09 November 2005

USA's Arabic Broadcasts: "A big waste of money"?

Opname van een hoorspel / Recording a radio playRadio Sawa is one of the USA's foreign broadcasting facilities, with six different Arabic feeds covering areas from Sudan to Iraq. The mix of "news" alongside Arabic and American pop music is produced and broadcast from Washington DC and Dubai, UAE. Among the fervent supporters of Radio Sawa are Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senator Joseph Biden.

But the future may not be so bright. Kenneth Tomlinson, the head of the federal agency that oversees most USA government broadcasts to foreign countries, is under investigation for misuse of federal money and the use of phantom or unqualified employees. This is the same Ken Tomlinson who had to resign from the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting under a cloud of using his position to push partisan political messages. On top of that, Tomlinson is being sued by five former Voice of America (VOA) employees who claim he ousted them in favor of inexperienced Lebanese employees.

A detailed American Prospect article likens the management of USA Arabic media operations to a fiefdom:
[News director Mouafac] Harb resembles Ahmad Chalabi, back in the days when the Iraqi buccaneer was the favorite of American officialdom. He spins the story of the Arabic services' success to legislators and reporters, charms political patrons in both political parties, and offers a product that at least looks slick and professional to Americans who don't understand Arabic. Like Chalabi, the broadcasting potentate lives well on U.S. largesse, although neither Tomlinson's board nor Harb's spokesman will disclose his taxpayer-funded salary. Sources at [Sawa's partner TV station] Alhurra say that he drives a Hummer (average price: $50,000), and according to real-estate records, he recently brought a $750,000 home in a well-to-do northern Virginia suburb.
Even so, are the USA's Arabic-language broadcasts effective?
Former Ambassador William Rugh, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and author of an influential book on Arabic media, has called Alhurra "a big waste of money." In an article in the Transnational Broadcasting Studies Journal, Rugh wrote:

When Senator Biden and others visited the Alhurra production studios they were dazzled by state-of-the-art equipment, and by the fact that the staff members are native speakers of Arabic, so they decided that the programs "must be good." Without any real independent oversight by knowledgeable people, these efforts will continue, whether they are worth the cost or not.
How about a little media and public attention to this alleged waste, cronyism, and inept management, alongside the attention given to cronyism in FEMA? Or, in the name of the war on terrorism, will it continue as business as usual?

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