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Hussain Abdul-Hussain

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Alhurra and the Arab Spring

Posted: 02/16/2012 12:47 pm

There is one thing in common between Congress-funded Arabic TV, Alhurra, and countries of the Arab Spring. Both have unaccountable leaders, who have been in place since forever, and who look like they are staying indefinitely.

Alhurra and its sister Radio Sawa are operated by the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), a presumably independent organization and grant recipient from Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an eight-member bi-partisan president-appointed Congress-approved board headed by the Secretary of State.

In early 2002, a 9/11 scarred America was set on conquering the world using both hard power, its formidable military, and its soft one, such as Voice of America (VOA) that was created in the 1940s to broadcast to regions like Eastern Europe and counter Soviet propaganda.

VOA Arabic had a respected Arabic Service, but the Bush administration decided to replace the federally-run Arabic radio and its serious tone with a more "hip" Radio Sawa, whose popular songs on FM, more than its news bulletins, won it considerable following among young Arab listeners. A year later, the same Radio Sawa team was tasked with launching an Arabic satellite TV: Alhurra went on the air in February 2004.

Since then, the leaders of Alhurra and Sawa, none of them a journalist, have remained in place and have outlasted administrations and Congresses.

Brian Conniff, the current President of MBN, previously worked at the General Accountability Office, then Inspector General, then acting director at one of the BBG boards, and in 2002 became the Executive Director of the BBG. For some reason, the only missing date from the resume of this non-Arabic speaking bureaucrat, who supervises America'a Arabic broadcast to 22 countries, is that of when he became MBN's president.

Since I worked at Alhurra between 2004 and 2007, I know that Conniff succeeded MBN's first president, Bert Kleinman, in June 2006. According to Kleinman's LinkedIn resume, he remains on the payroll of the "Broadcasting Board of Governors/Middle East Broadcasting" as consultant. It is hard to tell whether this means that despite stepping down, Kleinman is still with MBN or not.

Conniff has been MBN's president for six years. His number two, Vice President for Network News Daniel Nassif, has been in his position for 11 years, an exceptionally long tenure by any standard. Like Conniff, Nassif never worked as a journalist prior to joining MBN.

Past criticism of Alhurra and Sawa have focused on the content of their broadcast, whether they are U.S. propaganda tools or not, and the worthiness of spending 110 million tax dollars every year on two media outlets that do not seem to have caused any dent in Arab public opinion in favor of the United States, despite pats on the back that the BBG and MBN often give themselves by citing their "always growing" number of viewers and listeners.

Such numbers are based on opinion polls that MBN engineers and attributes to AC Nielsen, even though the survey giant only executes polling as designed by Intermedia, a contractor with the BBG. Intermedia recently lost the BBG contract to Gallup, and it remains to be seen whether numbers of Alhurra viewers and Radio Sawa listeners will stay the same.

Apart from content or the number of viewers and listeners, questions should be asked about the ambiguous structure of the BBG affiliates like the MBN. These questions include: Who is in charge of recruitment at the BBG (or MBN?) to have hired the two non-journalists Conniff and Nassif to head Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa for all this time? Who appraises Conniff's and Nassif's work and renews their contracts? Who decides their salaries and bonuses? Are they federal employees and follow federal government pay scales or not? Does the BBG overlook MBN and decide on the previous questions? If yes, how can MBN claim that it is independent from the federal government?

The BBG is a transparent federal agency. Out of personal experience, I know that they respect the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). They have even posted minutes of some of the board's meetings on their website.

But MBN is a different story. What is it? Who is it accountable for?

MBN is not federal and at the same time lives off tax dollars. It does not have a website or a mission statement. Who owns MBN's assets, such as its studios in Springfield, Virginia, and around the world? Who owns its equipment? Who decides the editorial line of MBN's TV and radio and who is accountable for their operation?

Dozens of administrative questions come to mind about the shadowy MBN with little answers, even though its president was once a federal bureaucrat. This same ambiguous status has allowed MBN's leadership to serve tenures as long as those of Arab dictators. The tenures are long especially when compared to the two-year terms of those who serve on the BBG.
President Obama appointed Walter Isaacson, one of Washington's inspiring personalities and the biographer of the late Steve Jobs, as BBG chair. BBG minutes show Isaacson rooting for the idea of pooling of resources of all BBG-funded organizations, including MBN, for efficiency.
Yet at the same time, Isaacson wanted to push whichever of these organizations remaining under the federal umbrella to become "independent" like MBN, which means scrapping federal quality controls that in the past governed VOA Arabic, its recruitment, goals, policies, salaries and performance.

Whatever Isaacson had in mind while BBG Chairman, his tenure ended last month. Conniff and Nassif, however, remain in place waiting for yet another new BBG chairman. At Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa, change has yet to come.

 

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