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Why Are You Paying for TV No One is Watching?

Posted: 05/05/09 01:25 PM ET

In his first televised interview as President, Barack Obama chose to speak to the Arab world on Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based news channel. He was watched by 13 million Arab viewers. This decision is significant for two reasons. First, it emphasizes the high priority the new Administration places on improving relations between the United States and the Middle East. And second, because it shows that the White House lacks confidence in the U.S. government's own Arabic language news channel, Al Hurra.

This move by the Obama administration is symbolic of the widespread failure of Western-owned Arabic TV channels to establish themselves as credible news sources with Middle Eastern audiences living under dictatorship regimes. Arabs are watching news and entertainment programmes from Arabic satellite channels like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, MBC, and LBC. But they are not watching the news stations Western governments are funding to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year: BBC Arabic, the American Al Hurra, France 24 Arabic, and Deutsche Welle Arabia.

The stated goal of these channels -- to win the battle for "hearts and minds" of Arabs -- has not worked. These channels simply do not play a significant role in the daily lives of the Middle East's 320 million Arab viewers. They either need to undergo dramatic reform, or the governments promoting them should stop wasting taxpayers' money.

Middle Eastern audiences regard American and European Arabic language television with deep suspicion. They suspect them of hiding "Western agendas" behind programming, particularly when it comes to political content. This perception reflects distrust of Western foreign policies in the Middle East and often seems justified if you follow what these channels are broadcasting.

The most striking example is Al Hurra, which translates as "the Free" in Arabic. Created five years ago under President George W. Bush, Al Hurra's mandate is to improve Americas image and promote its values in the Middle East. It has already consumed a half a billion U.S. taxpayers' dollars. Yet, its journalism standards rank far below the level of major American channels, and its editorial stance on the all-important Palestinian conflict leans sharply in favour of Israel.

It also censors key voices on issues central to the Arab worldview. Why would one expect Arab viewers to tune in to Al Hurra when, for example, it never broadcasts speeches by Hassan Nasrallah? After all, the Hezbollah leader's public appearances are shown live on all other Arabic news channels.

The result is that Al Hurra's current viewership represents less than 3% of the potential market and drops below 2% in times of crisis.

The British, who have a longstanding experience in the Middle East, launched an Arabic service at the beginning of the 1990s. Following an initial setback with the loss of Saudi financial support for the initiative (they disagreed on the editorial line), the BBC made a second attempt and created BBC Arabic in 2008, this time with in-house funding.

Yet much like Al Hurra, BBC Arabic has failed to establish itself with Arab viewers. International news channels such as Al Arabiya gained fame thanks to exclusive coverage of the Iraq conflict in 2003 and Jazeera was made notorious during its exclusive coverage from Kabul in 2001. But BBC Arabic missed the opportunity of the Gaza conflict of end of 2008 early 2009 to distinguish itself. That conflict split Arab TV stations and their viewers along the lines of the Palestinian divisions. Al Jazeera Arabic's coverage supported the Hamas movement in lyrical and emotional storytelling rather than straight TV news coverage while Arabiya leant toward Fatah. There was a clear gap in the market, and BBC Arabic could have set itself apart with breaking news coverage and factual content that did not favour a particular political position. It failed, offering instead more bland coverage from outside the war zone.

To understand what BBC Arabic could have done differently, you only needed to watch another newcomer who excelled in reporting the Gaza conflict: Al Jazeera English, a parent company with Al Jazeera Arabic. Launched in November 2006, Al Jazeera English aired exclusive stories from correspondents inside Gaza, where journalists had been denied access by the Israeli army. In fact, a top European Union diplomat admitted, "We only knew what was really happening inside Gaza thanks to Al Jazeera English". Such exceptional coverage marked the rise of the channel, but unfortunately for those in the Middle East, in English not Arabic.

The Arab-speaking world is in dire need of the kind of coverage Al Jazeera English provides. To help fill this void, Western governments must do more than pour money into perceived propaganda machines like Al Hurra. Arabic channels operated by Western states must maintain high journalism standards, provide balanced coverage and include uncensored news about controversial subjects of high importance to Arab viewers, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. This is the only way to attract a wider audience in the Arab world.

Nadim Hasbani is Senior Media Analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, www.crisisgroup.org