Lost in Translation: Alhurra—America’s Troubled Effort to Win Middle East Hearts and Minds
July 22: This post has been corrected.
An Arab-language television network and radio station, founded by the Bush administration to promote a positive image of the United States, has aired anti-American and anti-Israeli viewpoints, has showcased pro-Iranian policies and recently gave air time to a militant who called for the death of American soldiers in Iraq.
So far, U.S. taxpayers have spent nearly $500 million to fund those broadcasts. The television station, called Alhurra, and the radio network, Sawa, were meant to provide an American perspective on world events and counter the wave of global criticism that had been building against the Bush administration since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Instead, Alhurra’s four years of operation have been marked by a string of broadcast disasters that government officials believe are as negative as anything aired by Al Jazeera, the widely watched Qatar-based station that aired unedited speeches of Osama bin Laden.
Alhurra’s reporters and commentators operate with little oversight. Alhurra’s president, Brian Conniff, does not speak Arabic and is unable to understand anything broadcast on the radio and television networks he is paid to manage. Conniff has no journalism experience and worked previously as a government auditor. His news director, Daniel Nassif, grew up in Lebanon and has no background in television. Before coming to the network, he helped promote the political aspirations in Washington of a Lebanese Christian former general.
Both men said in interviews that they are providing effective supervision of the network’s five 24-hour radio and television broadcasts and they praised their staff as professional and committed. A string of highly publicized “mistakes” are behind them, Conniff said.
That does not appear to be the case.
Last year, outraged members of Congress threatened to withhold funding for Alhurra, which means “The Free One,” after the network aired a report on a Holocaust deniers conference in Tehran. The reporter who covered the conference told viewers that Jews had provided no scientific evidence of the Holocaust.
Top executives told Congress last year they had fired the reporter, Ahmad Amin.
But this week, in response to a joint investigation by ProPublica and CBS’ 60 Minutes, network executives acknowledged that Amin continued to work for Radio Sawa until June 12.
Two people with knowledge of the matter said that in the past week, all of Amin’s previous reports had been purged from Radio Sawa’s electronic storage system. Deirdre Kline, the spokeswoman for Sawa and Alhurra, did not respond to queries about whether his previous reports were available.
The ProPublica/60 Minutes examination of the Springfield, Va.-based Alhurra and Sawa found an untrained, largely foreign staff with little knowledge of the country whose values and policies they were hired to promote. There appeared to be little oversight of the daily operations.
During a visit to Alhurra’s studios in June, reporters, producers, cameramen and technical staff were busy preparing broadcasts for an audience half-way around the world. Conniff, who is the president of Alhurra and Radio Sawa, stood outside an editorial meeting but could not understand it – his Middle Eastern staff discussed the day’s stories in Arabic and no one offered Conniff a simultaneous translation.
“There is no adult supervision there by people who know what is on the actual broadcasts,” said William Rugh, who served as U.S. Ambassador in Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. “You need bilingual managers who understand both languages and cultures and understand journalism.”
Financial accountability also appears to be lacking. In its four years, the network has been unable to provide full documentation to auditors to account for its spending, according to two people familiar with the records and a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office.
U.S. experts on the Arab world have long worried that the network was doing little to help America’s image in the region. Unpublished reports, audits and internal government e-mail show a steady stream of concern inside the State Department, in Congress, at the government’s broadcasting headquarters and even inside the network itself that Alhurra and Sawa are undermining U.S. policy goals while sometimes promoting the interests of Iran and its allies. ProPublica is making available, for the first time, some of these documents.
Alhurra and Sawa have remained impervious to reform, in part because the Arabic-language broadcasts are beamed only overseas. No one translates the full broadcasts into English, making it nearly impossible for non-Arabic speakers to effectively know what is going on the air. A small team inside the State Department set up to monitor foreign broadcasts stopped watching Alhurra long ago, one senior diplomat said, and never listened to Radio Sawa.
