ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
You know the US does not enjoy much popularity in the Middle East. To help, the government has launched a satellite channel called Al Hurra, or `the free one.' This is one of the biggest and most expensive efforts to sway foreign opinion over the airwaves since the Voice of America was founded more than 60 years ago. In the third part of our series on the Arab media, NPR's Eric Weiner has this report on a channel that's been called America's answer to Al-Jazeera.
ERIC WEINER reporting:
When Al Hurra launched last year, it wasn't exactly well-received in the Middle East.
(Soundbite of Al Hurra broadcast)
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
WEINER: After years of being subjected to their own state-run television, the last thing Arabs wanted to watch was more state-run TV, especially if that state happened to be America. A Saudi cleric even issued a fatwa or religious edict forbidding Muslims from watching the US-funded network. Yet, Al Hurra has attracted some Arab viewers like Mustafa Mahmoud(ph), a college student from Cairo.
Mr. MUSTAFA MAHMOUD (College Student): (Through Translator) I will watch some programs; for example, a sports programs they had the other day, the Olympic program. That I watched. But I don't watch it often.
WEINER: Al Hurra journalists say they cover the US, warts and all. They've aired reports about the desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay and the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Ramez Maluf is a professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.
Professor RAMEZ MALUF (Lebanese American University): They've had guests on their station that have been very confrontational about US policy and so forth. So this is giving it some credibility, I think. You know, one more station on my screen that I can choose to watch if they have something interesting.
WEINER: This Egyptian businessman named Gali(ph) also likes Al Hurra, but says the station is too slow when it comes to covering breaking news.
GALI (Egyptian Businessman): When something major happens, they are very late in reporting it. So if a person working there is listening to me, you better get your act together and start improving your breaking-news skills.
Mr. MOUAFAC HARB (News Director, Al Hurra): I give that gentleman credit, because it is true. Al Hurra is not an all-news channel.
WEINER: That's Moufac Harb, Al Hurra's news director. He concedes that the network has sometimes been slow to cover major events. After Israel assassinated the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin, Arab viewers who tuned to Al Hurra would have seen a cooking show. Part of the problem, says Mouafac Harb, is that Al Hurra has a much smaller news budget than its main rival, Al-Jazeera, but it has also made a conscious decision to broadcast more than just news.
(Soundbite of travel show)
Unidentified Man #1: I mean, I'm from the hood. You know, my thing is, like, from the street to the sweets. But this isn't the streets or the sweets.
WEINER: It airs travel shows, like this one, as well as NBA games and other slices of Americana. Again, Mouafac Harb.
Mr. HARB: Al Hurra is a beat. We provide the news. We don't cover up. But if you watch Al Hurra about technology issues, about NASA stories, health issues, fashion, good living, it gives a different feeling, what other channels are doing in the Middle East.
WEINER: That different feeling has not yet translated into a large audience. One independent survey, for instance, found that only about 16 percent of Saudis watch Al Hurra, about one-fifth the number who watch Al-Jazeera. Even some Arabs who describe themselves as pro-American say they are unimpressed with Al Hurra. Journalist Hisham Melhem says even the name Al Hurra, or `the free one,' leaves a bad taste in his mouth.
Mr. HISHAM MELHEM (Journalist): But they are claiming that they are the only free network in the Arab world, and the rest of us are not free. And I take a great deal of offense to that because I think that I'm doing a professional job, and I don't think they are as free as I am maybe.
WEINER: Even the network's promos irritate some Arabs. Jamal Dajani tracks the Arab media for Link TV.
Mr. JAMAL DAJANI (Link TV): They run their promo and they show you this Arab family and this Arab family sitting in the dark, and all of a sudden the logo of Al Hurra starts appearing, and the woman runs into the window and opens the window and looks outside toward the West and sees light. A lot of people think that's like you're trying to tell the Arabs that they're living in the dark ages, and now, if they look towards the West, then they are liberated and free.
WEINER: There is one medium where the US does seem to be reaching people. In fact, you might say that the root to Arab hearts and minds passes directly through Arab ears.
(Soundbite of song in foreign language; radio network theme music)
WEINER: US-sponsored Radio Sawa claims to be one of the most popular radio networks in the Middle East. Launched three years ago, it plays a combination of Western and Arabic music interspersed with brief newscasts. Ramez Maluf says the TV network Al Hurra could learn a thing or two from its radio cousin.
Prof. MALUF: Al Hurra's main purpose is to win the political argument. Radio Sawa's is to make the common man comfortable with the idea that he's listening to Western music as well as Arab music, and I think that's why you have this mix. It's much more subtle, and I think the purpose is slightly different.
WEINER: Arabs may listen to Radio Sawa and even occasionally watch Al Hurra TV, but does that make a difference? Does it improve America's image in the Middle East? Journalist Hisham Melhem says not really.
Mr. MELHEM: You may improve America's image on the margin, but you're not going to improve it in substance unless you deal with policy issue, core policy issue. This is not a question of packaging. And if that's the job of Sawa or that's the job of Al Hurra, you ain't going to do it.
WEINER: Mouafac Harb of Al Hurra says they ain't trying to do it, they're just trying to give Arabs another perspective, something other than the portrayal of Arabs as victims in places like Palestine and Iraq.
Mr. HARB: We're not the only solution, but we are part of an overall strategy. Hopefully, if it works, people's life would be better off.
WEINER: And US officials hope America's image will be better off as well. Congress' watchdog, the General Accountability Office, is currently investigating how Al Hurra and Radio Sawa are, quote, "contributing to national security interests." It's expected to issue a report sometime next year. Eric Weiner, NPR News.
CHADWICK: To hear the first two parts of this series, go to our Web site, npr.org. And tomorrow, Eric continues with a look at blogging in the Middle East.
Unidentified Man #2: OK, I want to start a Web site in English, and it is from Egypt. So what words to use, what name to use? So I came up with my name. I am the Big Pharaoh. I am known around the world by this name, BP or Big Pharaoh.
CHADWICK: BP, the Big Pharaoh. Get a load of his blog tomorrow right here.
I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY continues just ahead.
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