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Monday, June 23, 2008

The American quagmire called Al-Hurra

In President Bush's 2004 State of the Union address, he announced the founding of Al-Hurra, an Arabic television network sponsored by the United States government and designed to counter the anti-American and anti-Israeli biases of stations like Al-Jazzeera. While the idea seemed like a good one, it hasn't worked out the way it was planned. Seven years after 9/11, the United States still does not have Arabic speakers who are capable of presenting a pro-American (let alone pro-Israeli) viewpoint, and that's likely why Al-Hurra has failed. I blogged a previous Al-Hurra scandal (which is mentioned in the report below) here.

On Sunday night, CBS News' 60 Minutes did a lengthy report on Al-Hurra. Let's go to the videotape, and then I will have a comment at the end.

My only beef with the report itself is the implicit complaint that Al-Hurra is not 'unbiased.' Al-Hurra was never intended to be unbiased, and the expectation that it be so is one that is appropriate in Western countries with multiple sources of news and information. But in places like the Arab world, where all the other media presents one view and one view only, it would be legitimate and appropriate for another station like Al-Hurra to present a view that is not otherwise being heard by the locals. Unfortunately, however, that has not happened.


The 60 Minutes feature was done together with the public interest journalism site Pro Publica (Hat Tip: Memeorandum). Pro Publica provides more background on one of the more scandalous stories in the CBS report: The failure to fire reporter Ahmad Amin after his outrageous reports from the Holocaust denial conference in Tehran.

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.


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.

Pro Publica also has more details on Radio Sawa, the radio side of Al Hurra:
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.

Read the whole thing.

More on Al-Hurra here.


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