The scenes of destruction have become a daily staple in Iraq: car bombs exploding in Baghdad, mutilated victims, the horrified faces of the survivors. And new footage from the Iraqi capital, it seems, is constantly flickering across television screens.
Recently, it was graphic pictures showing newly discovered bodies of Iraqi security personnel. They were shot, execution style, by insurgents. "It's quite devastating," says television news anchor Zain Saleem, 34. She then rushes off to get made up in preparation for going live. But then, difficult times in Iraq are the reason this attractive journalist has her job in the first place.
Formerly a presenter on Saddam Hussein's state-run television station, today she is the face of the main news program of Al-Hurra, a US government-funded television station for the Arab world, especially for the new Iraq. Saleem and her 174 colleagues are part of an attempt to reduce anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. "We must do something to counter the propaganda that fills the airways of the Arab world," said US President George W. Bush when the station began operations in February 2004.
Al-Hurra means "the free one" in Arabic. The station is intended to function as a counterweight to the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network -- the voice of the Arab world -- which routinely portrays the United States as a hated and suspect global power. At least this is how America interprets the station -- and that's why the Bush administration has created Al-Hurra.
Al-Hurra's headquarters are located in a two-story brick building about 20 miles outside of Washington, DC. Most of the office buildings on Boston Boulevard in Springfield, Virginia, are occupied by companies involved in the US aviation and defense industry. Al-Hurra leases its offices from Boeing.
There is no sign on the door, but there is a metal detector at the entrance to the building along with two armed guards. Two large antennas in the parking lot behind the building relay the station's programming to the Arabsat and Nilesat satellites, and ultimately into the homes of 70 million people in 22 Arab countries.
In Iraq, station director Mouafac Harb has just been assigned antenna frequencies for Baghdad and Basra. The report by the US commission that investigated the causes of the attacks on September 11, 2001 lies on his desk. A yellow sheet of paper marks the passages with the commission's recommendation that the US government take steps to reduce anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world.
"We bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East," says Harb, dramatically. A propaganda station? Nonsense, he says indignantly. "We are funded by the government, but I have never received any instructions, not from anyone."
The television in his office is tuned to competitor Al-Jazeera, to a program showing scantily clad models on the runway. "They are changing because we exist," Harb says proudly. Al-Hurra also has a fashion show in its line-up, as well as a Formula 1 racing program and, of course, the latest out of Hollywood. The station's female presenters are not required to wear head scarves, and instead of signing off with a religious statement, they simply say "Good Evening."
Al-Hurra recently played a dirty trick on its competitor in Qatar. Harb had a video aired that portrayed Saddam Hussein's now-dead son, Uday, at a secret meeting with former Al-Jazeera manager Mohammed Jassim Al-Ali. In the tape, Uday praises the network as a true friend of Iraq, and Ali responds: "Without your help, my mission would have failed."
The video was taped in March 2000, and Ali has since been let go. Harb, for his part, prefers not to reveal the source of the tape -- for "security reasons," he says succinctly. "But we didn't get it from the American government," he insists.
Harb owes his job to Norman Pattiz, a highly influential media entrepreneur. Pattiz is a member of the national Broadcasting Board of Governors, and he also oversees all Voice of America programming. Pattiz couldn't get over the fact that this traditional network -- which was founded in 1942 to transmit programming to Germany and Nazi-occupied territory and which continued to serve an important propaganda function during the Cold War -- makes programming for Cuba but only half-heartedly for the Middle East. He had a video put together that depicted enraged Arabs burning the American flag and used it to lobby Congress for funding. He was successful.
Pattiz got his first millions in US government funding for Radio Sawa in 2002, a station that played a mixture of Arab and American pop music. The station, playing mostly Britney Spears and a bit of George W. Bush in between songs, was soon garnering ratings that exceeded all expectations. It seemed to be the right mix.
Pattiz easily managed to gain approval for an additional $120 million to fund Al-Hurra. Meanwhile, the US Congress is looking into possible funding to launch an Iranian station that would broadcast programming in Kurdish and Urdu. "It's all cheaper than an invasion," says Harb, smiling.
Al-Hurra is doing very well -- the station is clearly being pampered by its financial backers. The waiting rooms are filled with designer furniture, there are new flat-screen monitors on the walls, the computers are all state-of-the-art -- and all of this without advertising. Because Arab journalists are hard to come by in the United States, the station tends to recruit Lebanese, luring them with high salaries and green cards.
Al-Hurra has access to the administration, to correspondents in the White House, to the Pentagon and to the State Department. And the administration has access to Al-Hurra.
In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, for example, President Bush gave the station an interview and said, directly to the Arab world, that America will bring those responsible to justice. Unfortunately, the camera was still running when Bush patronizingly told Harb, the interviewer, that he had done a "good job."
As far as freedom of the press was concerned, it wasn't exactly Al-Hurra's finest hour. At the time, Harb could barely muster a tortured smile.
But Al-Hurra is not merely a propaganda vehicle. For hours, viewers can watch Al-Hurra's CNN-style coverage of US Senate hearings on the Abu Ghraib scandal. Al-Hurra also aired extensive coverage of the US Congress' tough questioning of UN ambassador-designate John Bolton. But even the station's confident director admits that Al-Hurra's underlying tone is consistently friendly to the Bush administration. For example, its 50 staff members in Iraq have been instructed to be on the lookout for signs of improvement. "If the power comes back on in a part of the city, we see this as being more newsworthy than reporting that the power is out someplace else," says one employee.
And how successful is the most expensive PR campaign since the end of the Cold War? "We do our part," claims Harb, citing studies that conclude that Al-Hurra reaches 20 million viewers in the Arab world every week.
"This station does not broadcast any false reports," says journalist Ala Chalil Nassir in Baghdad. According to media expert Abdallah Schleifer at the American University in Cairo, Al-Hurra has at least been successful in Iraq, because, as he claims, it dispenses with nationalist rhetoric and remains ethnically and religiously neutral.
Of course, others have competing opinions about the purpose of the venture. William Rugh calls Al-Hurra "a huge waste of money." Rugh is a retired career diplomat, a certified expert on the Middle East who has written a well-respected book on mass media in the Islamic world.
"People have no confidence in Al-Hurra," says Salameh Nematt, who works for Arab newspaper Al-Hayat and is a regular on a round table talk show at Al-Hurra. Nematt recommends aggressive reporting on the Middle East's dictatorships: "As soon as the first correspondents are thrown out of Egypt and Saudi Arabia," he says, "people will begin to trust Al-Hurra."
It's another typical day: assassinations, killings, bloodshed in Iraq. Zain Saleem uses the appropriate tone of voice when presenting the news. Her name is a stage name, a name she has taken as a precaution, because her family lives in downtown Baghdad. "Anyone who is in contact with the Americans lives a dangerous life," she says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan