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U.S. Shelves Arabic `Propaganda' Mag
Published on Friday, December 23, 2005 by the Toronto Star
U.S. Shelves Arabic `Propaganda' Mag
Tried to improve America's image
But critics derided it as not credible
by Tim Harper
 

WASHINGTON—There is sadness in the Arab world today among NASCAR fans, aficionados of U.S. men's fashions and those seeking more information on Washington's healthy eating pyramid or American dating standards.

The U.S. state department announced yesterday it was suspending publication of Hi Magazine, its glossy, monthly attempt to win the hearts and minds of young Arabs, part of a communications troika it established following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In saying 'bye to Hi, the state department acknowledged the dialogue it had sought with the Arab world had become a one-way conversation.

The magazine had been derided by commentators in the Arab world as "schlock'' or "brainwashing'' and one had dubbed it the CIA's official publication.

The decision to suspend publication was made by Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, the fast-talking former adviser and political spinner for fellow Texan George W. Bush.

"The state department is conducting a review of its Arabic-language magazine, Hi, to assess whether the magazine is meeting its objectives effectively,'' said spokesperson Sean McCormack.

The U.S. government has been spending $4.5 million (U.S.) annually since July 2003, trying to bring its own particular take on American life to a target Arab demographic aged 18-35.

Along with Al-Hurra TV and Radio Sawa, Hi was a three-pronged $62 million (U.S.) annual effort to counter anti-Americanism in countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and others.

"Like other parts of our new diplomatic effort, it was not seen as something credible,'' said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations.

"It was seen as propaganda and it wasn't doing what it was supposed to be doing. The very fact that it was being published by our government meant it had two strikes against it from the beginning.''

Hughes has first-hand knowledge of the difficulty in selling American standards in the Arab world. When she spoke about women's rights before 700 Saudi Arabian women in September, she was told that contrary to what Washington kept saying, Saudi women were happy.

When Hughes questioned whether they should have the right to drive, one woman asked why she would want to drive when she had a driver.

The magazine also had to overcome Arab anger over the Iraqi occupation and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and allegations of maltreatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees.

McCormack said the magazine's website will remain, but the magazine never expanded its circulation. Of the 55,000 copies distributed, only 2,500 were purchased on any given month, the state department said.

The Arab press was replete with stories of untouched stacks of the magazine at kiosks in major cities.

"It costs $4.5 million annually,'' McCormack said. "I don't know what that averages out to per month, but you save money while you're actually not publishing it.''

Shortly after it hit the Arab street, the Al-Ahram Weekly in Egypt wrote, "many critics think the magazine is too naive to be anything other than an exercise in brainwashing.''

After a couple of issues, the U.S.-based Middle East Report weighed in.

"At a time when the U.S. really ought to be engaging in frank dialogue and genuine debate about ideas with people from the Middle East, it is hard to imagine Hi failing more spectacularly.''

One recent issue featured an article on male grooming that began: "These days, more and more men use skin moisturizers. In fact, some of them, like Michael Gustman, a 25-year-old public relations account executive from Boca Raton, Florida, even have separate moisturizers for the face and body. Facial pores can clog with too heavy a salve, it seems.''

In a piece entitled "Work Versus Family," Arab readers were told: "American women have never had more freedom to choose their life paths. But with choice comes pressure — and options.''

When the magazine was launched, Christopher Datta of the state department said it would counter disinformation or distorted images of America in the Arab world.

2005 Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd.

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