Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Monday, June 23, 2008

‘Tis the Season to Bash Al-Hurra

Al-Hurra is that Congress-funded Arabic-language satellite TV station that’s been on the air since 2002. It periodically comes under attack on one of many charges that run from Al-Hurra being too controversial, not being controversial enough, being too American, not being American enough, being too Lebanese, too corrupt, too mismanaged, too irrelevant or too redundant.

Al-Hurra is not perfect, but it is pretty good, and in some areas, such as the Iraq-market, I tend to see it as the market leader. When Iraqi politicians want to be heard and seen, they rush to get airtime on Al-Hurra. Their second choice would be Iraq’s own Al-Iraqiya Channel. Their third choices would be one of the two dozen or so other ‘local’ Iraqi satellite channels. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV seems to push the candidacy of Ayad Allawi, the preferred politician for the House of Saud. While Aljazeera is just plain venal, standing against anything good that may develop in Iraq.

Today, there’s a front-page story in the Washington Post about Al-Hurra, and it’s the same ol’ reheated rubbish that we’ve seen in the past.

It’s important to understand where such stories come from; it’s not as if Craig Whitlock, the WaPo reporter who penned today’s article just woke up one day and decided to write about Al-Hurra. American investigative journalism doesn’t work that way, for there’s always an agenda out there that lures a journalist into doing its bidding. In order to understand the array of anti-Al-Hurra agendas, here’s a breakdown of Al-Hurra’s American and Arab enemies and my take on their probable motivations:

Americans:

-Leftie journalists who suspiciously view Al-Hurra as a Bush administration creation, and hence it’s considered fair game in Washington’s atmosphere of partisan blood-letting. Same goes for Congressional Democrats, and their staffs.

-Voice of America apparatchiks (federal employees, many of them leftie journalists too) who covet Al-Hurra’s budget, and resent being frozen out of its control.

-State Department apparatchiks, especially the Arabists and the Public Diplomacy crowd, that view anything outside of their reach as a bureaucratic heresy.

-U.S. academics who are overly chummy with an Al-Hurra competitor, either because they get consultancy fees or because they’re given access. For example, Marc Lynch is an unabashed Aljazeera partisan and continuously does keyboard 'battle' on its behalf against both Al-Arabiya and Al-Hurra; the very nature of his relationship to that station is a bit of a mystery to me.

Arabs:

-The Saudis have spent billions upon billions of petrodollars gobbling up Arab language newspapers and TV stations but though their money carries plenty of clout in Washington, they won’t be able to purchase Al-Hurra from the U.S. government. So what the Saudis tried to do is convince the Bush administration and Congress to scrap Al-Hurra (…I presume the WaPo’s story is part of that Saudi effort) and to subcontract America’s message about democracy and America’s justifications for its war on terror to the Saudis by using Al-Arabiya as Washington’s platform—yeah, right, as if that's ever gonna work! But it’s not that much of a stretch to get the administration to play along with such dangerous ploys, since America had previously subcontracted its Lebanon policy to the Saudis and even though that policy proved disastrous, nothing has been done to rectify it. By taking on such subcontracts, the Saudis would make sure that America’s policies in the Middle East would not endanger the survival of the Saudi regime. In that vein, the ratings numbers were cooked to give the impression that Al-Arabiya is the market-leader in Iraq, and consequently Bush administration officials gave face-time to Al-Arabiya thus further undermining Al-Hurra—this point goes unmentioned in the WaPo story.

-Arab journalists in the pay of the Saudis: I’d reckon that seven out of ten ‘serious’ Arab journalists get a paycheck from the Saudi royal family or one of its acolytes (e.g. the Al-Arabiya owning Al-Ibrahim family, or Lebanon’s Al-Hariris). By buying-up journalists, the Saudis hope to stem any criticism of their rule. Some Christian Maronite journalists have even been known to drop their ‘foreign’ sounding names (‘Richard’, ‘George’, ‘Michel’, …etc.) in exchange for solidly Sunni names just to please their Wahhabi patrons; some go as far as giving their first-borns the name of the second Muslim caliph, who ostensibly laid down the dhimmi rules for the Levant’s Christian minorities. One such journalist is quoted at some length in the WaPo story.

