The trouble with Alhurra
Since its launch in 2004 Alhurra Satellite TV and its sister Radio Sawa have cost the American tax-payers more than 700 million US dollars. Alhurra’s remit was to win hearts and minds in the Arab World. Since its launch Alhurra has been at the receiving end of severe criticism. I cannot count the number of critical articles written by so many people. But I haven’t seen many articles offering solutions.
As usual it is much easier to be negative and critical than be positive offering remedies. I for one don’t wish to be in the shoes of those responsible for running the much maligned channel. The reason I am saying this is the unenviable position the Alhurra management finds itself in. How can they do their media job properly whilst constantly looking over their shoulders to avoid upsetting this Lobby or that Congressman? You just cannot run a news channel under such conditions. I recognize that the whole media business is a minefield and no more so than in the unstable Middle East.
But let us first take a look at the shortcomings highlighted by various bodies and critics.
We are told that Alhurra suffers from management and staffing problems.
Several investigations took place over the last few years by public agencies such as “60 minutes”, Pro-Publica and so on.
In December 2008 the University of Southern California Centre on Public Diplomacy reported that Alhurra failed to meet basic journalistic standards. It suffered from poor programming and financial mismanagement.
In 2009 The Inspectors General’s report criticised poor communications in the news operation with a management that keeps changing its mind, giving vague answers or no answers to questions and enquiries. But it also stated that Alhurra needed more transparency and tighter spending controls.
In a report by the BBG, the supervisory Broadcasting Board of Governors in a Congressional Research Service Report described the management as poor.
So now we know that the troubled American Arabic language satellite television station Alhurra has management problems and it has performance deficiencies. So we now have the picture of an expensive PR tool that is not delivering significant audiences. How do we know? How do we verify that?
Who is watching?
Defenders of Alhurra tell us that it can reach 27 million Arabic speakers who can watch it across the Middle East. What does this exactly mean? It is like saying many millions can watch this film or that, but how many exactly bother to watch?
The assertion that “x” million Arabic speakers can watch this or that does not mean much. The question is how many are actually watching? How do we measure performance? Some studies show that Alhurra has achieved 9% viewership which many believe is an exaggeration. Sceptics think it is more like 2%. The Station has failed to gain market share. A survey by Intermedia who designed polls conducted by A C Nielsen in 2009 showed that in Egypt the biggest Arab Country in terms of population, Alhurra ranked 18, and in Jordan it ranked 14. In Oman it ranked 11 and it dropped to 19 in UAE where only 2 adults of the sample surveyed said they had watched the channel the day before, compared to 61 who turned into Al-Jazeera.
The Centre on Public Diplomacy recommended that Alhurra develops alternative methods of measuring impact on audience. But what is certain and I say this as keen observer of Arab Satellite Media that Alhurra has no tangible market share, no political clout and no impact except perhaps in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Lebanon. Does this surprise anyone?
When Alhurra was launched in 2004, the Arab World was already saturated by Satellite News Channels. News channels broadcasting in Arabic mushroomed in the Middle East. Two profit-making news channels, Sky News and Fox News both owned by Rupert Murdoch are planning to start Arabic language channels.
The fact that the Station is funded by USA has become a stigma and a heavy burden on the shoulders of the beleaguered channel. Everyone I know and everyone I spoke to thinks that Alhurra is propaganda tool. Besides; Alhurra failed to cause controversy, it failed to rock boats and it failed to make an impression on the Middle East media Richter scale.
There was a big fuss when a guest speaking from the occupied West Bank in June 2008 described Israel as an occupying racist power. The presenter/newsreader was criticised for not objecting. How could he? If he said “Oh no Israel is not an occupier and is not a racist country” he is not doing his job. This should be the job of a pro-Israeli guest. You just cannot control what a guest is going to say.
When Larry Register a former news director at Alhurra tried to make the Channel more credible, he was savagely attacked for covering a conference in Iran and for broadcasting a Hezbollah speech.
Whether we like it or not the Middle East region is full of bad regimes, rogue states and extremist organizations, but since they exist and what they say and do can affect us all, we are entitled to hear them and see them. Are we to impose a blanket blackout on what they say or do just to please political pressure groups and lobbyists? Register was eventually forced to quit in June 2007 amid criticism that Alhurra aired unchallenged anti-American and anti-Israeli statements? This can be easily fixed by having guest speakers to do the necessary rebutting.
Alhurra needs a complete overhaul that must include structural and personnel changes. Incompetent people should be replaced. With 650 employees it is too big and unwieldy. You could run a more efficient outfit with less than half the number. The successful and popular BBC Arabic TV Channel I am told employs 220 people, why does Alhurra needs 650?
Qualified and skilled journalists must be recruited. You need truly bilingual people. For Alhurra to make a breakthrough it must spearhead freedom of expression, deal with taboo subjects and over-sensitive issues. It should be able to criticise US Foreign policy when it is wrong same as the New York Times and Washington Post do. Alhurra must deal with the world as it is. If the settlements Israel is building in the West Bank are illegal in international law, you cannot gloss over it by saying the opposite. To criticise Israel is not anti-Semitic or anti Jewish but anti wrong policies and practices. Alhurra must not flinch from exposing human right abuses by friendly Regimes.
President Barack Obama chose Alarabiya Satellite Channel for his first formal interview as President. He did not choose Alhurra? Why?
If Alhurra wants to be credible, if it wants to matter and if it wants Arab-speaking people to watch, it must get out of its comfort zone and calls a spade a spade. You just cannot run a satellite station in a competitive and crowded market by being too bland and too cautious.
Play it safe and don’t say anything that may be construed as Anti-American or Anti-Israel and all will be nice and quiet and nobody watches the channel and no one pays attention.
It is no secret that Aljazeera and Al-Arabiya won huge audiences by being bold and daring.
To be credible, critics of American policy must be allowed to speak. It must cover news which is deemed unfriendly or negative to American image. To be timid just to please pressure groups will not win Alhurra new viewers.
To offer harmless bland stuff that nobody bothers to watch is a waste of money and resources. Play it safe but be seen by nobody.
Viewers everywhere not just in the Arab world are media savvy and can easily smell a rat when they see one.