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MEDIA-MIDDLE EAST: U.S. Uses Airwaves to Tune Arab Minds
By N Janardhan
DUBAI, Jan 2 (IPS) - As anti-American sentiments rise in the Middle
Washington is stepping up its propaganda battle through new radio
that are airing restyled programmes designed to woo the hearts and minds
the region's youth.
The goal is to ''counter misinformation, disinformation
hatemongering; to show that the United States is not anti-Muslim; to
global support for the war against terror''; and more importantly,
promote democracy'', U.S. officials say.
Among the several multi-million-dollar public diplomacy
the United States has undertaken is Radio Farda ('Tomorrow'), which
airing in December and is aimed at achieving U.S. ideological interests
Earlier in March, Radio Sawa ('Together'), which is more
started broadcasting in March.
The stations broadcast almost non-stop music -- a sugary
mixture of Arab
or Persian and Western pop, carefully researched to appeal to the
under-30s. They also have brief news bulletins in Arabic or Persian
While Sawa, which replaced Voice of America's Arabic
assigned an annual budget of 35 million U.S. dollars, Farda replaces
Azadi ('Freedom') with an allocation of eight million dollars.
The slant of the new programmes is dictated by demography.
percent of the population in the Middle Eastern countries is made up
youth, a trend that is the product of a deliberate effort to increase
resources in the post oil boom-era.
Washington believes that the new format and objective of
programmes are what Radio Free Europe and Radio Jose Marti in Cuba
established for decades ago - the promotion of democracy.
Accordingly, Sawa is now promising a better future for Iraqi
President Saddam Hussein goes - even as a U.S.-led attack on Iraq
expected in weeks.
The main competitors that the new American AM/FM radio
stations face are
the British Broadcasting Corp's Arabic service and Radio Monte Carlo,
of which are immensely popular.
Given that the non-U.S. radio stations air more news and
programmes, Sawa and Farda are banking on culture and music as
instruments of appeal and change.
The Sawa website, radiosawa.com, says it is a ''service of
International Broadcasting, which is operated and funded by the
Broadcasting Board of Governors, an agency of the U.S.
reporting the news, Radio Sawa is committed to being accurate,
One of its ''guiding principles is that the long-range
interests of the
United States are served by communicating directly in Arabic with
people of the Middle East by radio,'' adding that ''Radio Sawa seeks to
the attention and respect of its listeners''.
Asked political commentator Ahmed Saif of the UAE's 'Al
Bayan': ''If the
U.S. government is ready to invest so much money to let 'us' know
will it also spend as much to let 'them' know 'us'?''
''What we need is an insight in the United States as a
diversity of its people, and the complexity of its culture and
The same is what they require to know of the Middle Eastern people,''
said in an interview. ''Music can't achieve that objective.''
In his inaugural message on Farda on Dec. 20, U.S. President
Bush justified the shutting down of Azadi: ''For many years, the
States has helped bring news and cultural broadcasts for a few hours
day to the Iranian people via Radio Freedom.''
''Yet the Iranian people tell us that more broadcasting is
because the unelected few who control the Iranian government continue
place severe restrictions on access to uncensored information,'' he
''So we are now making our broadcast available to more Iranians by
news and music and cultural programmes nearly 24 hours a day.''
In response, Saif said: ''In the absence of hard data to
back his claim,
Bush has just joined the 'unelected few' in claiming that he speaks for
'Iranian people' -- and they to him. How, where and when did the
people 'tell us' that they needed 'more' broadcasting?''
''These stations have been established to advance
Washington's agenda to
rupture the social fabric of society and create turmoil through the
political smokescreen of enhancing democracy,'' he added.
Meantime, surveys indicate that there is no doubt that a
growing set of
listeners is finding the programmes attractive.
One poll in Amman in September showed that Sawa's programmes
favoured by at least one third of the listeners in the
High on the popularity charts are music programmes and
films, computers and video games. Special chat shows asking probing
questions such as ''Can women be good bosses?'' and ''How do you know
the news media are telling the truth?'' are a hit as well.
But Saif explained: ''Pop music and slick interactive
well appeal to the youth but won't mitigate hostility bred by
Some listeners, in fact, object to the choice of words used
newscasts. For example, Sawa uses the term ''suicide bomber'' instead
''martyr'' for a Palestinian who sacrifices his life in the fight
freedom against Israeli occupation.
''The music is good,'' said Anas Al Nuami, a communications
student at the Al Ghurair University in Dubai. ''But competing with
television news-based programmes, which is bringing home the
brutality inflicted on the Palestinians, is a tough task.''
''How can we accept that democracy is good if both so-called
countries -- Israel and United States -- are violating human rights
blatantly?'' he asked.
That is ample indication that while the United States may be
in winning the hearts of many youth in the Middle East, it is failing
its bid to conquer their minds.