Middle East

Lebanese Reaction to the U.S. Satellite Station

Is Al-Hurra Doomed?

Two Lebanese men listen to U.S. President George W. Bush's interview regarding the abuse of Iraqi prisoners on May 5, 2004.  (Photo: Joseph Barrak/AFP-Getty Images)

Al-Hurra, (the free one) which is based in northern Virginia, began broadcasting in February, with a $62 million first year budget to provide an alternative to pan-Arab news stations like Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Dubai-based Al-Arabia. The intention, U.S. President George W. Bush stated in his 2004 State of the Union address, was to "cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda" by Arabic TV stations, and provide "reliable news and information across the region." Such hateful news, the U.S. contends, is the anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment prevalent on Arabic TV channels.

According to some people interviewed, it is exactly for these reasons that Al-Hurra is not getting the audience they are aiming for. "Can they expect the Arabs to watch them if they don't show Palestinians being killed, and don't portray Israelis as oppressors?" said Nabil Dajani, professor of communications at the American University of Beirut. "The U.S. has a lost cause here in the Middle East unless they change their policy on Palestine. I think Al-Hurra is doomed," he added.

Many opinions on the channel have been driven by common perceptions that it has to be biased because it is funded by the U.S. state department, whether people have viewed the channel or not. "I've only watched it a couple of times, because it is pro-American," said student Najwa Mroue, 21.
"I haven't watched it, but I've heard it is Zionist and imperialist propaganda," said Hassan Awali, a resident of Mreyjeh, in the southern suburbs. "It is not displaying reality…it is not hurra! [free]," he added sarcastically.

Radical leftist writer and Middle East analyst Tariq Ali, during a recent visit to Beirut, told The Daily Star that Al-Hurra was like Pravda (Truth), the official newspaper of the Soviet Union that was notorious for its propaganda. "Like Fox TV News, it is 100 percent U.S. propaganda," he said. He contended that it wouldn't be able to rival other pan-Arab channels, despite the mixed reviews Al-Jazeera gets in certain political circles. "The Arab left hate Al-Jazeera, but given that the world is dominated by U.S. images, it is a breath of fresh air," Ali said.

In some areas of Beirut access to Al-Hurra has been affected by satellite providers - usually of the illegally connected kind - and by people opting for other channels instead.

"I wouldn't mind checking it out, but we cannot get it on our satellite here. I would have to ask the subscriber to put it on, but people here would rather have another channel, like sports or comedy," said Mreyjeh shopkeeper, Ghassan Rizk. "My neighbors said to our satellite provider, if you put it on, we will cancel our satellite subscription," said professor Dajani.

The channel has generated strong opinions in many quarters, but to others mere indifference. "It is not a big deal, it hasn't rocked anybody's world really. It is just another satellite station. It reinforces the idea for people that Al-Jazeera is challenging the West, and causing more people to watch it, making it seem more credible," said Mohamed Beydoun, a Ras Beirut resident.

"Nothing really struck me [about Al-Hurra], it is an average station. They try to be balanced, but they are a bit naïve. They are offering nothing new. I watch CNN because they are more objective. Al-Jazeera is more interesting…it is also more controversial, as it grabs the attention," said Jad Khawaz.

A few people interviewed were not even aware of the channel's existence. "I can't comment because I haven't even heard of it," said a fruit seller in Gemmayzeh.

Not everyone thinks the channel is a complete write-off however, particularly in the Christian areas of Beirut. "I think it is good because it tells you all you need, and doesn't go on and on about news issues like other channels do. I also like the entertainment programs," said Mona Jammal in Achrafieh."I watch it because it portrays freedom, it lets people say what they want," said Marcel Elias, from Hazmieh. "I think it is aimed more at Christians though, like Al-Jazeera is aimed at Muslims. This is maybe why there are different opinions here in Beirut on the channel," he added.
"I watch it, we all do in my family…it's a new idea. As the saying goes, let's wait for the seed to grow into a tree, and then we can judge. We have the power of comparison, to compare and choose with satellite," said Maurice Haddad, from Doura. Asked if the channel was more popular with Christians, Haddad said: "this is Lebanon, many things are split like this."

There seems little comprehensive evidence to state there is a sectarian divide in how Al-Hurra is perceived, but the station does seem to have generated more popularity among Christians than Muslims.

The director of al-Hurra, Muafec Harb, wrote last month in The Daily Star that the channel's mission was 'to provide Arabic speaking viewers an alternative to the traditional news reports they have endured.' This appears to be the case for those who chose to watch al-Hurra. The indifference and denunciation by other people interviewed seems to imply other Arabic channels are not phased by this challenge. Hassan Fadlallah, the news editor of Hezbollah- backed TV station al-Manar, told The Daily Star that the channel had not been affected or challenged by the presence of Al-Hurra. Al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout told the online news outlet The Media Line in December, that the channel would maintain the loyalty of its viewers, which is currently estimated at 35 million.

Regardless of any sectarian differences, Al-Hurra has a long way to go in Lebanon to convince everyone that it truly represents what it's called.