As part of its Greater Middle East Plan to transform the Arab world and control the pace of political and social change, the former Bush administration launched Al Hurra, a satellite television network based in Washington. Fearing that the new network may attempt to shape Arab public opinion, "destroy Islamic values and brainwash the young", many Arab commentators suggested boycotting Al Hurra. This suggestion was unwise, to say the least, because the chances that Al Hurra would succeed in selling the policies of the US government and making them acceptable to the Arab public were, in fact, very tiny.
The network has encountered enormous difficulties in trying to establish independent credibility in the light of its total reliance on US government money. Al Hurra was created with $32 million (Dh117.6 million) in funding from the US Congress and received an additional $30 million in congressional appropriations for its first year of operation. Unsurprisingly, this financial dependence has affected the coverage of the network, rendering it a mere propaganda tool in the hands of the US government. This has increased the doubts in the minds of Arab viewers about its true objectives.
In addition, Al Hurra entered a relatively free environment where it has to compete with tens of Arab satellite channels. It competes with the likes of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, both of which are popular in the Arab world. Al Hurra needed to challenge these networks with accuracy, news and events that are compelling and responsive to people's needs, as well as meaningful. The structure, political leanings and organisation of Al Hurra have prevented it from standing up to this challenge.
Furthermore, Arab viewers are not silent objects; they are not neutral, either. They have causes and have opinions on them. They judge any network in the light of its position on these causes. Nobody should have expected Arab viewers to follow or applaud a station that describes occupation as liberation, assassination as targeted killing, regime change as democratisation and resisting foreign occupation as terrorism. In fact, Arab viewers have rejected the language of Al Hurra, looking instead for more objective and more responsive coverage, and there is no lack of it. The people who run Al Hurra may need to be reminded that Israel has tried the same strategy before and failed. In 2002, the Sharon government established a satellite channel directed at Arabic-speaking viewers to justify its policies. A few months into the project, the station was closed down and the Israeli government admitted failure.
Moreover, anti-Americanism has become a central component of popular culture in the Arab world. The establishment of Al Hurra and other media outlets, such as Sawa, has not affected the thinking of the emerging well-educated and well-travelled Arabs. Seeking to win support among the Arab middle classes through public diplomacy and cultural platforms was unrealistic from the outset. Arab public opinion is disillusioned with, and dismayed by, US policies towards the region. No cosmetic or public relations strategies are likely to succeed in changing Arab perceptions of unfriendly US policies. The hope that a fashionably produced Arab-language station could help stem anti-Americanism fuelled by the ‘war on terrorism', the occupation of Iraq and US support for Israel was a mere illusion.
Al Hurra should have been aware of the fact that the popularity of some Arab media outlets is, in part, a reflection of Arab dissatisfaction with the biased coverage of Western media of the region and its issues. Prior to the satellite era, most of the media in the Arab world worked as mouthpieces for their governments. Consequently, many Arabs turned to foreign media for news and analysis. This changed only when the new Arab satellite channels emerged and satisfied their thirst for objective information and diverse viewpoints. Because Al Hurra failed to deliver the same quality, it was ignored.
The popularity of the Arab media, in fact, came about not only because they offer more authoritative news, but more importantly because they reflect the views and opinions held by many in the region. If Al Hurra continues to work as a mouthpiece for the US government, it will be, just like the Arab state-run media, relegated to the dustbin of history.
So far, Al Hurra, for most Arab viewers, has failed to use the right terms to describe events in Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere. Yet, there is still a chance for Al Hurra to win the hearts and minds of the Arab public. If the channel revises its policies and becomes committed to presenting accurate, balanced and comprehensive news, it will enrich the experience of the Arab media. If it fails to do so, however, Arab viewers will be the judge, jury and executioner.
Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at Damascus University's Faculty of Political Science and Media in Syria.