‘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:
-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.
-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.