-Arab journalists in the pay of retro-Arab autocracies: I’d lump much of Egypt’s press (with notable exceptions) and of course that of Syria, Jordan, Qatar (Aljazeera’s owner and sponsor), and the United Arab Emirates (flush with cash, and now trying to compete with the Saudis for influence). It should be clear why such regimes would want to tarnish and undermine a media outlet that they can’t control. Another way they do this is by intimidating Al-Hurra journalists that operate in Arab capitals. For example, the WaPo begins with a scene-setter in which the Al-Hurra bureau in Cairo was unplugged from its satellite link but does not tell us why the Egyptian authorities seemingly did so. I remember that during Egypt’s presidential elections in September 2005, Al-Hurra had the best and most daring coverage of all the Arab TV stations, and I saw many Egyptians, in barber shops, in local groceries, in street ‘cafes’, tuning in to its programming. So what did Al-Hurra do in Cairo to incur the wrath of the Egyptian regime these days? And why doesn’t the American Embassy in Cairo pull its weight to ward off the regime’s intimidation campaign? But then again, even the New York Times and the Washington Post tip-toe around the sensibilities of such regimes, ever fearful that their journalists would be denied visas. And we all remember CNN’s scandalous editorial policy in cowardly toeing the line set by Saddam’s secret police. (Heck, it seems that that relationship survives: Ba’athist insurgents still use certain CNN journalists in Baghdad as disinformation channels!)

-U.S.-based Arab journalists and academics who have been angling for years to get a top managerial or consultancy job at Al-Hurra. One such character is the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami, who puts out public opinion polls as to what the Arab audience is watching, and whose work is cited in the WaPo story; he's allegedly been lobbying to get the job of news director at Al-Hurra.

-Former Al-Hurra journalists and staff who’ve been fired for a variety of reasons. C’mon, do I really have to explain the gripe reflex of such outcasts? Many of them have axes to grind with those who fired them (…they’re usually also the ones who hired them in the first place) and they get plenty of soap-box space in today’s WaPo hatchet-job.

Full Disclosure: Mouafac Harb, Al-Hurra’s creator and former news director, is a close friend of mine. He’s been the target of many smears in the past (and in today's WaPo): he’s been accused of being a Hezbollah-agent (he’s Lebanese Shi’a, and the bigots usually associate all Shi’as with an Iranian conspiracy), a Mossad-mole (…the bigots also associate all Shi’as with Zionist plots), a dilettante who knows next to nothing about journalism, and/or a corrupt swindler. This last accusation had launched half a dozen federal and congressional investigations that came up with nothing, but it doesn’t seem to stop those shameless detractors of his from leveling the same charges over and over again, and gullible journalists from printing them.

Harb is one of the smartest Middle Easterners I’ve ever come to know; his ability to concoct messages against terrorists and autocrats borders on ‘evil genius.’ He’s one of a handful of Arab journalists who had always taken a principled stance against the Saddam regime, even during the time when Saddam’s diplomats were the toast of the town in DC. He put together Al-Hurra in a matter of months; I’ve never seen someone operate within Washington’s bureaucracy with such agility and results.

I feel that I can defend him because I’ve never ever been associated with Al-Hurra financially or officially, in any capacity. Harb’s just a friend. I didn’t speak to him about the WaPo story before writing this post.

Al-Hurra has many deficiencies, but it ain’t responsible for many of them. In many cases, the U.S. government does not have a clear cut policy vis-à-vis individual Arab regimes; even though the Bush administration may loftily talk about democracy, it won’t, for example, tongue-lash Jordan’s monarch for his regime’s anti-democratic practices and as such would prevent Al-Hurra—as a media outlet funded by the U.S. government—from doing so lest Jordan’s ambassador protests the negative coverage. It won’t even protect Al-Hurra’s journalists from harassment at the hands of the region’s multitude of secret police outfits, not even in states that are nominal allies of America. That's why Al-Hurra can't always push the envelope.

Another impediment is pay-scale: the rise of oil prices have made it possible for Middle Eastern regimes to offer incredible pay packages for Arab journalists (that is, selling-out one’s journalistic scruples pays way better these days; there’s even a chauffeured-car and a dental plan). Al-Hurra simply cannot compete with what’s on offer out there, and there isn’t much available and recruitable talent to begin with, since journalism as a career with the middle-class virtue of financial stability is a relatively new concept in the Arab world and only now are larger batches of students being trained for a life in journalism.

