In its mission statement, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), funded by the US Government, defined the role of its Arabic television network Al Hurra as one that “tackles topics not found in other media outlets” and “connects with Arab audiences.”
Thirteen years after its inception, however, Al Hurra (Arabic for “The Free One”) has not fully lived up to these goals, struggling to find a distinct message and attract large audiences in a crowded field of Arabic satellite news networks.
Alberto Fernandez, who took over last month as new president of MBN, is well aware of Al Hurra's shortcomings: the weak and at times boring programming, the lack of scoops, the failure to carve out a space that serves US interests in a polarised medium. The new chief's vision for the station is simple: to accomplish what his three predecessors did not and make Al-Hurra relevant.
But can he do it? Or will he be hamstrung by the old habits of the Arab world and of Springfield, Virginia, Al Hurra's headquarters.
Al-Hurra’s bumpy road
Claudia Kozman, a visiting assistant professor of multimedia journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, said the balance of opinion on Al-Hurra since its birth in 2004 “points to the negative.”
“When it first launched, Al Hurra was meant to counter Al Jazeera's anti-American sentiment and provide Arabs with a different viewpoint … but Arab audiences proved to be tougher than expected,” she said.
Today, Al Hurra reaches 16.4 million viewers per week across the Arab world. While there is no Middle East equivalent to the Nielsen system of measuring ratings, it is estimated that the top two stations, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya reach 25 million viewers a day.
Al Hurra’s poor performance has its roots in the “chronic problems” the station has had since it launched, according to longtime Arab journalist and communications consultant Salameh Nematt. First among those, he says, was the station’s first news director Mouafac Harb, who was in charge from 2004 to 2006.
"He sold MBN the idea that we cannot rock the boat in covering the Arab regimes, because they will ban us, and we have to walk a tight rope,” said Nematt, who was a weekly contributor to Al Hurra. “Sometimes I would tell him (Harb) to do a story that could shake things up a little … his answer was that the US state department won’t allow it out of fear that governments in the region would come complaining (to Washington).”
Entirely false, Harb retorted. “If people read the classified cables from that time they would see the complaints by ministries of information in the Middle East about Al Hurra.” In defence of his record, he said he had also obtained licences for Radio Sawa (also part of MBN) across the Arab world and received “the Superior Accomplishment Award” from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the board that largely oversees Al Hurra and MBN.
Harb believed the lack of a clear mission was the problem. Nematt — whose own reporting from Jordan in the mid-1990s landed him in jail — believes that the heart of any journalistic mission should be to stir up trouble and upset the authorities. “The way to succeed is to rock the boat," he said. "There is no Pulitzer prize in the Middle East but if you get put in prison it means you are doing something right.”
Al Hurra failed to be a voice, he added. "When Al Jazeera adopted an Islamist slant, Al Hurra could have become an independent forum." Nor, in his view, did the station counter Russian or Iranian propaganda efforts in the Middle East, or even debunk the conspiracy theories claiming the US orchestrated the Arab Spring or created ISIL.
Alberto Fernandez, who arrived at MBN following three decades at the US state department, agrees that Al Hurra has an identity problem.
“The identity is not as strong as it should be … you can’t get away from the fact that we are funded by US government, and we should embrace it in a broad way,” he said.
Al Hurra receives around $70 million a year from the US government and MBN has a staff of 914, of which 650 work on television operations. They include 72 full-time and freelance reporters, 22 of them based in Iraq.
And it is this very link to the American government that is part of Al Hurra’s difficulties, said Claudia Kozman. The station launched at the beginning of the Iraq war as the George W Bush administration pursued a mission to “change the hearts and minds” in the broader Middle East. Yet, “the audience in the Middle East was sceptical and never fully trusting of the channel mainly because its source is the American government they did not particularly like much” said Ms Kozman.
A “secular, liberal oasis”?
After the Arab Spring, however, and given the current polarisation in the Middle East, Mr Fernandez, who speaks fluent Arabic, sees a clear opportunity for the TV station.
“There is a space for a station that overtly promotes classic liberal values, not as an afterthought but in the right way” he said. Asked whether the US government would impose any restrictions, he said, “I was at the state department, I was on the other side, and during that time the subject of Al Hurra did not arise at policymaker level." In fact, Al Hurra's coverage was the subject of controversy at the state department on only one occasion, he added, when the station live broadcasted an hour-long speech by [Hizbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah live and without commentary.
Hizbollah is designated a terorist organisation in the US. Broadcasting the whole speech interrupted of its leader in 2007 led to the ousting of Harb’s successor, the second news director, Larry Register.
Mr Fernandez insists there will be no "red lines" in Al Hurra's coverage and wants the station to be “an oasis for Arab liberals … who are confronted by censorship or drowned by Islamists calling them infidels [on TV screens] in the region.”
What if Al Hurra gets banned? “You have extremist speech that puts out poison every day such as [Salafist station] Wesal TV that is not getting banned … I would love for someone to ban us on that liberal basis,” he said.
He has already begun creating an investigative unit, bringing in new commentators for the digital service and reorganising the staff. News director Daniel Nassif resigned the day Mr Fernandez started in the job.
Al Hurra Iraq stands out as one successful model for the station, with top ratings in the country and thorough coverage of the local landscape said Nematt.
For Al Hurra to succeed “you have to understand your audiences and give them what they want and need” said Ms. Kozman. For Arabs, “religion is important, as is the Arab woman who is increasingly gaining more prominence in the region.” But, she added, the station has one overarching problem beyond cultivating a message.
"It’s finding an audience who is sympathetic to US policy," she said. That remains a “bigger question and deeper than one media outlet’s need to achieve success.”