School of Media and Communication

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To reach Arabs, try changing the channel by M Fandy

To Reach Arabs, Try Changing The Channel

By Mamoun Fandy

Sunday, December 2, 2001; Page B02

On the ground in Afghanistan, the United States seems to be winning the military war on terrorism. But in its public diplomacy campaign, it is faltering. It has failed to win the full support of the Arab world, on which the larger victory will depend if it is to succeed in the long term. The problem isn't so much the Bush administration's message but the fact that it isn't being communicated very well to the world's 250 million Arabs. And that's largely because of Washington's ignorance of the diversity of Arab media, audiences and news consumption habits.

As an analyst and frequent contributor to the Arab media for the past 15 years, I am disheartened by how little the U.S. government knows about Arab media and by how it embarked on the wrong course early in its war on terror by embracing one Arab television channel, the notoriously anti-American al-Jazeera.

In the past two months, al-Jazeera, the satellite network owned by the government of Qatar, has practically become a household name in the United States. It is, of course, the channel that Osama bin Laden used to broadcast his taped messages to the world; Washington responded by granting the network exclusive interviews with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

But relatively few in the region watch al-Jazeera (only about 10 percent of Arabs have satellite dishes) and those who do, don't necessarily trust it.

Rather than al-Jazeera, the Bush administration should work with the media outlets across the region that are popular and highly regarded, where it has the best shot of getting a fair hearing.

From North Africa to the Gulf states, Arabs typically watch their own national TV networks.But when they are in doubt about the accuracy of the reporting, they turn to one of several trusted state-subsidized radio services, and America should do the same to get its message across. These include, most notably, the BBC World Service, the French government's Radio Monte Carlo and Egyptian Radio. (Radio is particularly important in Sudan and parts of Algeria, where there are far fewer TVs than elsewhere in the region, and in Libya, where television programming is heavily censored.)

Among satellite TV networks, the most popular -- for news -- and the most highly regarded are the London-based Middle East Broadcasting Corp. (MBC), Abu Dhabi TV and Orbit TV, and Egyptian TV.

Three pan-Arab newspapers -- Asharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat, both based in London, and Al-Ahram in Cairo -- have the respect of readers across the region. The best, Asharq Al-Awsat, distributes in 19 Arab countries, plus Europe and the United States. Its readership is estimated at half a million. Its Web site is the most popular in the Arab world and receives an average of 1.5 million hits per day. This paper has the region's best coverage of the war on terrorism, but when it sent requests for interviews to the State Department and the White House two months ago, it heard nothing, according to its editor, Abdul Rahaman Al-Rashid, an unabashed supporter of the United States.

By granting interviews to al-Jazeera while ignoring requests from well-respected newspapers such as Asharq Al-Awsat and Al-Ahram, the United States leaves the impression that it is ignoring its friends.

"It appears that America rewards only those who hate the U.S. and its policies. America gives access to the very forces that agitate against the U.S. and flirt with terrorism," Al-Rashid told me.

Many other Arab journalists have said they are equally baffled by the United States having lent its prestige to al-Jazeera, a channel that many in the region consider to be controlled by Islamic fundamentalists and Arab nationalist demagogues.But in this country, seemingly overnight, the network has been perceived as an oasis of free speech. Everything I read in the American press about al-Jazeera -- that it is independent and unbiased -- sounds as if it is taken word for word from a pamphlet put out by the Einstein Consulting Group, a London public relations firm hired by Qatar to promote the network. Americans have taken the bait.

"It is this American naivete that gets [it] in trouble" in the Arab world, said Rida Hilal, a liberal columnist for Al-Ahram. Competing with bin Laden on al-Jazeera -- which refers to American forces in Afghanistan as "the enemy" -- is a no-win situation.

During Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting that ends Dec. 17, Washington should tailor its strategy slightly. Like people in any country, most Arabs are not news junkies, except in times of crisis. Normally, sports and entertainment top the list for the ordinary viewer, and this is particularly true during Ramadan, studies show. It is for this reason that the most watched pan-Arab satellite channels during Ramadan, especially among youth, are MBC, Egyptian satellite television, and the Lebanese channels LBC and al-Mustaqbal. During the rest of Ramadan, any U.S. media effort should concentrate on these four channels.

Egyptian and Lebanese soaps and films are extremely popular throughout the region, but the most popular show is the Arabic version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," shown via satellite on MBC but also syndicated on local TV and watched at the same time everywhere. If any American official appeared during this time slot, few in the region would see the interview. However, any message right before or after the show on channels showing "Millionaire" would likely reach a broad audience. Thus far, American officials have ignored MBC despite its amazing popularity.

America does succeed when it reaches out to the mainstream media. For example, on Nov. 5, Powell gave an interview that was aired on all 14 Egyptian TV channels. It was well received by Egyptians for several reasons. First the journalist who conducted the interview, Mohammed Elsetouhi, does not cater to the lowest instincts of anti-American sentiment. In addition to saturating the airwaves, the interview also made headlines in almost all Arab newspapers. The translation was exceptional and honest.

The difference between Powell's interview on Egyptian TV and the one on al-Jazeera was like night and day. The al-Jazeera interview was sandwiched between anti-American propaganda and Taliban messages. The translation was also wanting. As usual, it felt like al-Jazeera was fighting the media war of the Taliban. Powell's message was lost on the audience. Al-Jazeera's audience sees these Islamist and Arab nationalist reporters as heroes who are standing up to the leaders of the west.

Al-Jazeera's reporting style had an audience when the anti-American zealots thought that the Taliban would stand up to the United States. But now, as people watch the Taliban regime crumble, many are willing to let go of that fantasy. It is no different from the one that gripped Arab nationalists during the Persian Gulf War. As Saddam Hussein's army was destroyed, many Arabs started to question the Saddam myth, too.

Two things move the Arab world: the messengers and the message. Most of America's friends in the region are politicians and businessmen. But the people who capture the imagination of the crowd are the journalists, charismatic preachers, university professors, intellectuals and opinion leaders who appear on a huge variety of TV channels and radio stations, and on the opinion pages of the newspapers. America should reach out to these opinion makers and persuade them that its cause is just. Official voices are suspect among Arabs, but experts and intellectuals are respected.

As someone who has lived and traveled widely throughout Arab countries, I see public opinion in the region divided roughly into three categories. About 40 percent are with the United States and against the terrorists. Another 10 percent support bin Laden. The remaining 50 percent are what I call the "bin Lakin group."

Lakin means "but" in Arabic. The bin Lakin group condemns terrorism, yet uses lots of "buts" and "ifs" about the U.S. approach to Arab issues. Its members are never unequivocal in their condemnation of terrorism. However, they can be persuaded of the American case if the United States reaches them through the right channels and with the right messenger.

America has a just cause in its war on terrorism; it must explainthat cause in ways that appeal to a reluctant Arab public -- and to the bin Lakin group most of all.

Mamoun Fandy is an Egyptian-born professor at the Near East-South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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