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29 January 2004

U.S. Prepares to Beam Arabic Satellite TV Channel to Mideast

Alhurra network aims to broadcast credible information round the clock

By David Shelby
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The U.S. government will begin broadcasting the Alhurra satellite television network to the Middle East in the coming weeks.

Alhurra will broadcast its 24-hour-a-day Arabic language news and information service over the Arabsat and Nilesat with what the network's creators hope will set a new standard for satellite news in the region.

"We believe there is a market there for news you can depend on, a market for current affairs you can depend on," said Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of Alhurra's parent company, the U.S. government's Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

Speaking to the Washington File January 28, Tomlinson stated, "In my view, we can develop a market for the fact that the news is straight."

Many critics of the station maintain that the network will have a difficult time establishing independent credibility as it is being established with $32 million in funding from the U.S. Congress and is expected to receive an additional $30 million in congressional appropriations for its first year of operation.

Tomlinson responded that viewers in the Middle East will make the critical decision as to whether Alhurra's information is credible or not. "The people aren't stupid. If we're slanting the news, the people will figure it out," he said.

He added, "If you look at television in the Middle East, you either have state run stations or people with an axe to grind." According to Tomlinson, Alhurra will challenge that with "accuracy -- news and current events that are compelling, interesting to people's needs, and meaningful."

Tomlinson contends that people will want to watch Alhurra because it will offer "real competition."

The BBG chairman observed that there are a lot of important issues in the Middle East that are not reported. He indicated that Alhurra will "fully report on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" but that it will also delve into "the host of other stories that people are concerned about."

According to a fact sheet released by the BBG, the station will feature news and information on a variety of subjects including health, personal fitness, entertainment, sports, fashion and science and technology. Programming will include talk shows, current affairs magazines and roundtables.

The fact sheet states, "The station's news coverage and information will endeavor to broaden the viewers' perspectives, enabling them to think for themselves and inspiring them to make better decisions."

As an example of such an undertaking, Tomlinson said the station would "have a debate between a radical Islamic figure and a moderate Muslim and let people make up their own minds."

The base for the station's production and broadcasting will be in the United States, but the network will have bureaus in Dubai, Amman and Baghdad. In addition, it will use stringers and correspondents from all over the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

The BBG has begun recruiting local talent, hiring reporters and technicians and making arrangements with other news organizations that will give it the broadest possible access to stories and events around the Middle East.

"We're into this for the long haul," Tomlinson said. "Satellite television is the greatest media phenomenon and the greatest political phenomenon of the 21st century, and we'll be there."

The BBG fact sheet notes that more than 75 percent of households in the Gulf States have satellite access as do 30 percent of residents in Gaza and the West Bank and 10 to 20 percent of homes in Egypt.

The station will be available over terrestrial transmitters in Iraq.