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Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa: Advancing freedom in the Arab World

Issue 2, Summer 2007

By Kenneth Y. Tomlinson

Outgoing BBG Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson says Alhurra and Sawa are advocating freedom in the Middle East. Courtesy of the BBG.

Outgoing BBG Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson says Alhurra and Sawa are advocating freedom in the Middle East. Courtesy of the BBG.

Why does the United States government (using American taxpayer money) support journalism around the world through international broadcasting?

In no small part because we believe that truth arrived at through reporting and discussion and debate—as opposed to edicts by governments—have a hugely beneficial effect on societies.

It is no accident that at the time he was writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said that if he had to choose between government and a free press, he would choose a free press. (After he had served two terms as President, he declared that those who don’t read the newspapers are better off than those who do…!)

The Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia were created to serve information-deprived societies.

From Iran to China to Cuba a free press does not exist. It is a long-term aim of American-financed international broadcasting that our services effectively duplicate what would be happening in the media if a free press were serving the people.

It may be simplistic to describe every corner of the Arab world as information deprived. Government imposed censorship is not the only problem. The presence and acceptance of bad information is also a serious concern.

The United Nations 2003 Arab Human Development Report documents the shameful economic and political retardation of these societies that can be thwarted only by the expansion of education and opportunity.

In the case of Alhurra and Radio Sawa, they should serve as a model for the principles—of accuracy and free flow of information and a full intellectually honest debate of ideas—that account for the reason for a free press.

There is another basic reason for these services to the Middle East. Last year at the Arab Broadcast Forum in Abu Dhabi, Alhurra News Director Mouafac Harb was asked why his network was created. Without hesitation he replied, “To advance freedom and democracy.” During the same discussion, a BBC representative endorsed Harb’s reasoning so long as he would include “rule of law” which he did.

Again, we believe journalistic truth is key to the advancement of freedom.

Why curtail shortwave broadcasting in English?

Much has been made of our decision to curtail English radio broadcasting in order to finance indigenous language expansions to Arab countries and Iran.

First, it must be remembered that eliminating our shortwave English service does not involve any reductions in English to Africa. And it should make way for even greater expansion of our English Internet service as well as language teaching through Special English.

The first responsibility of international broadcasting is to serve our audiences. To do this, we have to face the fact that there would be no contest if we took a vote in Iran or Yemen as to whether the people would like to have television broadcasts in English or their native tongues. Obviously, they would vote for the language they understand.

One known former VOA Director wonders why we are curtailing English shortwave radio broadcasts at a time when Al Jazeera and other international broadcasters are expanding in English. The answer is because Al Jazeera is anxious to influence English-speaking people in America. America’s international broadcasting is designed to serve cultures that are not primarily English speaking.

Some argue that we are shirking our responsibility to broadcast around the world in English at a time when to name one, Radio Beijing, is increasing its Chinese broadcasts to Chinese speakers around the world.

But Congress has never funded VOA to serve Americans living abroad—and now this responsibility is increasingly irrelevant because Fox and CNN are available by satellite in English virtually everywhere.

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