Bad Reception

While the Bush administration's efforts to promote American democracy and oppose Islamic extremism abroad are often berated, its new Arabic-language radio and TV networks have found an appreciative audience in official Washington.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senator Joseph Biden have praised Radio Sawa and the Alhurra television network, launched at a cost of roughly $200 million so far by their nonprofit parent, the federally funded Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). In a recent interview with The American Prospect, Kenneth Tomlinson, the controversial Karl Rove associate and chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) that oversees the U.S. government's international television and radio programming, including the Arabic networks, said, “I stand in awe of what they were able to do.”

Tomlinson gives particularly high marks to Mouafac Harb, the smooth-talking, Lebanese-born news director who rules both Alhurra (“The Free One”) and Sawa, for launching the networks so quickly. Radio Sawa, a youth-oriented pop music-plus-news radio network, launched in 2002, and Alhurra began broadcasting last year an an alternative to Al-Jazeera.

Harb's goals are nothing if not ambitious. “We are working to establish the gold standard that the other guys will want to rip off -- the best technology, the finest professionals, the most innovative programming, the most eye-catching sets," he told a Senate subcommittee last year. "Our brand is freedom and democracy."

During the coming weeks, however, both Tomlinson and Harb (who declined to be interviewed for this article) may face hard questions concerning standards -- and alleged rip-offs in contracting and hiring.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has opened a wide-ranging investigation of the parent organization, MBN, and the Arabic services it runs. The State Department's inspector general recently launched an audit that will look at procurement and contracting issues, as first reported by the Financial Times. (Tomlinson also faces an inspector general's investigation into alleged misuse of federal funds unrelated to Alhurra during his tenure at the BBG, according to a report in The New York Times, and he was forced to resign his post last week at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [CPB] because of a forthcoming report about his right-wing political meddling there.) Both Harb and Tomlinson are scheduled to appear before the oversight subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee to face likely questions about alleged spending abuses at the Arabic networks.

Harb's troubles will be amplified by a lawsuit filed against Tomlinson and the BBG by five former Voice of America (VOA) employees who complain that they were treated unfairly by Radio Sawa, which replaced the VOA's Arabic Service, when they applied for jobs.

“We know Harb was discriminating at Sawa in the hiring, promotion, and treatment of experienced Arabic radio broadcasters -- all U.S. citizens -- in favor of inexperienced young workers, many of whom were Lebanese,” says Stephen Spitz, an attorney with Kalijarvi, Chuzi and Newman, who represents the plaintiffs. Along with the House and GAO investigations, their lawsuit could pry open the taxpayer-funded contracts, salaries, and personnel practices that MBN officials have sought to conceal from public scrutiny.

MBN officials claim they're not obligated to disclose such information, except to Congress, because they operate as a private, nonprofit corporation. Their spokeswoman Deirdre Kline denies any discrimination or other improprieties. “MBN,” she says, “fully complies with all applicable federal, state, and local employment laws and regulations … . All contract and procurement agreements at MBN have been in compliance with [federal] procedures and regulations.”

But current and former network staffers, independent experts, and government investigators interviewed by the Prospect say that MBN's radio and television subsidiaries, which will receive $80 million in federal funding during the coming fiscal year, have been marked by cronyism, discrimination, mismanagement, and wasteful extravagance. The lawsuit and pending investigations are expected to spotlight these alleged abuses.

The dubious expenditures involve a host of companies, staffers, and contractors. They range from $104,000 budgeted (with more than $80,000 spent) for a makeup artist and hair stylist who is reportedly a friend of Harb's wife; to inflated salaries and bonuses paid to cronies, including Shia fundamentalists, with little broadcast experience and English skills; to millions in questionable sole-source contracts given to Harb's friends in Washington and Beirut. On top of that, the start-up Alhurra network spent $10 million for a bungled computer- and software-installation project that violated standard procurement practices and has led to repeated crashes. Critics have also questioned the annual salaries of top network executives, which have reached $250,000, or more than the annual amount earned by the vice president of the United States.

