Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Airwaves and an Eagle: A Press Freedom Day challenge

Alan Heil, Public Diplomacy Council

image from article

Next Thursday, May 3rd, the world will celebrate Press Freedom Day. For America’s publicly-funded international broadcasters, the challenges have never been more formidable.

Both Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House recently issued annual reports citing steady overall declines in press freedom globally in the past dozen years, with the Middle East and Eurasia registering the steepest dives.

That has made journalists and managers of the five U.S.-funded international broadcast networks more determined than ever to provide accurate, objective news and information to truth seekers the world over, with a fresh emphasis on the Arab world.

The Arabic language Middle East Broadcasting Network, newest of five U.S.-funded international broadcast organizations known as the MBN, is undergoing a significant transformation under its new president, Alberto Fernandez.

Ambassador Fernandez publicly detailed his comprehensive MBN vision for the first time April 23 at a gathering of the Public Diplomacy [JB emphasis] Council, the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association, and staff of the USC Annenberg School’s Washington office. The forum took place at George Washington University’s Elliott School.

Among attendees were leaders or alumni of MBN, founded in 2004, and its four network cousins, the federal Voice of America and Radio-TV Marti, and the private corporate grantees, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia.

Ambassador Fernandez, an Arabic-fluent scholar and former high-ranking State Department official who joined MBN last July, outlined a 15-month reform agenda. The network has headquarters in Springfield, Virginia, and news bureaus abroad. MBN’s predominant element is Alhurra television.

Key modernization moves include:

—More penetrating real time content reflecting the views of distinguished Arab world or American Arabic-speaking analysts

—An expansion of Alhurra’s news programs from four to ten hours daily

—More reflection of basic American values, such as the Declaration of Independence. Ambassador Fernandez showed MBN videos of U.S. elementary age pupils reading key sentences of America’s founding principles

—Higher staff performance requirements. Although Alhurra was launched 14 years ago, 2017 was the first year there were staff dismissals for performance deficiencies

—Significant streamlining and re-allocation of resources. MBN’s Radio Sawa, initially on the air in 2002 to the entire Arab world as it replaced VOA Arabic, is being scaled back this fall to reach only Iraq

—Greatly modernized MBN studios and formats, including new sets designed to compete with a huge expansion in the 21st century of global Arabic language digital media networks, in the Arab world and originating in Russia, China, and Iran. As Ambassador Fernandez put it: “We’re not in the English-speaking business. We need to be much younger sounding than we have been.”

A member of the GWU audience asked if Alhurra was planning to launch a program to Syria. Ambassador Fernandez responded that a Syrian hour will be on the air very soon. Seven of his contributing columnists are Syrian.

Major content increasingly includes power struggles throughout the Arab world… the roles in Syria of Russia, the U.S., Iran and Turkey… the horrific humanitarian crisis in civil war-plagued Yemen… the Saudi-Qatar rupture of relationships and fracturing of the Gulf Cooperation Council..

From Another Corner, including the views of 30 columnists in the Arab world, is another recent Alhurra programming initiative, bringing together secular modernists and liberals. As Alberto put it, “we offer a lively space for opinion journalism… I have a tremendous bias. I want informed content, smart writing.”

The MBN goal is to implement most of the reforms this year. As Ambassador Fernandez explained: “This has to be a network that stands for and reflects human rights and the freedom of expression, classical liberties we all support. It takes a long time to turn around the Titanic.”

It took three years until February of last year for the BBG to formally launch U.S. international broadcasting’s first joint program of two networks, RFE/RL and VOA. Their around-the- clock Russian language stream produced in Prague is called Current Time. In 2017, it attracted 400 million viewers, listeners and on-line users globally, mostly in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Russian-speaking diaspora —unprecedented in 75 years of U.S-funded international broadcasting.

Another newcomer in the senior management of U.S. international broadcasting committed to high quality, objective journalism is Haroon Ullah, director of strategy for the BBG. Until recently, Dr. Ullah was a U.S. diplomat and a speaker of Arabic, Urdu and other South Asian languages. He has travelled extensively in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Arab world.

Dr. Ullah is author of a book published last October entitled Digital World War: Islamists, Extremists, and the Fight for Cyber Security, Yale University Press, 2017. He addressed an April 25 roundtable at GWU, the second panel of the week there on Press Freedom Day. Co-sponsors were the university, the PDC and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Dr. Ullah noted how vital it is that all of America’s international broadcast networks continue to build on reforms of the past two years — aware of the competition they face in this digital age. They must continue to extend their reach by improving their programming and investing in new technologies. As Dr. Ullah noted, South Asian philosopher Dr. Lama Iqbal summed up the challenge succinctly: “Don’t get frightened by these furious, violent winds, oh Eagle! These winds blow only to make you fly higher.”

As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 236 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More

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