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28 Jun, 2008 04:13

U.S. Arabic channel a big turn-off for target audience

A TV channel aimed at selling the friendly face of America to the Middle East is proving to be something of a turn-off to the viewers it's meant to attract. And now, Al Hurra, an Arab-language network financed by U.S. taxpayers, is coming under attack in

Al Hurra, or the “free one”, is a U.S. diplomacy drive to spread the word of Washington around the Arab world. Now, though, the four-year-old channel is in trouble. It’s been slammed by other U.S. media for giving uncut airtime to anti-American figures like Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah.

But it doesn't stop there. Many leading figures within the company have no Arabic skills and are thus unable to monitor output.
Meanwhile, others in management have no journalism experience at all.

“We had a great mission at Al Hurra at the beginning. The possibilities of the channel were, and still are, endless. However, as problems continued many of the employees did not understand, know or believe in the mission of Al Hurra,” says Hazem Alghabra, former Al Hurra producer.

The channel has its roots in the office for Diplomacy and Public Affairs, which is a branch of the U.S. State Department. In the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq invasion, the government has been desperately trying to counter a wave of global anti-American sentiment. The question is whether a TV news station is the best way of doing so.

Samer Shehata, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, believes the idea is problematic.

“I think the idea is absurd because it's founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation: the idea that the U.S. government can somehow organise and package the image of the United States for consumers abroad – that’s problematic,” Samer Shehata says.

Ratings are still low – only 2 percent – in a market dominated by the likes of Al Arabiya and Qatar-based Al Jazeera.

Quite simply the channel is bound by twin impulses: to enlighten Arabs on American culture, and also to cover newsworthy events. The balance has been a difficult one with well-publicised mistakes. For instance, when Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin was assassinated back in 2004, Al Hurra ran a cooking programme.

While representatives of the TV station remain tight-lipped, the future of the White House’s pet project might be in jeopardy.