What? – No Voice of America in Arabic? – President Obama and U.S. Broadcasting in the Middle East

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President Obama may have been surprised to find out that the Voice of America, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as largely responsible for “telling America’s story” to the world, no longer has programs in Arabic of any kind due to actions taken by the Bush Administration and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

The lack of a trusted Arabic-language broadcast channel originating in the United States may explain why President Obama had to give a TV interview targeted for a Middle Eastern audience to a Saudi broadcaster. While there is one U.S. broadcaster, Alhurra Television, this particular network lacks credibility in the Middle East and has been mired in controversy.

FreeMediaOnline.org reprints the latest article by ProPublica.org writer Dafna Linzer about the U.S. government-funded Alhurra television network for the Middle East set up and managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The article provides an in-depth analysis as to some of the reasons that may be behind President Obama’s decision to use a Saudi network for his first television interview. First, some comments from FreeMediaOnline.org president, Ted Lipien:


What? – No Voice of America in Arabic? – President Obama and U.S. Broadcasting in the Middle East

by Ted Lipien

There is no big mystery as to why President Obama would choose a Saudi-funded television network Al Arabiya over Alhurra. As surprising as this may be to many Americans, if one goes to the official web site of the primary U.S. international broadcaster, the Voice of America (VOA),  it no longer has any kind of news content in Arabic thanks to the BBG’s earlier decisions, which blocked VOA from communicating with Arab audiences in their own language. The BBG has also silenced VOA radio to Russia (12 days before Russia invaded Georgia) and to many other countries.

The Voice of America used to be a credible source of news and information from the United States for Arab speakers even if, due to the neglect from the BBG, it did not have transmission facilities to reach a wider audience. Instead of improving and strengthening America’s voice to the world, the BBG shut down VOA’s Arabic service and subcontracted U.S. broadcasting to private entities. They are widely seen in the Middle East as tools of the Bush White House propaganda. Since VOA journalists did not want to participate in propaganda experiments controlled by the White House and the BBG, VOA Arabic programs were silenced.

Both Republicans and Democrats (political allies and big business supporters of former Senator, now Vice President Joe Biden) were responsible for making these decisions. Even though the overall agenda was set by the neoconservatives in the Bush White House, BBG members representing the Democratic Party — Norman Pattiz of Westwood One and the recently appointed Senator from Delaware Edward E. Kaufman — helped to dismantle VOA programs and created Alhurra and Radio Sawa. 

Sawa and Alhurra not only did not have official credibility and American friendliness enjoyed by VOA radio hosts — perhaps the only attributes an American station can use to establish itself in the Middle East — but they also failed to achieve any kind of purpose and journalistic balance. They have been alternating between airing comments from apologists for the Bush Administration policies and  — to the great surprise of their neoconservative backers — airing unchallenged comments by Holocaust deniers and Islamist extremists. What they fail to tell their audience with any kind of credibility — something that Voice of America had done when it had Arabic programs — is what Americans of all political views and different social backgrounds think about the Middle East and the rest of the world. It would be inconceivable for the Voice of America to air unchallenged comments from Holocaust deniers as Alhurra had done. 

Considering  Alhurra’s journalistic performance and the fact that it has no real credibility with Arab audiences, it’s no wonder that President Obama did not want to be interviewed by the privatized American Middle East TV network.  Had he granted an interview to Alhurra, it would be a signal that the Obama White House wants to continue President Bush’s failed propaganda policies. This is one message President Obama did not want to send.

Working with Congress, the Obama  Administration should restore Voice of America Arabic programs and put an end to the waste of public money on supporting  Alhurra and Sawa. These station lack both identity and credibility,  and they are firmly associated with the Bush Administration propaganda. If the United States had one credible broadcaster reaching the Arab world, President Obama would not have to be ashamed of granting an interview to a radio or TV network supported by U.S. taxpayers, which I assume was his reason for going with Al Arabiya in addition to that station’s wide reach in the Arab world. Ted Lipien, FreeMediaOnline.org


Does Obama Snub of Alhurra Signal a Shift?

by Dafna Linzer, ProPublica – January 27, 2009 4:27 pm EST
Left: Alhurra anchors on air Dec. 23, 2008, before the conflict in Gaza. Right: Anchors wore black after the fighting broke out on Dec. 27, 2008.
Left: Alhurra anchors on air Dec. 23, 2008, before the conflict in Gaza. Right: Anchors wore black after the fighting broke out on Dec. 27, 2008.

