A new satellite television service to the Middle East called AlHurra recently joined the hundreds of other channels competing for the Arabic-speaking TV audience. What instantly set AlHurrah apart is that it is funded by the U.S. government. It represents a new and controversial venture in U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East. AlHurra's mix of news and entertainment should appeal to a wide range of viewers. But, the Springfield, Virginia-based TV channel faces a tough challenge to define itself in a crowded and sometimes unfriendly media environment.
The AlHurra news staff is already used to the mix of pressure, excitement and satisfaction they experience every time their Arabic news show goes live. But as AlHurra news director Mouafac Harb says, nothing can compare to the excitement the staff felt during AlHurra's first broadcast on February 14.
"It was a great moment," he recalls. "When we launched the first second, people were so excited. They were jubilant. People were cheering and kissing each other."
Mr. Harb says that moment was the reward for many long days and nights of preparation.
"It was so hectic. We were on our nerves," he said. "We had to put together this channel in a record-breaking time, in less than three months. We had to build the channel. We were rehearsing in the same time we were building. It was amazing."
Alhurra, which in Arabic means "The Free One," is funded by the Middle East Television Network. That's a non-profit corporation funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which also runs the Voice of America and the Arabic-language Radio SAWA.
Mr. Harb served as news director for Radio SAWA, and before that, Washington bureau chief for the newspaper Alhayat. He says the new television channel is dedicated to presenting accurate, balanced and comprehensive world news to an audience that is hungry for ideas, but is bombarded instead by mostly negative images of the United States.
"The mission of AlHurra is the same as the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, of the Voice of America: to promote freedom and democracy through the dissemination of reliable, objective information to people around the world about the United States of America. This is the mission of AlHurra," he said. "It gains more significance when it comes to a Middle Eastern context because we believe freedom and democracy are lacking in that part of the world."
AlHurra is trying to achieve its mission through a daily 14-hour program schedule that is due to expand soon to 24 hours. It includes in-depth newscasts, a nightly live talk show called Free Hour, and a weekly panel discussion called All Directions. [
Sam Menassa, who is hosting that show, says: "Really, I was always a guest, this is the first time I'm the host. I was a university professor. Really it's very exciting; new experience, new career."
In his new show, Mr. Menassa discusses the most significant events of the week with a panel of experts.
"On a weekly basis, we have two permanent guests and two or three different guests from outside the studio, either from the Middle East or from inside the United States," he said. "This show is different than the other shows in the Arab world. The tone of the show, the language of the show, the discussion is different than what's now on Aljazeera or Alarabiya [two of the most popular satellite TV programs in the Arab World now]. We try to have a real dialogue where we're not shouting but discussing and thinking together."
The Magazine is a daily show co-produced and co-hosted by Tawfiq Gebran who worked for Abu Dhabi TV before coming to AlHurra.
"It has many different reports on many subjects from politics to fashion, health, good living, and technology," explains Mr. Gebran. "Many features are from all over the world; some of it is from the Arab World. We shoot our links and presentations from different places in D.C. to show the nice sights of the city."
While there is no doubt about the energy and enthusiasm of AlHurra's staff, critics have expressed doubts about the new TV channel. Egyptian-born media analyst and syndicated columnist Mamoun Fandy says that both before and since its launching, AlHurra has received mixed reviews in the Middle Eastern media.
"There are lots of ideological people who already said this is an American channel, it's a propaganda channel and nobody should listen to it. There are actually people who refuse to appear on AlHurra because of certain ideological positions," he said. "[But] there are [also] people that are withholding judgment and say, you know, this is a nicer addition and let the market be open and let people compete and see who wins at the end."
Mr. Fandy believes AlHurra can succeed as a broadcasting enterprise despite a crowded and generally hostile Middle East media environment.
"I think what AlHurra can do is actually raise the bar as far as professionalism is concerned, as to what's the news story that's credible and worthy of attention of the audience," he said.
To succeed, AlHurra will have to get in touch with the interests and hopes of its Arab viewers. Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that will be a challenge for the U.S.-based broadcaster.
"I'm not sure how many people are going to watch Alhurra," he said. "I think it's hard to run a TV station from outside the Arab world, witness the fact that so many Arab stations have moved back to the Arab world in the last few years."
Mr. Alterman says that for AlHurra to have any meaningful impact on the Arab media environment, it will have to engage in a responsive dialogue with its Arab audience.
"It has to be much more of a conversation and much less of a monologue," he said. "It's going to be very hard to do because the Arab World and the U.S often have distinctive differences on a number of very important questions. But it seems to me that the defining factor in their success is going to be whether this channel is listening well or if it's just putting out a message."
AlHurra news director Mouafac Harb acknowledges these challenges. He says he's aware of the difficulty of attracting Arab viewers and keeping them engaged and loyal. But he believes AlHurra has already become part of the complex Middle East media scene, a scene he hopes will be enriched by the new television service.