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Broadcast Officials Defend US-Funded Arab Television

U.S. broadcast officials have defended the American-funded Arab satellite television station, al-Hurra, against allegations of mismanagement. A House subcommittee held a hearing looking into the charges, and the impact the station is having in the Muslim world.

Al-Hurra television broadcasts in 22 countries in the Muslim world, and is a key part of an overall U.S. government public diplomacy strategy aimed at counteracting the influence of al-Jazeera Television.

The State Department recently confirmed that its Inspector General is conducting an audit of al-Hurra, which officials have described as routine.

However, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House International Relations Committee called a hearing in response to complaints from former employees about alleged financial improprieties, and hiring practices.

These involve issues of outside services contracted by the station, specifically to Associated Press Television, and a Beirut-based company Quantum Communications.

Some al-Hurra employees have alleged what they call a narrow Lebanese bias in programming, resulting from a staff stacked with talent from Lebanon.

One former employee (Magdi Khalil) has spoken of "mismanagement and blatant abuse of power" at the station, which he said raised doubts about the U.S. government's ability to compete successfully with established Arab channels.

At Thursday's hearing, al-Hurra News Director Mouafac Harb, who is originally from Lebanon, said there has been a campaign waged against the station by individuals, who he does not name, opposed to al-Hurra's mission.

He said al-Hurra broadcasts on what he calls a battlefield of ideas, and has won high viewing rates across the Middle East. "Congress asked us to provide objective and accurate news and information, and to explain U.S. policy, believing that even if audiences do not like the policies or us, at least they will understand us, then we will have done our job. And that is what we do, day in and day out."

Responding to questions from Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Mr. Harb said a decision to use contract services of Associated Press Television was necessary for news coverage.

As for the allegation that programming has been influenced by Lebanese staff members reducing its impact for the greater Arab world, Mr. Harb said he does not believe this is a problem now.

Democratic Congressman Howard Berman described Thursday's hearing as an opportunity for Mr. Harb to respond to allegations, adding he hopes the importance of U.S. Arabic-language broadcasting is not lost in the controversy. "This war on terrorism is much more than a military struggle, it's a war of ideas. Broadcasting is the only means for America to reach out to the broader public in the Arab world."

In testimony to the House subcommittee Thursday, the board's chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, said the station in a short time has succeeded in opening what he calls a new window of truth for the Middle East.

But critics of al-Hurra, as well as the U.S.-funded Arabic language Radio Sawa, say they have failed to achieve the level of audience impact originally hoped for.

Critics also accuse the Broadcasting Board of Governors overseeing al-Hurra and other U.S.-funded international broadcasters, including Voice of America, of not exerting strong enough control over the station, a charge board officials strongly dispute.

Congressman Adam Schiff cites Nielsen surveys he says show that al-Hurra is having an effect. "The most weighty issues involve are we succeeding in our outreach through al-Hurra and Radio Sawa? And the Nielsen findings I think are very impressive. The market share that both enjoy is quite astounding given the short tenure of both.

But critics have complained about what they call misleading statistics used by the station to give the appearance it is having a greater impact.

Andrew Kohut, Director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, says while al-Hurra can help improve America's perception in the Arab world, U.S. policies remain the source of anti-Americanism.

"The primary sources of anti-Americanism is not values, this is not an argument about values and culture. It has to do with American policies, and that is a very important thing to understand," he said. The ongoing conflict in Iraq continues to fuel anti-Americanism. The war on terrorism is perceived negatively in the region, and the perception that the United States acts unilaterally in foreign policy is a big negative not only in the Mideast but around the world."

The Broadcasting Board of Governors says it is awaiting results of the State Department audit of al-Hurra television.