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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 15:03 GMT
US launches Arab TV channel
By Peter Feuilherade
BBC Monitoring

From 14 February, satellite viewers in the Arab world will be able to watch a new US government-funded Arabic-language satellite TV channel called al-Hurra, meaning "The Free One".

 Katya Wakim (left) and Fadi Shahwan on the set of al-Hurra
The US hopes the channel will be an alternative to al-Jazeera and others
The channel sees its role as promoting democracy and winning over public opinion in the Arab world.

Al-Hurra is aimed at the younger audience which dominates most Arab countries.

The channel will focus on news, current affairs and discussion programmes, but will also carry general interest features on health, entertainment, sports, fashion and science and technology.

It will broadcast via Arabsat and Nilesat satellites and, in a few months, it will also be available over terrestrial transmitters in Iraq.

At its headquarters in Washington, a mixed team of some 200 Arab and US journalists say they will try to harness US production and marketing skills attuned to Arab sensibilities in their output.

They also insist they will be editorially independent.

But critics say the station will find it hard to establish independent credibility as it is being set up with funding from US Congress, which has given al-Hurra a $62m budget for its first year.

Cool response

Washington hopes its latest public diplomacy initiative will succeed as an alternative to pan-Arab satellite television broadcasters such as Qatar-based al-Jazeera or al-Arabiya, which broadcasts out of Dubai.

"Where do they get this stuff from? Why do they keep insulting us like this?
Editorial in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper
US officials see these stations as being often critical of the US, particularly in their coverage of the US-led war on terror.

But, even before its launch, al-Hurra has provoked distrust and scepticism from the Arab world.

"I have no doubt the new competition will be professional and technically sound," al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout said.

"But as for changing Arab public opinion about the US, I think it's going to take a little bit more than a new satellite channel to do that."

Syrian newspaper Tishrin was even more blunt.

"This station is part of a project to re-colonise the Arab homeland that the United States seeks to implement through a carrot-and-stick policy," it said.

And Rami Khouri said in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper that al-Hurra will be "like the US government's Radio Sawa and Hi magazine before it... an entertaining, expensive and irrelevant hoax".

"Where do they get this stuff from? Why do they keep insulting us like this?" he asked.

Hearts and minds

But Professor Hussein Amin at the American University in Cairo said that such criticism may ignite debates so far not seen in the Arab world.

Mona Atari working in the newsroom of Al-Hurra
The station is due to go on air on Saturday at 1500 GMT
"This criticism, as harsh as it may be... will open discussions about freedom of speech and expression and also human rights and issues that do not gain full coverage in the Arab media," he said.

US officials are realistic when asked about the prospects for their new satellite television venture.

They admit that, like other US efforts to win Arab hearts and minds, it faces many challenges.

Al-Hurra's critics, meanwhile, say that what the Arab world wants is a significant change in US policies affecting their region, rather than more satellite television diplomacy.

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