These periodic attacks against Al-Hurra from its American and Arab enemies have created a poisonous atmosphere at the station, as any corporation would likely go through when its demoralized staffers are told that their work is useless and redundant. This naturally adds to Al-Hurra’s woes. But the very fact that Al-Hurra has 9 million weekly viewers in Iraq (the WaPo tries to question these numbers, but I feel that they are accurate) is a massive achievement.

The Saudis should not be allowed to get their way and have Al-Hurra shut down. If there’s room for improvement, then Congress must demand it. There should always be an alternative for Middle Eastern audiences other than Saudi-owned or autocrat-funded media outlets, and America cannot allow anyone to speak on its behalf especially at a time when the Russians, the Germans, the French and the British are all jump-starting and funding their own mini-Al-Hurras.

20 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post are always meaty and illuminating. Thanks for exposing the behind-the-scenes motives here!

12:23 PM, June 23, 2008

 
Blogger Brian said...

Why do you assume Lynch has a relationship with al-Hurra? Maybe he just believes as he does out of conviction.

12:50 PM, June 23, 2008

 
Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

Hi Brian,

I think you meant to say "Lynch has a relationship with Aljazeera"...And as such, my response would be that I'd rather have him motivated by something as logical as cold hard cash than the illogic of being a 'convinced' supporter of a venom-geyser such as Aljazeera. But then again, Lynch tends to think that Abdul-Bari Atwan and his Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper are credible sources rather than being the print equivalent of Aljazeera...

That said, a leftie journo ex-friend of mine claims to have asked Lynch about the latter's associations with Aljazeera and Lynch denied anything beyond being social with station's managers. However, I've also heard a top manager at one of Lynch's recurring Arab media targets (not Al-Hurra, and the fellow is an ex-acquaintance of mine) say that Lynch has a financial relationship with Aljazeera, but that could be just the animosity talking.

Then again, I wouldn't have to assume anything if Lynch would publicly and unequivocally clarify his years-long relationship with Aljazeera and whether he's ever accepted favors/compensation/special access from them. This is pertinent too because I've heard that Lynch is ingratiating himself with the Obama campaign, and there are funny pictures with weird facial contortions to prove it!

Best,

Nibras
PS: I wondering if you've changed your opinion about Alsammarae after his recent statements?

1:38 PM, June 23, 2008

 
Blogger Orville said...

Nibras,

Al-Hurra currently commands nearly 10% of television viewership throughout Iraq. Nationwide it is only led by al-Iraqiya or al-
Arabiya (depending on which poll you consult). No station in Iraq commands more than 13% of viewership.

That being said, and I like al-Hurra's programming, the station needs to tighten up it's game. Good can always be better. If we want to talk about stations with an agenda that are proxies of other nations, we need look no further than al-Baghdadia which ranks three spots from the bottom of the list of most-watched Iraqi television stations. Still, al-Baghdadia, created and funded by our copper pressing pals to the East, is actively branding itself (will get you the pictures of the microphone front and center at press conferences featuring Sadrists and Hakim) and has on-line print to compete with al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, etc. I'm just saying that al-Hurra could better compete if it would incorporate a view tweaks.

2:17 PM, June 23, 2008

 
Blogger Brian said...

The statements you blogged about were actually retracted in a correction by Radio Sawa - the actual comments were that he believed resistance was justified but that he would continue to work to bring resistance fighters into the political process.

My sense is that political involvement and his ties to the former Ba'athists and other prominent Sunnis, as well as the status of his claimed sharifian descent, is the real key to his relationship with the Jordanian and American governments and why they appear inclined to let him be and even offer protection. He's a key figure in their track II diplomacy with the insurgency - this explains his sources of support and the opposition of important elements of the largely Shi'ite government in Baghdad.

2:21 PM, June 23, 2008

 
Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

Brian,

I think you're mistaken, because I heard the Radio Sawa audio, which carried Alsammara's own voice making those statements. These weren't exerpted; they were a single segment. You should listen to it (via the link provided in the post) and judge for yourself. My impression is that you have some Arab language skills and would be able to do this.

You're opinion used to be colored by personal acquaintances, from what I recall. It's a perfectly natural reaction when one is emotionally invested, but I think you're still trying to put the best face on a nasty fellow.

Best,

Nibras

2:45 PM, June 23, 2008

 
Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

Hi orville,

I agree with what you say, but consider this: Al-Hurra has been putting out public service anouncements about a liberal Saudi dissident who's been in jail for years...this may have had something to do with today's piece. The Washington Post reporter, Whitlock, simply regurgitated the same quotes from the same people who've been attacking/criticising Al-Hurra over the years, and have done so often in the U.S. press. The timing is interesting though, coming at the heals of a negative 60 Minutes report too. All I'm hinting at is that one should never discount Saudi Arabia's pervasive influence in DC, and the subtle ways they go about doing their business!

