17 May, 2007

What do all those squiggly lines mean?

Oversight is generally not regarded as being amongst the U.S. government's skill sets. (See Halliburton, KBR, $12 Billion US CASH!....) And then there's al-Hurra, "The Free", broadcasting in Arabic from the state of Virginia to the Arabic speaking world courtesy of your tax dollars and mine.

I only know of one person who watches the channel. The first family I rented a room from in Damascus lived in the U.S. for a number of years before returning to Syria. The father, born and raised in Syria as a Muslim, insisted I refer to him as 'John' instead of his kunya and was exceptionally insistent on telling me how much he hated "stupid...lazy....mindless...untrustworthy..." Arabs and Muslims until the day I moved out (about a week after moving in). But, my, did he love watching al-Hurra and always offered to change the channel to it whenever I was home, once offering to let me "watch some real news." Perhaps tellingly, the only content I ever saw broadcast the few times I tried to watch the channel were fashion runway shows. Our nation's brave message to the Arab world - "Stop eating and wear more overpriced, uncomfortable, and overly-revealing (even for me) clothes". Winning countless hearts and minds, indeed.

Unfortunately, while their fashion sense is keen their common sense is not. The people running al-Hurra in Virginia apparently neglected to hire any editorial supervisors who actually spoke Arabic. One might see this as a problem when your content is in Arabic and sometimes feeds live.

Such was the case, it seems, when they let Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah speak live for about an hour last December. Apparently, Nasrallah made comments inciting violence against Israel. Shocking. You let Nasrallah go live on air and he said what? That was followed by a broadcast of comments by Hamas leader and current Palestinian PM Ismail Haniya supposedly supporting the assertion of Iranian President Ahmadinejad that the Holocaust against European Jews was a myth. Again, not too surprising. Syndicated columnist Joel Mowbray, referring to Nasrallah, claimed on CNN "By the five-minute mark, he told the people in the audience, who were firing their guns in celebrations, not to waste their bullets, and to save their bullets for where they belong, the chest of the enemy, the Israeli enemy." I have yet to find full transcripts of either broadcast.
What do these squiggly lines mean?

The Middle East Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives grilled members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, who oversee several US funded broadcast outlets including Radio Sawa, VOA, and Radio/TV Marti, about this on Wednesday. Subcommittee chairman, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, D-N.Y, asked the $63 million dollar (current annual budget) question:

"Doesn't anybody watch the broadcasts?"

Rep. Ackerman was referring to the station's supervisory staff, but the question is just as valid for their intended audience who usually refer to the station as "the American propaganda channel" or thereabouts.

Secretary of State and de facto Broadcasting Board of Governors member Condaleeza Rice was asked in March by the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which provides funding for al-Hurra, about the incidents and admitted that "mistakes had been made".

Most of the critics are making Larry Register, al-Hurra's recently appointed news director and a former executive producer at CNN, out to be all but a member of a sleeper cell for the supposed changes wrought under his leadership. Register was appointed a month before the Nasrallah speech. CNN reporter Brian Todd paraphrased the criticism of Register: "[he] focused coverage less on corruption and human rights abuses in the Middle East, and more toward anti-American events, like the Holocaust-deniers conference in Tehran." Nine members of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations sent a letter on May 9 to Sec. Rice calling for Register to be replaced.

My main criticism is that with almost $70 million surely they could buy a copy of al-Mawred or hire somebody who speaks fluent Arabic. I know people, Larry. Arabic speakers, lots of them. Call me.

Again, al-Hurra means "The Free" and free speech is often messy, but always necessary. Do I agree with what Nasrallah and Haniya said? No. Do I want my tax dollars going to support a platform for such statements? No. Then again, I wouldn't want my tax dollars to support a station that only broadcast one side of things that felt good and easy for the U.S. government to broadcast. Personally, I don't think the governments should be in this business in the first place. What message are we sending about censorship if we censor? How is al-Hurra different from the state-owned channels in the region? If you want to be a legitimate news organization, you have to look at everything, which often includes some uncomfortable things, and from a balanced perspective. Of course it also helps to have somebody in the building who can speak the language.


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