While critics both named and anonymous are beginning to speak out, Alhurra and Radio Sawa continue to enjoy the support of powerful backers, including BBG member and Westwood One radio tycoon Norman Pattiz, who happens to be a key Biden donor and the driving force behind the establishment of the Arabic services. Pattiz sees nothing wrong with their operations and, as a professional broadcaster, defends the high salaries. “We operate in a competitive environment and we need to pay what the industry standards are in order to have a first-class operation,” he says. As for the ethical and management questions about the Arabic services, Pattiz adds, “We haven't seen anything that gives us pause regarding Alhurra and Radio Sawa.”

Perhaps that's because the BBG members haven't looked too hard -- and because Pattiz and Tomlinson have thwarted independent inquiries, including a scathing State Department inspector general's report that was killed last year, largely because of their objections. The buried report found, among other problems, "a lack of uniform quality control” over reporting and hiring standards.

The Arabic networks have also escaped meaningful oversight, in part, because no American official in a leadership role at the BBG, on the relevant congressional committees, or even at MBN itself actually speaks Arabic. Normal institutional safeguards in Washington have been unable to prevent or even effectively monitor the alleged abuses at the Arabic services.

“There is no oversight,” says Hishem Melham, the Washington bureau chief of the Lebanese daily newspaper As-Safir. “This guy [Harb] hires and fires and sets salaries on his own, and he'll continue to do it as long as he feels protected by Norm Pattiz and Kenneth Tomlinson.”

Mamoun Fandy, a senior fellow in Middle East policy at Rice University's Baker Institute, says that the rules governing the networks have made little difference, and that MBN is operating "runaway stations that need to be brought under control." He also says, "Alhurra looks like the Middle Eastern states it wants to change: It's run by a small dictator who is totally corrupt" -- although he and other critics concede that they know of no criminal wrongdoing.

In certain respects Harb resembles Ahmad Chalabi, back in the days when the Iraqi buccaneer was the favorite of American officialdom. He spins the story of the Arabic services' success to legislators and reporters, charms political patrons in both political parties, and offers a product that at least looks slick and professional to Americans who don't understand Arabic. Like Chalabi, the broadcasting potentate lives well on U.S. largesse, although neither Tomlinson's board nor Harb's spokesman will disclose his taxpayer-funded salary. Sources at Alhurra say that he drives a Hummer (average price: $50,000), and according to real-estate records, he recently brought a $750,000 home in a well-to-do northern Virginia suburb.

Salameh Nematt, who succeeded Harb as the Washington bureau chief of the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, says that the broadcasting executive is "more important in shaping public diplomacy than Karen Hughes,” the former Bush communications adviser who now serves as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Nematt, who used to appear regularly on a weekly Alhurra talk show but was booted off the air after he criticized the network, doesn't conceal his contempt for Harb or Alhurra. “He's a third-rate journalist who has hired fourth-rate journalists,” Nematt says. “Most of them don't speak English well, and they don't know much about the Mideast, let alone America. No serious journalist from the Mideast works there.”

Independent observers say that the networks have been marred by an unprofessional, freewheeling approach to hiring and firing, shoddy journalism, and distorted news priorities that usually downplay tough coverage of Arab regimes and even terrorist organizations -- while often overemphasizing news from Lebanon, which happens to be Harb's homeland.

“What Middle Easterners expected was a high-quality American station on the level of American commercial television that had interesting shows like 60 Minutes,'” observes a State Department expert on international broadcasting. “What they got was a third-rate Lebanese station.”

As a result, former Ambassador William Rugh, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and author of an influential book on Arabic media, has called Alhurra "a big waste of money.” “It's an embarrassment,” he says. “The Arab audiences know it's a poor representation of the American media but nobody in [authority in] Washington knows that it's poor and the harm it's doing, tarnishing the image of the U.S.”