Despite its years of difficulties, Alhurra’s budget has steadily increased. It began with a $67 million budget in 2004 and has asked for $112 million in 2009. Half the government’s investment in public diplomacy -- an effort in promoting this country’s image overseas -- goes to foreign broadcasting. Alhurra and Sawa get the largest share of that money.
Cutting Through ‘The Barriers of Hateful Propaganda’
Alhurra was unveiled as a bold foreign policy innovation in 2004. In his State of the Union address, just three weeks before the network went on air, President Bush announced that the United States was launching a television station for the Middle East and expanded radio broadcasts in Arabic and Farsi.
Such an audacious strategy, Bush said, would “cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda,” that his administration had come to blame for the loss of global support for the United States. He was proposing what would become the largest and most expensive effort in America’s long history of public diplomacy.
Unlike Al Jazeera, Bush said, this new, U.S.-funded network “will begin providing reliable news and information across the region.”
But an examination of the network’s practices revealed that American supervisors aren’t monitoring closely and that their Arabic assistants sample just a tiny fraction of the broadcasting aired each day.
When Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah railed against the U.S. government and threatened Israel, Alhurra carried it live and unedited. When U.S. combat deaths in Iraq surpassed 4,000 in March, Radio Sawa interviewed an anonymous militant who told listeners: “Occupation is occupation. We need to resist them and kill more than 4,000.” In March, Alhurra aired a documentary on the “The Crusades” -- a series of military campaigns that Christian Europe waged against the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. Muslim staffers saw the program as an unfortunate reprise of Bush’s 2001 comment that the coming “war on terrorism,” would be a “crusade.”
In May, after Bush addressed Muslim leaders at a peace conference in Egypt, Alhurra offered its viewers analyses only by guests critical of U.S. policy. The expert invited to shed light on the Palestinian perspective described Israel as an “occupying and racist state,” that “perpetrates a holocaust against 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza.”
Conniff said he was unfamiliar with the broadcast but that any suggestion that Alhurra was biased against Israel was wrong.
He also said Nassif and another employee keep him informed of programming decisions and that he feels his system works.
Yet, Arabic speakers in the State Department have sent repeated memos and e-mails to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Alhurra and Sawa, and to Karen Hughes, who served as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs until last year.
Alberto Fernandez, an Arabic speaker who served as the top public diplomacy officer for the Middle East until recently, wrote Hughes in March 2007 that Alhurra’s Baghdad operation was stocked “with radical Shi’a Islamists who favored their political brethren and discriminated against and intimidated members of other parties … especially during the Iraqi electoral season.”
Earlier, State Department officials attributed the poor showing of Washington’s preferred candidate for Prime Minister in the 2005 vote, in part, to the negative coverage he received on Alhurra, in favor of Islamist candidates who enjoyed support from Iran.
A senior U.S. diplomat who worked closely with Hughes at the time said she focused on other aspects of public diplomacy such as exchange programs and did not want to wade deeply into “the mess Alhurra was in.”
One official said Hughes had instructed an Arabic speaker on the State Department’s media response team to monitor Alhurra for a week during the spring of 2007. The assignment resulted in a brief report that described Alhurra’s programming as “very pro-Lebanese, pro-Hezbollah,” another diplomat said.
The Changing Face of U.S. Overseas Broadcasts
U.S. radio broadcasts to the Middle East formally began in 1950 when the Voice of America -- the broadcasting arm created to counter Nazi propaganda -- beamed its radio programs in Arabic. They were aimed at countries the United States feared would fall under Soviet influence.
“VOA’s Arabic service would always have a little reading from the Koran when it opened its news hour,” said Nicholas J. Cull, a media and public diplomacy professor at the University of Southern California. “The point then was to showcase the United States as religiously tolerant as opposed to the Godless Communists.”
The Sept. 11 attacks changed VOA’s mission. The Arabic service was suddenly criticized for failing to reach a youthful audience. In the hope of appealing to young men who were being recruited by Islamic fundamentalists, the station was rebranded as Radio Sawa, which means “Together.” The station blended news bulletins with Arabic and English language pop songs.
