

INSKEEP: There's a strike right now.

Mr. PATTIZ: I guess they do.

INSKEEP: Workers are still assembling the Alhurra newsroom, which is decorated with luminous blue maps of the Middle East. When he's not overseeing Middle East projects for the Broadcasting Board, Norm Pattiz has another job as chairman of the Westwood One radio network. He's a Los Angeles media executive with a sharp gray suit and gleaming white teeth. He's confident that Arab viewers will at least try out the new television channel.

Mr. PATTIZ: We will be sampled. I don't think there's any doubt about that, that people will be interested in what it is we have to say and that they will be skeptical and it's our job to keep those listeners and viewers viewing.

INSKEEP: From the American perspective, it's obvious, or it seems obvious, what the difference would be between this channel and, say, Al-Jazeera, but from an Arab's perspective, someone who maybe turns on Al-Jazeera and thinks their news is very interesting, very entertaining and very credible, what will your channel offer that Al-Jazeera will not?

Mr. PATTIZ: Well, it will be a difference in perspective more than anything else. You know, when you take a look at what's being broadcast on Al-Jazeera and a lot of the other television--especially satellite television networks, it comes down to two lead stories pretty much. It comes down to Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and they hammer those subjects over and over and over again. And it would make you feel that there's nothing else going on in the region. Well, we are certainly going to cover Iraq and we are certainly going to cover the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but we're going to cover a whole lot of other things that are not being covered that our research indicates that our audience is very, very interested in.

INSKEEP: Give me some examples.

Mr. PATTIZ: Well, the relationships between, you know, local governments and their people, you know, corruption that goes on.

INSKEEP: Well, now that's a really interesting thought because if you're talking about investigating corruption in Egypt, say, you're talking about saying unpleasant things about a very close ally of the United States.

Mr. PATTIZ: Right.

INSKEEP: Will you be doing that? Really?

Mr. PATTIZ: Well, if it's news, we'll be doing that.

INSKEEP: It's easy to see a connection between President Bush's stated policy of encouraging Arab democracy and the broadcasts that are being planned in this studio.

Mr. PATTIZ: We're moving now from the newsroom and we're walking into the actual broadcast set. Now I think they're actually doing some rehearsing right now, so I don't know that we can really walk out on to that set. We can? OK. Great.

Unidentified Woman: OK. Guys, we're going to do it over again, music and music and everything. We're going to cut to camera three, going to come back to Testia(ph) on camera one.

INSKEEP: Two of Alhurra's anchors are rehearsing on the set, a man and a woman, both tall and glamorous.

Unidentified Woman: Stand by, guys.

Unidentified Man: (Arabic spoken)

INSKEEP: They come from Arab nations like most of the employees. Some of the women here wear traditional dress and cover their hair while others wear high heels and leather pants. The staff includes some American citizens, like senior producer Imad Musa, whose decision to come here surprised people at his old job. He was working in the Washington bureau of Al-Jazeera.

Mr. IMAD MUSA (Senior Producer, Alhurra): Everybody else was asking me, `Why do you want to do propaganda? Why do you want to leave, you know, a place where you can do whatever you want and you have, you know, editorial freedom to a place where, you know, you might be restricted?' But I wouldn't have jumped if I didn't know that I'll be allowed to, you know, present the news as my conscience, you know, allows me.

INSKEEP: Do these guys pay better?

Mr. MUSA: Yeah, that, too.

INSKEEP: OK.

Mr. MUSA: But everybody tries to simplify and say, `Oh, everybody wants to work here for greenbacks and green cards,' but for some people, I don't know, it might be true. But, for me, I mean, this is my ticket to live in the United States. I've, you know, lived here all my life.

INSKEEP: The news staff will be working with correspondents in Alhurra's overseas bureaus who'll send reports from Baghdad or Jerusalem to supplement the interviews conducted here.

Mr. PATTIZ: What we're walking through right now is our smaller set where we'll be doing interview shows, roundtables, dialogues, things of that sort, and then will also be the main news set for our Iraqi stream. Within the next 60 days, we'll be launching a separate Alhurra-Iraqi stream which will be broadcasting strictly to Iraq for 12 hours a day.

