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For Arabs, It's Not Yet Must-See TV

A U.S. bid to reach the Mideast's young people with a satellite channel has won few fans in its first weeks. Some are skeptical, some bored.

March 26, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — The symbolism is less than subtle: Eye after eye fills the television screen, blinking open, one after the next. "When you watch, then you will see," reads the Arabic banner across the screen. A chain of windows cut from every imaginable architecture are flung open to let in the daylight.

At a time when anti-Americanism seems to pervade every street and living room in the Middle East, Al Hurra, or "the Free One," is making its bid for Arab interest. The 5-week-old Arabic-language satellite television channel is the U.S. government's $62-million effort to reach young Arabs. So far, the target audience is skeptical, at best.

"They're banging people on the head, hammering away at the idea that they're objective," said Ali Belail, a 36-year-old television producer in Cairo. "It's not very subtle. I guess they know people are going to be apprehensive."

In Cairo, the teeming heart of the Arab world, it's difficult to find young people who've even heard of the channel, much less who have tuned in. As for those who've watched Al Hurra, they tend to pan it, but not for politics. They say it's boring.

"I was ready to accept it and I've watched," said Wael Lotfi, 30. "But there are probably better ways of getting their message across. If they tried to explain things, it would be better."

No matter what sort of shows it aired, the Virginia-based Al Hurra was in for a struggle. Its creation was vilified in the Arab editorial pages as a dangerous invasion, an insult, a blunt arm of propaganda intended to erode opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

"The region is infected with knee-jerk, hysterical anti-Americanism," said Abdallah Schleifer, a mass media professor at the American University in Cairo. "An environment like that will be hard for Al Hurra."

Critics say the U.S. effort is hypocritical -- yet another state-run channel, but installed under the banner of freedom.

"The region braces itself for a wave of change as the masses realize the error of their fundamentalist ways," ran a tart editorial in the Jordan Times. Decrying the "arrogance and condescension" of the project, the article concluded: "No amount of sweet words and pretty pictures will change the reality of an Israeli occupation ... or the chaos in Iraq, both of which can be directly attributed to American policy."

The station already is mired in a clash of narratives. Arab audiences are not accustomed to hearing the word "terrorist" applied to the suicide bombers in the Palestinian uprising. They are used to "occupation army," not "Israeli troops" or "the U.S.-led coalition."

"Even their name -- what does that mean, that the other channels don't have freedom?" said Nisreen Mohamad, a Palestinian correspondent for the Lebanese television network LBC. "They want to change the Arab mentality, to make it whatever America wants it to be."

Mohamad said she was approached about job opportunities at Al Hurra but couldn't bring herself to join. "You don't know if by working for them you're working against your people," she said. "I couldn't do it, not with their politics."

The station was christened with a Valentine's Day interview with President Bush, who explained that Al Hurra would promote freedom and democracy. At the end of his interview, Bush turned to the Arab journalist and said, "Good job."

"Was it passing a compliment, a reference to the softballs he threw to him, or was it a pat on the back from the boss to one of his junior staff?" wrote Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah in the West Bank. "Time will tell how free Al Hurra will be."

However, some viewers praised the channel's slick production, and one young man said he was intrigued by interviews of ordinary Arab Americans. But the channel is a bit heavy on slow-moving documentaries and long magazine-style reviews, many of which seem off-topic, the viewers complained.

Recent programs included a documentary on ancient Egypt, a piece on China and a segment on Crohn's disease in the United States. A feature on Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" skirted the question that has most interested Arabs -- the debate over whether it is anti-Semitic.

"It should tell people how America has tolerance and real freedom. It should tell people that the U.S. is not acting on behalf of Israel," Kuwaiti analyst Abdallah Sahar said. "If these issues were addressed fairly, it could be important."

The news channel is the latest U.S. attempt to reach the Arab world, joining a slick Arabic-language magazine called Hi and a popular music station, Radio Sawa.

But competition for Arab satellite news is fierce -- it's where "the real game is going on," said Norm Pattiz, a Los Angeles-based member of the Broadcast Board of Governors and the driving force behind Al Hurra's formation. There's Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Egypt-based MBC, to name three of the most popular.

"I believe that Al Jazeera believes that they are a free press," Pattiz said. "However, they are a free press that has a different perspective than what we have. We think it's important that fresh perspectives be introduced."

But the Arab stations have gone a long way in exposing Arabs to the examination of long-taboo topics, from the nuances of the Palestinian intifada to Arab government corruption, pointed out Belail, the television producer.

"I don't see what good one more channel will do," he said. "For me it's just a turnoff, just a bit of tokenism."

"The people are watching [Al Hurra] just to criticize it," said Hussein Amin, chair of the journalism department at American University in Cairo. "They think that not only does the American government not understand them, now it's also trying to send them messages."

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