Sawa went live in March 2002 and was an instant hit in Iraq as the only station broadcasting information critical of Saddam Hussein. By the time U.S. troops rolled into Baghdad, Sawa had expanded to include a separate, Iraq-only service that specialized in breaking news. The BBG, the federal agency that oversees foreign broadcasts, picked Mouafac Harb, a charismatic Lebanese journalist, to set up the operation.
Bush Administration officials championed Sawa, but it was immediately criticized by U.S. diplomats stationed in the Middle East. Cables from U.S. diplomats in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, also reviewed by ProPublica, complained that the quality of the newscasts were poor, the newsreaders seemed unprofessional and lacked credibility.
In addition, a never-released report by the State Department’s Inspector General shared with ProPublica found “irregularities in contracting,” a hiring process that “may have been marred by favoritism toward Lebanese candidates or candidates of Lebanese ancestry,” and a “lack of strategic goals and objectives.”
Two years later, Harb was named the first news director for the Alhurra television network. He rented the abandoned studios of a former local television station in Virginia and spruced up the sets. He then filled the newsroom largely with inexperienced Christian Lebanese reporters hired in his native Beirut and signed lucrative sole-source contracts with friends who ran advertising agencies, production companies and warehouses across the Middle East. Some low-level staff members were highly paid, including a hairdresser from Lebanon who coiffed the anchors for $100,000 a year.
New hires were promised an American Green Card if they lasted two years with the network.
Harb did not respond to e-mail requests for comment.
Harb told Congress the network had achieved soaring viewership and popularity in the Middle East. He dismissed polls that showed Alhurra with no more than 2 percent of the Middle East audience share and blamed complaints about the content on his initial budget, which he believed was too small to allow Alhurra to compete with media giants such as Al Jazeera.
While Harb projected a confident air, unease was growing at the State Department, particularly over Alhurra’s coverage of Lebanese politics and news from Iraq.
According to a series of internal e-mails, State Department officials had been trying to rein in Harb for years. In his 2007 e-mail to Karen Hughes, Alberto Fernandez, the public diplomacy chief, wrote that Middle East experts inside the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad had complained “in 2004, 2005 and 2006.”
Alhurra’s leadership, the e-mail said, had “stocked much of its Washington and Lebanon staff with partisans of former Lebanese general Michel Aoun who is now closely allied to the terrorist group Hezbollah.” Fernandez noted the “excessive and fawning” coverage Aoun enjoyed from Alhurra, “even though Aoun has now become quite a poisonous critic of the US and an apologist for Hezbollah’s efforts to bring down Lebanon’s nascent democracy.”
Officials from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and even an al-Qaida financier appeared as talk-show guests on Alhurra while Harb was in charge. Alhurra’s policy is to pay guests; honorariums range from $150 to $1,500 for a single appearance, documents show.
Still, Alhurra was awarded key interviews with senior U.S. government officials. When Bush addressed the Arab world after the revelations of torture at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, he appeared on Alhurra, interviewed by Harb.
In a 2005 oversight hearing, Harb acknowledged that he had cut procedural corners on hiring and contracting but said he had to call on friends to launch the station in four months.
Following Congressional and government inquiries into the financial and management issues at Alhurra that multiplied in the spring of 2006, Harb resigned and returned to Beirut with his wife, a telegenic TV host who had anchored her own cultural affairs program for the network.
The administration turned to Larry Register, a former CNN executive with 20 years of broadcasting experience to bring more professional management to Alhurra. In a recent interview, Register said he had been ordered to “clean house,” so he fired employees, renegotiated contracts and questioned deals.
“It infuriated me as a U.S. citizen to walk in there and see the money just flowing out the door. A true waste of taxpayer money,” said Register, who had previously served as CNN bureau chief in Jerusalem.
Register said the newsroom had broken-up into “militias” along ethnic, religious and national lines.