Best,

Nibras

2:51 PM, June 23, 2008

 
Blogger Brian said...

I'll listen to the audio soon. I shot you an e-mail at Hudson, but when it came up I'm not sure precisely where it went.

2:53 PM, June 23, 2008

 
Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

Hi Brian,

Try nibraska@yahoo.com

2:54 PM, June 23, 2008

 
Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

Hi orville,

Do you mean Al-Furat (ISCI's channel) rather than Al-Baghdadia (isn't this Saleh al-Mutlaq's outfit?). While 'Baghdad' is the IIP's, right?

Here's some interesting and related gossip: Saad al-Bazzaz is now relying in large part on pro-Talabani businessman Akram Zanganeh to finance the stridently Sunni Al-Sharqiyah TV channel and Azzaman newspaper, whereas in the past al-Bazzaz used to get funding from the State Department (2002), the ex-Emir of Qatar (1998-2002), Nechirvan Barzani (don't know when this ended), and the Saudis.

There hasn't been a serious study on how these two dozen Iraqi satellite stations and the hundreds of newspapers in Baghdad are getting their funding. I think we'll find money trails going all over the world when such a study emerges. That said, the most vibrant and free press in the Arabic language is taking shape in Iraq, though it needs plenty of anti-libel laws and penalties to protect innocents from irresponsible smears.

Best,

Nibras

3:08 PM, June 23, 2008

 
Blogger Iraqi Mojo said...

You forgot leftist Arab American journalist-wannabe professor As'ad Abu Khalil, who recently wrote:

'This is quite hilarious. A CBS 60 Minutes "investigation" concludes that the lousy American propaganda channel, Al-Hurra, is anti-Israel." But I really like that. Make sure that you change it in a more pro-Israeli direction and that will guarantee that its viewers will go from 6 people to 2.'

The professor doesn't know much about Iraq, I've noticed.

3:54 AM, June 24, 2008

 
Blogger bg said...

++

just a couple of updates.. :)

HT : GP

Iraq Will Take Control of 2 More
Provinces in Coming Days


[The signatures of more than two million Iraqi Shi'ites, demanding that Iran cease its interference in Iraq, were presented on Saturday during a convention in Ashraf.

Representatives of more than 135 parties and organizations, as well as 1,000 tribal elders from Iraq's southern and central regions, attended the conference, titled “Solidarity with the Iraqi People.” Also attending the event were representatives from the Iranian opposition group, Mujahidin Khalq.

"We have gathered over two million signatures from Iraqi Shi'ites, calling on Iran to pull its hands off Iraq and especially the southern districts," said leader of the Al-Humeidat tribe, Sheikh Ka'sid Najm during the conference.]

Surge Success Undeniable--
Dems & Media Forced to Eat Crow


[The cocksure war supporters learned this humbling lesson during the dark days of 2006. And now the cocksure surge opponents, drunk on their own vindication, will get to enjoy their season of humility. They have already gone through the stages of intellectual denial. First, they simply disbelieved that the surge and the Petraeus strategy was doing any good. Then they accused people who noticed progress in Iraq of duplicity and derangement. Then they acknowledged military, but not political, progress. Lately they have skipped over to the argument that Iraq is progressing so well that the U.S. forces can quickly come home.]

==

9:47 AM, June 24, 2008

 
Blogger bg said...

++

Ayham Alsammarae

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani

==

9:53 AM, June 24, 2008

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obama to Appoint Marc Lynch Ambassador to Iraq

http://pivazistan.blogspot.com/2008/06/obama-to-appoint-marc-lynch-to-iraq.html

Funny! It would be Lynch's first time in Iraq!

5:00 PM, June 24, 2008

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nibras,

As a former reporter for VOA and various network news organizations for which I have reported from Iraq, I can assure you are absolutely correct about the political leanings and motives of the apparatchiki at VOA and State.

BTW, We've met a couple of times in Arlington, VA.

Peter Collins

11:20 PM, June 24, 2008

 
Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

Hi Peter,

Of course I remember you. I tried looking for your email address to no avail. Hope you're well.

Best,

Nibras

2:09 PM, June 30, 2008

 
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