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Senior Fellow James K.
During his testimony Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker was asked by Rep. John Boozman (R., Ark.), “Can you tell us a little bit about what we’re trying to do to get the hearts and minds through the media?”
Mr. Crocker replied, “We still have a way to go both in Iraq and the region.” As chairman of the agency that directs the U.S. government’s international broadcasting effort–radio, television and the Internet–I agree. In a powerful report on jihadist exploitation of the Web, Daniel Kimmage, a researcher for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), quoted a terrorist group saying, “Media is half the battle.”
That may be lowballing the situation. Media is critical. We’re making progress, but we have a way to go.
Most Americans know little about what we do today–in part because a law called the Smith-Mundt Act limits our communications at home. But some of our institutions, such as Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, are household names. They helped win the Cold War, and, with several new organizations, are deeply engaged in the war on terror–not through spreading propaganda, but by advancing freedom through disseminating news and public affairs programs in a professional, accurate way. In fact, U.S. international broadcasting (the unwieldy name attached to the functions of our agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG) has been thriving in recent years, especially in nations crucial to our national security, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
In fact, U.S. international broadcasting has been thriving in recent years, especially in nations crucial to our national security, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
For example, when Agence France-Presse reported on the response of the Iraqi people to Monday’s Congressional hearings, included was a quote from a teacher who was “watching the hearing live on Alhurra television at his friend’s general store in an inner Baghdad neighborhood.” Alhurra is our Arabic-language satellite television broadcaster, which beams programming to 22 countries in the Middle East, as well as to Europe.
In Iraq alone, 71% of adults tune in each week to Alhurra and Radio Sawa, both broadcasting 24 hours a day. Before 9/11, neither of these networks existed. Radio Sawa, which took over in 2002 where the Voice of America’s Arabic radio broadcasts left off, uses an approach that mixes a well-researched music format with news and public affairs to appeal to the vast younger audiences in a region where two-thirds of the people are under 30 years old.
Alhurra has been running stories that jihadist-leaning media like Al Jazeera often ignore or distort. When President Bush spoke at the National Islamic Center in Washington, Alhurra covered it live. Recently, Alhurra has reported on freedom of the press in Yemen and allegations of torture of suspects by the Egyptian police; it has also held televised Town Hall Meetings in Washington and Cairo examining the impact of terrorism throughout the world.
Across the Middle East, Alhurra and Radio Sawa reach a combined estimated audience of more than 35 million people. Not bad for broadcasters that have been in business for only a few years. There’s no doubt that Alhurra, which started in 2004, has had growing pains. But its new Arabic-speaking news director, Daniel Nassif, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, has raised professional standards and expanded reporting from the region and the U.S.
In addition, a separate, all-news Arabic-language radio, Radio Free Iraq, reaches over one-fifth of the adults in that country. This is dangerous work. Two of our correspondents in Iraq were killed this spring–Khamail Muhsin Khalaf and Nazar Abdulwahid Al-Radhi–largely because of their association with the network.
Meanwhile, the Voice of America, with a global audience of 115 million who listen or watch in 45 languages, has been broadcasting television programming by satellite six hours a day to Iran in the Persian language. Watching our broadcasts is illegal in Iran, and the people there take great risks to see programs that offer a stark contrast to state-run Iranian TV.
In August, I was a guest on VOA’s Persian-language TV show Roundtable With You–a popular call-in program. There was time for about two-dozen calls, many of them poignant expressions of a desire for freedom. Most of the callers also said that they watch and listen to our broadcasts. One, calling from Tehran, told me: “You tell the truth to the Iranian people because you use experts in all fields: political, military, cultural and sociological. I need to repeat again that Voice of America is the only hope that the Iranian people have, so please let Voice of America go to all the people’s homes.”
Currently, one in four Iranians tune in to our broadcasts at least once a week. Iranian authorities know it, too–otherwise they wouldn’t take space in hard-line newspapers to try to refute analyses of domestic political developments aired on our Persian-language Radio Farda, or keep Parnaz Azima, one of its journalists, in their country for months as a virtual hostage.
In Afghanistan, Ashna Radio from VOA and Radio Azadi from RFE/RL each broadcast 12 hours daily of vital news and information, reaching around 50% of this long-isolated population. VOA started TV broadcasts to Afghanistan a year ago.
There is a great deal of good news about U.S. international broadcasting. We are reaching people–in their homes and in their languages–in Iraq and across the region with reliable news and information they are not getting elsewhere. As I told those callers from Iran last month, the day will come when they, too, will live in freedom. Until that happens, I assured them, our broadcasts will be there for them, day after day, as a source of comfort and hope–the same lifeline that served millions in Poland, Bulgaria and other communist countries during the darkest days of the Cold War.
Ambassador Crocker was right. We do have a way to go. But, thanks to support from President Bush and Congress and funding from American taxpayers, this nonpartisan effort is on the right track, producing what I like to call “journalism with purpose” in 60 languages every day in a world in which media is half the battle. At least.
James K. Glassman is a senior fellow at AEI and editor in chief of The American.
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