“It felt like somebody had picked up the Middle East and brought it to Springfield, Virginia, of all places.” Register said he tried to establish editorial oversight, produce a credible newscast and, above all, win viewers.
But it didn’t take long for Register to get into trouble.
Part of Alhurra’s problem, he said, was that viewers saw it as an American propaganda station, unwilling to cover big stories in the region. When Israel assassinated the spiritual leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, Alhurra ran a cooking show. Register told the staff he wouldn’t shy away from the truth.
In his first weeks, Register approved the live, unedited broadcast of a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah is one of the most influential figures in the Arab world today but he is a terrorist to the United States government. Alhurra officials said the speech violated the network’s code of ethics which states that Alhurra will not be a platform for “terrorists.”
The following week, Alhurra aired Ahmad Amin’s report on the Holocaust deniers conference.
Three months later, as Register continued to ferret out financial arrangements and side-deals at the station, the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page reported on the two broadcasts.
Congress expressed outrage, particularly over the Holocaust report from Tehran. Several called for Register's resignation and after seven months on the job, he quit.
At a May 2007 Congressional hearing, members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Alhurra executives assured lawmakers that Amin had been fired and that editorial safety nets were now in place.
Joaquin Blaya, a member of the government board, was asked directly whether Amin had been dismissed.
His response to Congressman Mike Pence (R-Ind.): “that is correct,” according to transcripts of the hearings. Congressional officials said neither Alhurra nor the BBG has since informed the appropriate oversight committees that Amin continued to work for Radio Sawa.
Blaya did not respond to requests for comment. Kline, spokeswoman for the network, said that Blaya and Brian Conniff were “talking specifically” in their testimony about whether Amin was employed by Alhurra, the television network. She said he stopped working for Alhurra in 2007.
“There was no mention of Sawa during the hearings,” Kline said in e-mail, “and it would be incorrect to imply otherwise.”
Kline offered conflicting explanations of Amin’s status in a series of e-mails over several days to ProPublica.
She initially said that Conniff only recently learned of Amin’s continued employment and was stunned that Register had failed to carry out orders to end Amin’s relationship with the radio station. Register, however, did not oversee Sawa during his brief time at the network. The radio station was run by Nassif, now the current news director. When pressed, Kline later said Nassif had known the reporter was still on the Radio Sawa payroll but had never been told to fire him.
An internal e-mail shows that Amin was let go on June 12, the day after he covered a state visit to Tehran by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and just as ProPublica and 60 Minutes were raising questions about him. Kline declined to say when Amin was fired or what had precipitated it.
Alhurra: A Ratings Flop
Alhurra has not come close to realizing the Bush Administration’s hope that it would someday compete with Al Jazeera, the most-watched station in the Middle East. According to six years of polling by Zogby and the University of Maryland, Al Jazeera remains the favored channel for news for more than 50 percent of Middle East viewers.
Shibley Telhami, a public opinion expert at the University of Maryland, said that about two percent of the audience rates Alhurra as their preferred source of news, about the same percentage that Hezbollah’s Al-Manar station receives.
Al Arabiya, another competitor launched a year before Alhurra, has a 9 percent slice of the audience. That station, which is funded by the Saudi government, has a budget considered to be comparable to Alhurra’s, and its coverage is generally welcomed by the Bush administration.
Alhurra has a separate broadcast for Iraq where its share of audience is larger. Still, Alhurra is the number four network in Iraq. After four years on air, Telhami said, Alhurra’s impact on public opinion has been “less than zero.”
“For most people in the region,” he said “it’s not really on the radar screen.”
James Glassman, who replaced Hughes at the State Department, disagrees. He said government polling shows that even if Alhurra ranks low by percent, millions of people are still watching. He said that as many as 26 million -- roughly 8.5 percent of the Arabic speaking population of the Middle East -- tune into Alhurra for some period of time each week.
