Some three weeks ago the United States sent out a broadcast signal version of a Valentine's Day greeting card to win Arab hearts and minds. No Hallmark sentimentality like, "I'm thinking of you," but rather this greeting came in the form of a U.S. Government-funded Arabic language network with the very propagandistic moniker of "The Free One."
Al Hurra's free press mandate is to challenge what the U.S. Administration and the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees international broadcasting perceive, as the hate media in the Arab region. In particular, Al Hurra offers a U.S. response to the barrage of anti-U.S. and anti-Israel stories and sensationalized imagery coming from the more popular networks of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.
President Bush says that Al Hurra will help combat "the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world and tell people the truth about the values and policies of the United States." It seems to be doing so from a safe distance. Al Hurra is based, not in the Middle East, but in northern Virginia, U.S.A.
While you might think that eyeballs would be glued to the U.S.-declared truthful alternative, so far no one is fully embracing the "free one" version, despite financing of $62 million in congressional funding for the first year alone.
A quick review of some of the global media reaction spells trouble for Al Hurra. Arab newspaper editorials have been universally thumbs down on the new broadcast alternative, with the not unexpected negative reaction of "it's all American propaganda, anyway." The Cairo Times said that many Egyptians remain "guarded" in their reaction and are suspicious of the new station's propagandistic potential to shape news from a pro-U.S., pro-Israeli governmental perspective. The most prestigious Arabic-language newspaper, Al Ahram, said "It is difficult to understand how the U.S. , with its advanced research centers and clever minds, explains away Arab hatred as a product of a demagogic media and not due to its biased policies and propensity to abuse Arab interests."
Arab News, the Middle East''s leading English daily, reports a "cool reception" to Al Hurra, which some viewers see as "short on credibility and long on arrogance." Ouch! Not the long and the short of it you want.
The former minister of information in Kuwait, Dr. Saad Al Ajmi, reports a mixed review. In a special to the Gulf News, he says that "there is most certainly a vacuum for it [Al Hurra] to fill. Before Al Hurra, America had no satellite television voice in the Arab world... Al Hurra is playing catch up, and it remains to be seen if it will be successful."
CNN did dominate the Arab airwaves in the early 1990s but this was during the last war in the Gulf and before Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya came along to challenge this English-language global media station that was accessible to only English-speaking elites in the region.
What remains to be seen is if those who initially condemn the network will find curiosity getting the best of them and sneak a peek, if nothing else, to see if Al Hurra offers anything new and different in both content and production value.
Against a backdrop of anti-Americanism and an unfinished roadmap to peace in the Middle East, it's doubtful that many hearts and minds will be won for now. The U.S. just doesn't have the freedom credibility it wants to project to the Middle East. Just calling a network free doesn't make it so, especially one tied so closely to the U.S. government.
Telling to some Arab viewers was that President Bush was the first guest interviewed on Al Hurra. Al Quds Al Arabi, a newspaper generally critical of the U.S., said that the Bush interview "brought to mind official channels broadcast by regimes mired in dictatorship, just like those of the 1960s and beginning of the `70s."
The greatest hurdle to overcome seems to be in the naming of the station itself. To many, if Al Hurra represents "the free ones" then that makes "us" the unfree ones. This magic bullet theory of communication assumes that the sender's need for more free speech and more accurate information about itself in a region coincides with the receiver's needs. But many naysayers to Al Hurra say that the U.S. still "just doesn't get it" about what the Arab audience true needs are.
One magazine writer, Amy Moufai, told an NBC News producer in Cairo that she hadn't watched the new U.S. network, but was "very surprised they would choose a name like that which highlights the fact they don't know what they are doing in the Middle East. It reeks of the whole notion of a white man's bread. `Let us teach you our free ways.'"
The United States, "the big one," tends to associate better communication with more information. If we can just get our message out there, make it louder, make it stronger, make it bolder, then we'll be well on our way to repairing miscommunication problems. But just maybe what is sought is more respectability and acknowledgment that U.S. geopolitical and economic interests in the region don't often match up to how the Arab people perceive freedom, particularly from despotic government intervention.
A government-led free press is a harsh reminder of a region dominated by unfree governments. And no slick slogans or pretty newsroom sets are going to overcome those realities.