Government-funded global media uncontrolled by the government – in a world of Al Jazeera, China Central Television and Russia Today, it seems a paradox.
The US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other federally funded international broadcasters, such as Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). Broadcasting to 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, MBN comprises the Alhurra TV network and Radio Sawa, along with a number of websites and social media platforms. Launched in 2004, the Arabic-language broadcasts were meant to burnish America’s negative image in the Arab world amid regional coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While viewership for Alhurra outpaces other foreign networks like CNN Arabic, BBC Arabic and France24’s Arabic channel, it dwarfs in comparison to the numbers of Qatar-funded Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya.
“Alhurra was largely seen in the Arab world as a mouthpiece of the American government, until the 2011 Egyptian uprising,” Rasha Abdullah, an international media and research consultant, told The Media Line.
“It was no different than other state-funded media. But, its journalistic work during that time in the streets and squares of Cairo and elsewhere increased viewership dramatically. It was a turning point for the network,” said Abdullah.
USAGM is now going through one of its most turbulent times in the wake of the tenure of CEO Michael Pack, who was fired in the opening hours of the administration of US President Joe Biden.
Journalists and staffers accused Pack of turning the broadcaster into an outlet loyal to then-US President Donald Trump, ousting employees who he felt were opposed to Trump or insufficiently pro-American in their content production. Pack led an effort to discontinue visas for USAGM’s vast number of foreign journalists, purportedly out of concern for spying.
As Pack was deposed, so was Victoria Coates. A former US deputy national security adviser for Middle East and North African affairs, Coates had headed MBN for only a month.
“I got a call from Michael Pack’s office just after the middle of December. A provision in the annual defense bill that would normally prohibit the head of USAGM from hiring the heads of networks was scrapped, and they realized they could appoint someone. If I had known, I would have gone after the job. I have a background in strategic communications, done a lot of work in the Middle East and wrote a book of the history of democracy,” Coates told The Media Line, insisting that the narrative about Pack didn’t match the reality she experienced.
“I wasn’t given a directive. I laid out a vision: We can’t become a mini-CNN for the Middle East, nor should we try. We are well funded, well staffed, but not compared to CNN. But, we could supply unique content. My directive across all platforms was to start focusing on an economic opportunity program. Essentially, the message is that the US should be the partner of choice in high-tech, particularly in the wake of the Abraham Accords, when such a large regional irritant had been removed,” said Coates.
Coates felt the network should feature more programming in the mold of Shark Tank, the American entrepreneurial-themed reality show.
“I recognized in Riyadh that the region loves small franchises, like Raising Cane’s (a chain of fried chicken restaurants scattered in the American South). That chain can’t compete with Popeye’s in America, so it makes economic sense to go to Riyadh rather than Memphis. I also wanted to move beyond economic to broader partnerships. If you look at our competitor nations and what happens when they intervene, you get Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq – four highly dysfunctional states being torn apart. And our close partners? Israel and our Gulf allies are so much stronger as they recover from the pandemic. We wanted to share the story that partnering with the US is a benefit for the region,” said Coates.
Alhurra had essentially been trapped earlier in its existence. It can’t air views openly critical of America while trying to win the hearts and the minds of the Arab public.
“Editorial stances seen as sympathetic to Israel or to an American military presence in the region would once have given the network credibility problems. Recent regional events may have created an opening on that front,” said Abdullah.
Whether the network can take advantage of that opening may depend on its own stability, rather than that of the region it operates in.
MBN would not grant any on-record interviews by its officials or staffers, but one journalist who requested anonymity to speak to The Media Line said that Alhurra’s rockiness began years before Pack’s arrival, when MBN came under career foreign service officer Alberto Fernandez’s leadership in mid-2017.
“Trump brought in Alberto Fernandez, who came with a – let’s say – revolutionary vision. Under previous leadership, MBN stayed away from hot-button and taboo issues. When Fernandez came, he said we should try to be the voice of all minorities in the region. He was trying to push Alhurra to talk more about Islam and the personal beliefs of people,” the journalist told The Media Line.
“He tried to convince the audience, for instance, that the Coptics in Egypt were angels. Journalists found themselves working a conservative agenda, an Evangelical agenda, with nothing about real issues. He tried to get his ideology reflected in the editorial policy of Alhurra,” said the journalist, who has heard whisperings in the newsroom that former longtime MBN President Brian Conniff will be asked to return to his former role. Kelley Sullivan, who has been a vice president at MBN since 2006, is serving as acting president.
While a return by Conniff could bring a sense of stability back to MBN, Coates feels some reforms are in order.
“I wanted to focus on more interaction with Congress, which funds USAGM. Take for instance Air Products, which is an Allentown, Pennsylvania company active in Saudi Arabia – very high-tech, energy-related products. This company is making billions in investments. I’d like to hear on air from the congressional representative in that district and what she has to say to her Saudi counterparts,” said Coates.
“Beyond that, there’s an issue of branding. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are excellent brands, even if we could quibble about the product itself. People know them and know what they stand for. MBN doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t tell us who we are,” said Coates.
Its identity will be left to its next chief, as MBN faces rapid leadership shifts while dealing with a rapidly changing region.