I find myself really bemused by the latest round of controversy over al-Hurra. I've long been a public critic of the American Arabic-language television station, and have no particular interest in defending it. On the other hand, the current wave of attacks is deceptive, dishonest, and transparently partisan on behalf of the disgruntled old regime. For the most part, I'm happy to sit it out since I've got no dog in the fight. But there is one good thing which could come out of it: perhaps al-Hurra will finally realize that it needs to be more transparent and make transcripts and feeds of its programming publicly available.
The current round of criticism, launched by Joel Mowbray in a series of Wall Street Journal op-eds, really dates back to the shift in the station's leadership. Last year, the founding director Mowafic Harb left under a cloud of criticism (a particularly damning GAO report seems to have finished him off). Neither of the key backers of Harb's al-Hurra, Norman Pattiz and the uber-partisan Ken Tomlinson, have been renominated to the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Larry Register, an old CNN hand, was brought in to replace Harb and salvage the al-Hurra project.
At the time Harb departed, al-Hurra was widely recognized as a failure, having achieved little market share and even less political impact - other than a few times when it irritated Syria, al-Hurra simply failed to generate any political debate or controversy. By all accounts the station was poorly run and demoralized; I was frequently regaled with stories of odd personnel and budget decisions. The station's management seemed far more interested in promoting itself in Congress than in the Middle East, exemplified by its endlessly chipper, exaggerated claims about a vast market share rarely replicated in independent market surveys. By last year, most observers had come around to my argument that al-Hurra was a white elephant, an expensive irrelevance. Very few American officials even bothered to appear on it, preferring to spend their valuable time on Arabic TV stations with an actual audience.
The problems went deeper than that, though. Al-Hurra's founders seemed to think that the Arab world was like the former Soviet space, deprived of information and desperate for an objective, credible source of news and free public debate. That would have been true in the 1980s. But at the time of its launch (2004) the Arab world was actually drowning in satellite television, with multiple sources of information and talk shows which already discussed all the issues which al-Hurra claimed to be introducing. Al-Hurra, with its stigma of American funding, never had a chance to be more than a drop in the ocean. But at least it could try - by exploiting its comparative advantage in covering American politics for instance, or by using its American backing as protection when covering senstive topics in Arab countries. When Larry Register took over, he began doing exactly that: trying to actually win an audience by covering issues which Arabs actually cared about, featuring a wider, more diverse range of voices, and trying (against the odds) to establish al-Hurra as a model of free media rather than American propaganda.
That's the context of Joel Mowbray's crusade against al-Hurra. Giving voice to the bitter old regime, he spins a fantasy narrative in which al-Hurra once upon a time had been successful at promoting democracy but had since abandoned critical reporting and coverage of democracy and humans rights issues. While I can't speak to the wider picture (for reasons to which I'll return in a moment), I will point out that the only al-Hurra program which I have ever seen generate any Arab public discussion was a program on torture in Egypt - which ran during Register's tenure and not Harb's. Most of his campaign relies either on channeling dirt from disgruntled employees or on cherry picking examples of bad behavior - the usual tricks of the hatchet job trade. Honestly, I'm quite impressed at the effectiveness of the conservative noise machine on this one - Mowbray's Wall Street Journal column has been pushed by conservative blogs, been picked up by other newspapers and advocacy groups, and Republican members of Congress have gotten into the action. Register's job seems to be potentially in danger. Back in 2004, I wrote in a contribution to a book edited by Bill Rugh that if al-Hurra did try to produce an effective product "it will likely find itself coming under Congressional and partisan criticism which could adversely affect its independence and budget." Thanks to Mowbray for making my point.
So, that's where I stand on this al-Hurra controversy. But Mowbray does make one very good point with which I agree wholeheartedly:
Unfortunately, there is no practicable way that Foggy Bottom, or anyone else for that matter, can effectively monitor Al-Hurra... The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the congressionally created independent panel charged with oversight, lacks the ability to conduct even basic auditing, as English transcripts are provided only on request--which rarely happens.
He's right. The lack of transparency at al-Hurra makes it impossible to have any serious oversight or accountability, as I've been arguing in vain for three years now. Al-Hurra has no live feed available in the United States (unlike Radio Sawa, to which you can listen on-line), features only a rudimentary website, and offers no transcripts of its programs in Arabic or English (unlike al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, both of which offer full transcripts of all their programs online). I used to be on al-Hurra's email list, which at least gave a list of guests and topics, but I don't seem to have received any for quite a while and at any rate that information is not available in any public site of which I'm aware. This means that even if I wanted to defend al-Hurra's programming, I couldn't.
So that's where I end up. The one good thing which can come of this overblown al-Hurra controversy would be for al-Hurra's management to realize that transparency is its best protection against cherry-picking attacks. I always suspected that al-Hurra under Harb's management resisted making transcripts or a feed available because it wanted absolute control over the station's image in Washington, and didn't want independent critics (like me) to be able to watch it. Register seems to have corrected some of the programming and institutional mistakes of his predecessor. Now he should correct this one, in his own self-interest. Al-Hurra needs to make its programming transparent, with a live feed and full transcripts (in Arabic, at least) available online. This would not only reduce the risks of cherry-picked outrage, but would - more importantly - increase its impact in the Arab world and respond constructively to demands for accountability.