INSKEEP: Norm Pattiz hopes the programs that come out of these studios will look as appealing as Al-Jazeera but that they will sound very different. We learn more when we met Alhurra's director of network news, Mouafac Harb, who has strong opinions about the Arabic language media.

Mr. MOUAFAC HARB (Director, News Media; Alhurra): There is one common threat in the coverage of events in the Arab world, especially when it comes to Arab affairs: Arab humiliation. There is one story. And who's behind that? America. From corruption to regimes to, if you don't have democracy or employment, if your economy is not doing well, if prices of oil go down, there is always a conspiracy theory that dominates Arab politics and somehow Arab media.

INSKEEP: On Alhurra, Mouafac Harb plans to offer an alternate view of the world. He's a Lebanese native who used to write for the Arabic language newspaper Al-Hayat. Then as an American citizen, he went to work for the US government. He helped to start a radio station broadcasting to the Arab world before setting out to build a television audience.

Mr. HARB: We do not jihad on our channel like other channels do, so...

INSKEEP: Give me some common terms that are used in the Arab language media that you would not use or you'd use a different term.

Mr. HARB: I mean, I would not say martyrs.

INSKEEP: You wouldn't call a suicide bomber a martyr?

Mr. HARB: No. I mean, even Muslim scholars are debating whether that guy should be a martyr or not. This is a religious term. It's an opinion. It's siding with one side.

INSKEEP: Are there other?

Mr. HARB: You know, I, personally, you know, maybe if you read an English language dispatch about the Iraqi resistance today, if you translate the word `resistance,' a literal translation into Arabic, it means muqawama. Muqawama has ...(unintelligible) in the Arabic language as heroic. I would not translate resistance into its term in Arabic although some people would use it here because we don't think today that a lot of Iraqis consider what's going on in Iraq as a muqawama.

INSKEEP: What phrase will you use?

Mr. HARB: I would call them the way they are.

INSKEEP: Which is?

Mr. HARB: I would say, `Unknown gunman. Anyone claimed responsibility? We don't know.' We would say `suspected,' you know, `remnants of the former Iraqi regime attack an American convoy today and killed two soldiers.' If they killed civilians, we'd say civilians.

INSKEEP: In recent days, David Kay, the former US weapons inspector, declared that as far as he's concerned there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If you guys were on the air, how would you have handled that story?

Mr. HARB: It's a story whether we like it or not. I mean, it's--and if people don't watch it on our channel, they have a lot of varieties where they can watch it. I will guarantee this is how we will play first of all. Definitely, it's newsworthy. I want to make sure that I bring someone to reply and say, `No, this guy was wrong.' So we'll place it in context, of course, and the same about...

INSKEEP: You would go find someone to say that David Kay is wrong.

Mr. HARB: Absolutely. Not only that, I will go to Iraq and I will go and bring some Iranian soldiers and some Iraqis that were subject to chemical weapons. I will go and talk to some Kurds from Halabja and bring them over and show their burned arms and I will ask maybe David Kay if he's willing to appear and say, `Is that evidence?' You know, we'll try to get all elements of the story.

INSKEEP: Is that element that you just raised relevant to the question of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the last few years leading up to this war?

Mr. HARB: Absolutely, because the way it's presented right now to the Middle East that Iraq never had chemical weapons.

INSKEEP: So Alhurra may remind viewers of incidents like that attack on Halabja which took place in 1988. Mouafac Harb knows he'll be trying to persuade a skeptical audience. During his recent travels in the Middle East, he has observed focus groups where ordinary Arabs speak their minds. He says he found that people have been getting angrier and angrier at everything American. That's the problem that Alhurra is intended to solve. It is also the first difficulty that the US government-run television channel will have to overcome.

After the new channel goes on the air, we'll speak to some Alhurra viewers to learn what they think. And if you want to see pictures of the new studios, you can go to our Web site at npr.org.

Copyright 2003 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information, please contact NPR's Permissions Coordinator at (202) 513-2000.

This transcript was created by a contractor for NPR, and NPR has not verified its accuracy. For all NPR programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version.