In its first week of broadcasting to the Middle East, U.S.-funded satellite station Al Hurra has earned little praise from its target audience. Al Hurra (which means "the free one" in Arabic) started broadcasting Valentine's Day as a none-too-subtle answer to Al Jazeera and other regional media's unfavorable reporting on U.S. foreign policy.
Al Hurra is just the latest in a string of Middle Eastern public diplomacy efforts for the United States—previous highlights include the Arab-language Radio Sawa and Hi magazine. The station kicked off its programming with an exclusive interview with President Bush and offers a mix of international news, documentaries, and talk shows.
Many Arab commentators were quick to condemn Al Hurra, some even before it aired. Writing last week, Rami Khouri of Lebanon's Daily Star threw down the gauntlet: Al Hurra "will be an entertaining, expensive and irrelevant hoax. Where do they get this stuff from? Why do they keep insulting us like this?" Syria's Tishrin skipped bafflement and moved directly to outrage: "This station is part of a project to recolonize the Arab homeland that the United States seeks to implement through a carrot-and-stick policy." (Translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)
A few contrarians did speak up to defend the network's arrival, though they did so out of principle rather than any love of its message. Britain's Guardian quoted an Egyptian news executive arguing: "Everyone is entitled to express his or her opinion. This is an open sky and nobody should be afraid of that." The London-based Arab paper Al-Sharq al-Awsat pooh-poohed those who saw the channel as "an American plot to 'brainwash' the Arabs" and argued that "a nation scared of a satellite station, regardless of its source or color, is a shy and timid nation."
The problem, everyone agreed, was not the station's programming but rather U.S. policies, especially regarding Israel. The Guardian interviewed Cairo natives about the new show, and reported: "[M]ost Cairenes said they simply do not trust Bush. If he cared about human rights, then he would help the Palestinians, they say." Al-Khaleej of the United Arab Emirates noted, "If U.S. policy in the region was sound and convincing, they would not resort to cosmetic means to improve their image" (Arabic translation in the last two paragraphs courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)
Middle Eastern papers were nearly unanimous in arguing that American support of Israel and its occupation of Iraq are the issues that fuel anti-American sentiment—and Al Hurra can do little to disguise this. The Jordan Times put it in terms even an American could understand:
No amount of sweet words and pretty pictures will change the reality of an Israeli occupation, soon in its 37th year, or the chaos in Iraq, both of which can be directly attributed to American policy. No one here is going to be convinced of America's benign intentions as long as these issues remain unresolved. It all seems so obvious, at least to most of the people of this region, that, to borrow the phrase of an American cultural icon, "doh!"