“Our idea with Alhurra was to create a network that provided high quality, professional journalism with American standards,” Glassman said. The aim, he said, was “balance, objectivity, which really did not exist in the Middle East.”
But William Rugh, the former ambassador who speaks Arabic and has written extensively on Arab media, said Al Jazeera’s coverage of the United States is more in-depth than Alhurra’s and he says the top-rated station covers issues and sparks debate in ways that Alhurra does not.
“Al Jazeera has a whole series of talk shows in which very sensitive, controversial issues are raised by the participants and they have women’s shows as well. They deal with short comings of various Arab governments way beyond what Alhurra does and it is shocking that in some ways, Al Jazeera has done better than Alhurra in covering the United States.”
A study due out next month by a University of Southern California team questions whether the network has achieved either objectivity or professionalism. The review was commissioned by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Alhurra.
Researchers involved in the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the BBG set tight parameters for the study, telling investigators to focus only on content aired on Alhurra’s pan-Arab station and not to compare it with broadcasts by competitors. Researchers were not allowed to interview Alhurra staff or to select the period of coverage to examine.
After reviewing broadcasts from the month of November, the USC team concluded that reporters and anchormen on Alhurra cited claims about Washington’s “war on terror” that were unsubstantiated, or not backed up by evidence, 30 percent of the time. The study found that personal opinion was often expressed on-air. Objectivity was rated low.
The researchers studied the network’s coverage of the three-day Mideast summit in Annapolis, Md. and found that it strongly favored U.S. and Israeli government positions. Throughout November, they concluded, the network also strongly supported the Iraqi government and was especially favorable to pro-Iranian political figures inside Iraq.
At round-table discussions held in Egypt and Lebanon, audiences gave Alhurra low marks. In Cairo, participants laughed after watching clips, researchers said. The viewers pointed out that Alhurra programs included poor translations. They said it was difficult to understand the Lebanese accents of some hosts and reporters and they noted embarrassing misspellings, including the word “Syria.”
Conniff said he and his staff have worked hard to improve the station’s quality. Alhurra has made election coverage a specialty area and offers programming on women’s issues, American culture and blue jeans.
A recent report by the State Department’s Inspector General noted that Alhurra now has a functioning assignment desk, holds regular editorial meetings and has hosted mini-training sessions with journalism professors.
But the IG also cast doubt on claims by Nassif, the news director, that he alone is able to oversee the content of Alhurra’s three 24-hour broadcasts, and Sawa’s two radio services. Nassif told inspectors and reporters from ProPublica and 60 Minutes that he approves every guest for every show and is available 24-hours a day.
Glassman, the Undersecretary of State who was chairman of the BBG for the last year, said U.S. taxpayers are right to be concerned about Alhurra. “We’ve made mistakes and we will and have rectified them.”
However, he said Alhurra was delivering high-quality programming to a “part of the world that’s absolutely critical to American interests, that is not hearing and seeing this kind of broadcasting right now. And it makes the world safer, I believe, that we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Glassman, who was initially skeptical of Alhurra, added another thought.
“It wouldn’t be bad if we got put out of business. That is to say, if the Arab world’s own media became so good as, let’s say, the media in Poland did after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Now, is that going to happen in five years? I kind of doubt it. But it’s certainly possible.”
Robert Lewis contributed research to this story.
Correction: This post originally stated that Alhurra president Brian Conniff "sat in on a morning editorial meeting" conducted wholly in Arabic. Conniff actually stood outside the door of the room where the meeting was conducted. Also, an e-mail from Alberto Fernandez was incorrectly stated as being sent to Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes in May 2007. It was sent in March 2007. The story also incorrectly stated that according to one set of ratings, "Alhurra is the number four network in Iraq, behind Al-Jazeera, and two others." While Alhurra is number four, it ranks ahead of Al-Jazeera in those ratings. Finally, the story also incorrectly stated that James Glassman served for six months as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He actually served for one year.
The U.S. taxpayer-funded, Arab-language network has been plagued by mismanagement and concerns over its content.
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