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Lawmakers Demand Close Oversight of US Arabic TV Channel

U.S. lawmakers are demanding greater oversight of the U.S.-government funded Al-hurra television for the Middle East, amid continuing controversy over programming carried by the station in late 2006 and early 2007. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, where a congressional hearing also examined U.S. public diplomacy efforts aimed at improving the U.S. image in the Middle East and combat extremism in the Muslim world.

Since the September 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States, Congress has approved tens of millions of dollars for expanded programming for the Middle East and Muslim world.

Al-hurra television is a key element, along with radio broadcasts of Radio Sawa, heard throughout the Middle East, including Iraq.

Other programming by the Voice of America, and Radio Farda targets Iran, and there are also separate efforts for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent body controlling non-military U.S. government-funded broadcasting, says it is committed to "using the tools of objective journalism to promote freedom and democracy and enhance understanding about the United States and the world to audiences overseas."

It also has a five-year strategy designed to counter extremism, while adhering to U.S. law and guidelines requiring fact-based news and objective analysis, including broadcasts, and responsible discussion of, U.S. policy.

But Al-hurra, which in English means "The Free One", has been the focus of intense criticism because of programs it aired between November 2006 and February of 2007.

Broadcast officials acknowledge the station violated editorial guidelines in airing, among other things, an un-edited speech by the leader of the Hezbollah, interviews with a Hamas leader, and coverage of a conference in Tehran denying the Holocaust.

Congressman Gary Ackerman is a Democrat who chairs the Middle East subcommittee:

"Why are American taxpayer dollars used to spread hate, the lies and propaganda of these nuts, when our goal is to counter them?" he asked.

Board member Joaqin Blaya testified that Al-hurra erred in broadcasting "several reports that lacked journalistic or academic merit," saying there were "significant and unprofessional breeches in Al-hurra's editorial policy" by contractors and employees. He added these were a "very small fraction" of the station's output.

Blaya told lawmakers what he calls "enhanced editorial structures" aimed at centralizing editorial control are now in place at Al-hurra:

"We feel that we have those internal controls in place now, and we feel that it is not a systemic problem," said Joaqin Blaya.

Brian Coniff, who heads the Middle East Broadcasting Networks overseeing Al-hurra, details steps taken in the wake of the incidents, including appointment of an official responsible for internal review.

"This person reports directly to me, he does not report through the editorial chain of command, he does not report to the [Al-hurra] vice president [for news], his job is to watch Al-hurra all day long as well as the other Arab language networks for feedback to me," said Brian Coniff.

As part of additional safeguards, Coniff says an Arabic-speaking American citizen has also been hired to track programming.

Republican Mike Pence questioned whether managers and reporters for Al-hurra understand the station's mission.

"This is a diplomatic mission of the U.S, and are we communicating in very practical ways to employees down the line that this is not a "We report, you decide," television station, we are about promoting the truth about the free world and the United States of America in this region?" said Mike Pence.

Lawmakers also question whether a non-Arabic-speaker should be managing news operations at Al-hurra, a reference to the station's vice president for news, former CNN producer Larry Register, who did not appear at Wednesday's hearing.

While criticizing Al-hurra, Democrats and Republicans assert they do not want the station to fail, suggesting that the broadcasting board should institute private independent reviews of programming.

Congressman Ackerman and others also raised questions about how the independent broadcast board is measuring the impact of U.S. broadcasting to the Middle East:

"Simply measuring audience size is great, but it doesn't tell us how much or whether our broadcasting influences those who receive it," said Gary Ackerman.

In its testimony to Congress, the broadcasting board pointed to surveys it says show that both Al-hurra and the Arabic language Radio Sawa are, in Blaya's words, regarded as credible sources of news and information by audiences, despite high levels of anti-American sentiment throughout the region.

In separate testimony, State Department public diplomacy officials pointed to progress under President Bush in coordinating government information programs in the effort to undermine ideological support for terrorism around the world.