Bush administration launches news channel for Arab world

The US government is set to launch a 24-hour satellite news channel to give the Arab world a news outlet 'you can count on', and confront vitriolic anti-American news from stations such as Al-Jazeera and Al Arabia.

'We believe there is a market there for news you can depend on, a market for current affairs you can depend on,' said Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the US government's Broadcasting Board of Governors, which owns the new channel, called Alhurra.

Critics are calling Alhurra, set to launch on Saturday with a statement from US President George W. Bush, a cheap propaganda ploy that will be hard-pressed to win the hearts and minds of a region deeply mistrustful of US policy.

The station has gained US$32 million in funding from the US Congress, and follows earlier regional media flops such as the monthly glossy Hi magazine, aimed at Arab teens.

'Their declared aim is to promote US foreign policy and American points of view,' said a senior television executive with a leading Arab news network.

'But I think it's going to take a bit more than a news channel to make a real difference.'

Most Arabs view the US policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict as deeply one-sided, oppose the continued US occupation of Iraq and believe the west in general is anti-Muslim.

Plus the Arab world already has its fair share of dry, government-run programming - witness the stultifying fare served up by Egyptian, Yemeni and Saudi television. Privately owned news programmes aired by Al-Jazeera and Al Arabia, which routinely broadcast statements from Osama bin Laden, and feature strongly anti-American guests, have provided an alternate, if not always balanced, view many in the region appreciate.

Media watchers are sceptical, saying a news programme funded by Washington will be hard-pressed to cover news events in Israel and the West Bank with balance.

They wonder how Washington will respond the next time al-Qaeda releases a video statement.

'And how are they going to report what is going on in Iraq?' asked Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Colombia University's School of Journalism. 'It's not easy.'