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TV station draws barbs in Middle East

US effort geared to Arab viewers

CAIRO -- Even before its first broadcast, a satellite television station financed by the US government and directed at Arab viewers is drawing fire in the Middle East as an American attempt to destroy Islamic values and brainwash the young.

Al-Hurra, or The Free One, is to start broadcasting tomorrow. President Bush has promised that the news station, which will build up to 24-hour programming within a month, will "cut through the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world."

It already has landed a one-on-one interview with Bush. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has said the interview allows Bush to tell of "his commitment to spreading freedom and democracy in the Middle East."

The Bush administration's hope is that a fashionably produced Arab-language station will help stem anti-Americanism fueled by the war on terrorism, the occupation of Iraq and US support for Israel.

Al-Hurra will be broadcast from Washington but have facilities in several capitals, including Baghdad, and a largely Arab staff. It is publicly funded, costing about $62 million in its first year.

The station promises a balanced approach -- a possibility critics dismiss -- but it has a long way to go to capture some Arab hearts and minds.

"The main goals of launching such a channel are to create drastic changes in our principles and doctrines," said Jamil Abu-Bakr, a spokesman for Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood movement. "But the nature of Arab and Muslim societies and their rejection and hatred of American policies . . . will ultimately limit the impact."

Abu-Bakr condemned al-Hurra as "part of the American media and cultural invasion of our region." Arab journalists also have widely criticized al-Hurra in editorials and columns as unwanted or even dangerous propaganda.

Norman Pattiz, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs al-Hurra as well as the Voice of America radio network, dismissed the criticism, saying the station is about news, not propaganda.

"People can sit there and say whatever they want before it launches," Pattiz said, adding that people should watch and decide for themselves. "I think they may be interested in the fact that we may bring a different perspective."

He defended the Bush interview, saying it isn't a speech or welcoming address, but rather probes into subjects that will be of interest to people in the region. The station will also interview regional leaders in the Middle East, he said.

"Once people start watching us, we'll have to walk the walk -- and we're going to have to prove that we are reliable and credible," Pattiz said. "Without credibility, we are lost."

The US government has tried reaching out directly to Arabs in other ways, most recently through the Arabic-language Radio Sawa and a slick Arabic-English magazine, "hi," about American culture and life.

Radio Sawa -- sawa means together in Arabic -- began broadcasting shortly before Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted in April. "hi" debuted in July in 14 Arab countries. Both also are accessible on the Internet.

Neither are smash hits, though many young Arabs say they enjoy Radio Sawa's Arabic and Western pop music even if they look elsewhere for news. Pattiz, however, said their polls indicate a favorable response to Sawa's news.

Rami G. Khouri, executive editor of Lebanon's The Daily Star, expects Al-Hurra to "exacerbate the gap between Americans and Arabs, rather than close it."

"Al-Hurra, like the US government's Radio Sawa and `hi' magazine before it, will be an entertaining, expensive, and irrelevant hoax. Where do they get this stuff from? Why do they keep insulting us like this?" he wrote.

Al-Hurra is America's answer to the popular all-news Arab satellite networks it accuses of fanning anti-American sentiments, such as Al Jazeera.

Over the past decade, the Arab world has witnessed an explosion of satellite TV stations, both state-sponsored and private, resulting in a previously unheard of range of broadcast opinions. Al-Jazeera has been lambasted by nearly every Arab regime for airing views of government opponents.

Al-Hurra does have some Arab defenders.

"Everyone is entitled to express his or her opinion. This is an open sky and nobody should be afraid of that," said Samiha Dahroug, head of Egypt's Nile News Channel.

But Dahroug added that Washington's image won't improve among Arabs until it changes its policies toward them.

"America is judged by how it conducts itself in the world," she said. "The facts speak for themselves."

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