October 25, 2004 | FrontPageMagazine

State Department Slams US-Run Radio in Arab World

By: Dr. Walid Phares.

Here's how a coordinated attack against Middle East democratization debuts in America: On October 13, the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler writes on page A12 that “an Arab-language pop music and news station funded by the U.S. government and touted by the Bush administration as a success in reaching out to the Arab world . . . has failed to meet its mandate of promoting democracy and pro-American attitudes.”

In one sentence, three powerful bullets: 1) The US is funding Radio SAWA, supposed to promote Democracy and pro-American attitudes, 2) the Bush Administration is projecting it as an achievement, and 3) it has failed to meet its mandate.

The article subliminally reminds readers of the words of Richard Clarke at the 9/11 Commission hearings: “Your government failed you.” With three weeks until the presidential election, this Post news story comes in handy for the anti-Bush camp. But the problem is that Radio SAWA and its sister TV station al Hurra are more about the future of Middle Easterners than the future of politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, DC. Radio Free Middle East, the real function of SAWA, is not about who will next occupy the White House, but about how to free the oppressed people in a region that has produced lethal terrorist ideologies.

Media reports surrounding SAWA represent the selective “interests” of American journalists. The Washington Post story was based on a report circulated by news agencies and picked up within hours by the mainstream print media. Yet while human rights groups—native advocates in the Middle East, that is—pound the doors of the giant US presses to attest to the importance of free broadcast in their societies, their testimonies are ignored. Instead, the Post and other big papers look to Washington's bureaucrats and anti-democracy lobbies for “news” of White House failures. The rest—individual liberties in the Middle East—is a mere detail.  

Ironically, the inspector general of the State Department itself issued the so-called draft report blasting Radio SAWA. The report admitted that SAWA was attracting large audiences in a number of Arab countries, but it criticized the station for being “so preoccupied with building an audience through its music that it has failed to adequately measure whether it is influencing minds.”

But the report didn't capture a Middle East reality—that music is itself a tool of liberation. The Taliban, the Wahhabi and the Khumeinists are the enemies of songs and human emotions. In Algeria, the Salafis, al Qaeda's ideological kin, were known to murder rock singers in the 1990's. Hence, SAWA's musical offensive is by itself a movement towards change. 

To influence minds in the Arab world, the principal tool is contact with the deepest desires and frustrations of citizens—not press releases. The State Department's “team of inspectors” failed to understand the essence of reform and the soul of change. They haven't learned from Iran's youth, Lebanon's students and Algeria's newest generations. 

Which brings us to the next question: Who are these inspectors?  The State Department's report says: “two independent panels of Arab-language experts hired by the inspector general's office gave the programming a mixed review, saying it did not match al-Jazeera in terms of quality and that parents would prefer that their teenagers not listen to Radio Sawa because its broadcasts contained such poor Arabic grammar.” “Radio Sawa failed to present America to its audience,” one panel concluded.

First, since this is funded by public tax dollars, the names of the “experts” should be made public and they should be invited to a wider session of exchange. Are these “Arab language experts” Arabs, or non-Arabs who speaks Arabic? Who vouches for their expertise in “change in the Arab world,” assuming that they master the language?

Besides, how does one determine al-Jazeera's “quality,” and by which standards? Is it the professional and technical qualities of the Qatar-based TV, or the sophisticated message of jihad? Last but not least, since when do Arab parents select radio stations for their children based on grammar? Is it language, or music, and is the statement accurate? We have no way to know anything, so far, except what the “experts” wants us to believe.

The report asserts that it was “based on extensive interviews in Washington and the Middle East with U.S. officials and public diplomacy experts.” Recall that it was a community of “experts” that failed the US in its analysis of Middle East terrorism in the 1990's, leading to 9/11. So, who are these US officials and public diplomacy experts? The old ones coming back, or activists in the shadows? 

The most crucial issue at hand: Is radio SAWA the perfect tool for US public diplomacy? Is it really affecting the minds of the people in the region? In reality, we cannot know at this point in time. Obviously, this project is not perfect, nor is any wartime endeavor. If the report asserts that the project has failed, its authors—after identifying themselves to the public—must come up with real measurements. How would you know if a Shiite, a Kurd, or a Christian in Iraq is listening and enjoying? How would you know if Sunnis are among the audience of SAWA in Syria? How can you detect that Saudi women are listening to its music? 

The report said, “Radio SAWA has not fully met the requirements of the VOA charter to present the policies of the United States ‘clearly and effectively' and to present ‘responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.'” Fine—now we need the report to tell us, what are these policies? Are they the speeches of the President, his Secretary of State, his National Security Advisor? And who shall discuss and analyze them in Arabic? Can the report give us a list of academics, commentators -fluent in Arabic- and able to provoke that debate in the Arab world? If SAWA doesn't have enough of them, and I believe the radio station is certainly in need of this type of persons, can the State Department or the “two committees of experts” name a few?

“It is difficult to ascertain Radio SAWA's impact in countering anti-American views and the biased state-run media of the Arab world,” the draft report said. The report may be right on this point, but the question is how do you define anti-American views? And why not name the state run media of the region?  

The inspector's mandated report, while indicating that the annual budget of SAWA is of $22 million, rejected research given to the US Congress by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Radio SAWA's higher authority, to claim success. So, in sum, what do the authors of the report recommend? Dismantling Radio SAWA, or transforming it into another Arab-language NPR? 

Whatever the successes and the failures of SAWA, people of the region see it as a success, short of a better voice. Certainly, Arab youth prefer freedom with rock ‘n' roll over intellectual brainwashing. If SAWA is not perfect, the State Department's “inspectors” should offer us better than this window on freedom, not worse—not a return to the old status quo. So let's wait for that superior product from the State Department.