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13 February 2004

U.S. Launches Arabic Satellite Television Broadcasts Feb. 14 Alhurra aims to deliver "accuracy" and "free and open debate"

By David Shelby
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The Alhurra satellite television station is set to begin broadcasting Arabic language news and information programming across the Middle East and North Africa February 14.

The station is scheduled to begin its first broadcast day at 10:00 am U.S. eastern standard time. The broadcast schedule will expand progressively over the first month of operations to the point of providing a round-the-clock news and information service by March 14.

President Bush granted an exclusive interview to Alhurra journalists for the launch. Excerpts of this interview will be carried on February 14 and the entire interview will be aired on February 15.

In congressional testimony February 10, Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), stated, "We will challenge the voices of hate and repression with truth and the voices of tolerance and moderation. The people will hear free and open discussions not just about conflict in the Middle East, but also about subjects critical to that region's future. We are talking about economic development and human rights and respect for minorities."

The BBG, a U.S. government financed company, has received a $62 million congressional appropriation to fund the establishment and first year's operating costs for the Alhurra project.

The Alhurra project has been greeted with skepticism in much of the Middle Eastern press where many local pundits maintain that the station will be dismissed as government propaganda.

In response to such skepticism, Tomlinson said, "Our competitive edge in the Middle East is our very dedication to truth and free and open debate. And we will stand out like a beacon of light in a media market dominated by sensationalism and distortion."

Tomlinson underscored the importance of the BBG's membership, which includes professionals from various fields of communications and print and broadcast journalism, for its ability to serve as a firewall between the policymaking establishment and the journalists.

The BBG chairman expressed his respect for government spokesmen who articulate the official policy but stated, "International broadcasting on the other hand is called upon to reflect the highest standards of independent journalism as the best means of demonstrating to international audiences that truth is on the side of democratic values."

He cited, in particular, the standards of professional journalistic objectivity that the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE) maintained during the Watergate hearings in the 1970s as an example of how a free and independent press organization can and should function regardless of its ties to state funding.

"Over the years I have heard so many citizens of post-communist countries tell how those broadcasts helped them understand the real meaning of freedom and democracy," he said.

Tomlinson went on to say that the United States must "reach out to others in the world of Islam and beyond whose sources of information about the U.S. and democracy have misled them and continue to do so today."

In so doing, he maintained, Alhurra can offer "accurate information they need to compare their political, economic, and social system to those that exist successfully elsewhere in the world. If they can accurately assess their own leadership, if they can distinguish between the truth and the propaganda of our enemies, the people will have the tools that will lead to change."

Chairman of the BBG's Middle East Committee Norman Pattiz stated in a February 12 press release, "Alhurra will present fresh perspectives for viewers in the Middle East that we believe will create more cultural understanding and respect."

"A key part of our mission is to be an example of a free press in the American tradition," Pattiz added. "We've assembled a highly professional group of journalists, primarily from the region, to provide the kind of news and information that will resonate with our viewing audience and enable them to make informed decisions."

Tomlinson offered more insight into this point in a recent interview with the Washington File, observing that there are a number of issues in the Middle East that go unreported. While Alhurra will cover all of the major issues of the day, he said, it would also address "the host of other stories that people are concerned about."

He also affirmed the station's commitment to a fair and balanced framing of the debates, saying, for example, that the station would "have a debate between a radical Islamic figure and a moderate Muslim and let people make up their own minds."

In a bid to offer "real competition" in the Middle East media market, Alhurra would present "accuracy -- news and current events that are compelling, interesting to people's needs, and meaningful," Tomlinson said.

According to the BBG's press release, prime time programming will include two, one-hour in-depth newscasts, a nightly live talk show called "Free Hour," and Arabic translations of documentary and information programming from producers around the world.

Daily broadcasts will also include discussion programs, current affairs magazines and features on a variety of subjects, including health and personal fitness, entertainment, sports, fashion, and science and technology.

Prime time schedules will be posted on the station's website, www.alhurra.com. Currently the site is a simple informational page, but BBG officials plan to develop it into an interactive website as the station's programming and operations begin to function more fully.

Alhurra will be broadcast over the Arabsat and Nilesat satellites. It will also be available in the future over terrestrial transmission systems in Iraq.