President Obama chose a Saudi-funded television network today for his first interview aimed at an Arab audience, passing over the U.S. government’s own heavily-funded Alhurra station.


Obama’s predecessor pumped more than $500 million into Alhurra, which has been plagued [1] by serious staff problems, financial mismanagement and long-standing concerns inside the U.S. government and Congress regarding its content.

The president’s decision to go with Al Arabiya [2]led several media watchers to wonder whether Alhurrawouldcontinue to receive the same kind of cash flow from the Obama administration as it enjoyed under former president Bush.

“I am curious whether the choice of Al Arabiya signals the administration’s abandonment of the U.S.-funded Alhurra satellite channel,” wrote Michael Rubin, in National Review Online [3].

Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, wrote on Foreign Policy magazine’s Web site [4]that “Obama’s choice to give his ground-breaking interview to the Saudi Al Arabiya and not to the American Alhurra is as clear a statement as it is possible to make of Alhurra’s failure. It’s time to face the facts and clean house to recoup some of that investment,” he wrote.

The Bush Administration’s public diplomacy efforts have long drawn criticism from Democrats, and Obama signaled shortly after his election that he was contemplating major changes in that arena. “I think we’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular,’’ Obama told reporters in early December.

Alhurra, and its sister radio station, Radio Sawa, were meant to showcase U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and compete with Al Jazeera and other networks such as Al Arabiya, which interviewed Obama Tuesday.

But Alhurra has come under Congressional scrutiny and has been unable to win a desired audience share.

Last month, news anchors at Alhurra swapped out brightly-colored outfits for black suits as a demonstration of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza who were under Israeli fire during weeks of fighting there. Alhurra broadcasts to the Middle East, but its Web site carried streaming video of the anchors, wearing black suits on air at their news desk and during reports on the fighting.

Two people with direct knowledge of the incident said Alhurra managers had instructed anchors to halt the practice at the beginning of the new year and were conducting an informal review of the incident.

Deirdre Kline, a spokeswoman for Alhurra, did not return phone messages or e-mails seeking comment. She also did not respond to requests for comment regarding a nascent inquiry by the State Department’s inspector general’s office regarding several complaints of financial mismanagement at Radio Sawa. Two people involved in the inquiry said it began after concerns were raised that money was missing from the station’s Baghdad bureau.

 Alhurra has cost U.S. taxpayers more than half a billion dollars in five years and has been the subject of an ongoing ProPublica investigation [1] that began in partnership with CBS News’ 60 Minutes last June. It sparked several Congressional inquiries and a State Department investigation of Alhurra’s parent company, The Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

Since then, a study commissioned by the U.S. government concluded that Alhurra has failed to meet basic journalistic standards.

The study by researchers connected to the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California [5]was based on a review of a full month’s broadcasts by Alhurra, the 24-hour news network.

“The quality of Alhurra’s journalism is substandard on several levels,” the researchers wrote. Its broadcasts “lack appropriate balance and sourcing,” and “relied on unsubstantiated information too often, allowed on-air expressions of personal judgments too frequently and failed to present opposing views in over 60 percent of its news stories.”

“Our diagnosis is that Alhurra is not performing at the level that it needs to reach to be successful,” the authors said.

After the study was completed, Obama chose the Dean of the Annenberg School, Ernest J. Wilson III [6], to review Alhurra and other U.S. government broadcasting efforts for the new administration.

Al-Jazeera, which the Bush administration publicly blamed for inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, remains the most popular news network in the Arab world. Al Arabiya is No. 2 for audience share. Viewership polls, including one conducted last year by the University of Maryland [7] found that Alhurra’s pan-Arab broadcast is one of the least viewed in the Middle East, with an audience share of just 2 percent across the region.