Equally troubling is the inability of many network staffers to competently speak or translate English, understand American politics, avoid religious and ethnic biases, or even broadcast using correct Arabic diction. The $110,000-a-year executive director of Alhurra TV's Iraqi division, Salem Mashkour, admitted his limited capacity to understand English during a telephone interview with the Prospect.

“You have to speak slowly because my English is not good,” he said.

Asked whether his limited English would hamper his ability to oversee a news operation broadcasting from the United States, he responded haltingly: “I didn't understand. Can you make it easier?”

The problem, he explained, is that he “just came to the U.S. last year” after working in three different countries, including Lebanon, as a print and radio journalist since he left Iraq 25 years ago. But Mashkour's poor grasp of English, limited experience managing broadcast operations, and relatively brief tenure at Alhurra, didn't discourage his employer from awarding him a $6,900 bonus last fall, after only seven months of service, and a raise from his initial $90,000 salary.

A strict Shiite, Mashkour's ignorance of America extends to his reported faith-based approach to management, and what some Alhurra sources describe as his unprofessional, discriminatory treatment of women employees. “I thought we were trying to spread democracy,” says one journalist, “not bring another form of fundamentalism here.” When newsroom conflicts arise, those sources say, Mashkour freely invokes Imam Ali, founding martyr of the Shia sect, or the Prophet Mohammed for guidance. They also complain that Mashkour and his small clique of loyalists, all devout Shiites, have used various tactics -- from direct confrontation to informal whispering campaigns -- to attack women staffers for dressing immodestly, failing to fast during Ramadan, and, in a few cases, living with a boyfriend or abandoning the traditional head covering.

Critics of Mashkour cite the case of Nahar Ramadan, an experienced broadcaster who was allegedly hounded into quitting by Mashkour. He is said to have criticized her for “sacrilegious” conduct because she lived with her boyfriend, also an employee, before marrying him. (Ramadan, now working in London, declined to discuss her experiences at Alhurra.)

Mashkour denies the charges. “Religion is a personal issue with me, and I don't reflect that in the workplace," he says. He also insists that he has tried to stop incidents of intolerance, and that most such charges are fabrications by a few disgruntled staffers whom he's criticized for poor performance.

Yet members of Mashkour's well-paid inner circle speak little or no English, knowledgeable sources say. That fits into a broader pattern of control by Harb. “They don't want people who speak English to come to Washington, D.C.,” says a staffer. Insiders estimate that no more than 20 percent of the journalistic staffers, including many new immigrants from Lebanon and Iraq, are skilled in English or at performing their jobs.

Why would Harb employ such an underqualified staff? “He likes to have people around who depend on him,” says Samir Douaihy, the former managing news director of Radio Sawa in its Dubai Center, who helped Harb launch the network. “He wasn't at all interested in real professional qualifications.”

To Arabic speakers who have heard the embarrassing errors, and sometimes biased or sloppy reports that have aired on Alhurra, the network's standards seem painfully inadequate.

One broadcaster, for instance, reportedly had trouble pronouncing the phrase “chicken breeders” in the “classical Arabic” used to address audiences that speak different dialects -- and so it came out sounding like “vaginas.” That red-faced moment was hardly the network's only error. Early on, Radio Sawa announcers referred to “Colin Bowell,” and two panels of Arabic specialists convened by the State Department inspector general's office concluded that mistakes on the network were “humiliating for Arabic speakers.”

Too many Alhurra correspondents seem clueless, ill-trained, or simply irresponsible. Last March the Pentagon correspondent, Joe Tabet, seemingly concocted a story suggesting that the United States was on the verge of bombing Syria. According to Lebanese newspaper accounts and other broadcasting sources, he aired his story amid mounting anger in Lebanon over suspected Syrian responsibility for the assassination of the former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri.

“There are new approaches to dealing with the Syrian issue based on confirmed sources from [U.S.] military intelligence,” Tabet began his inflammatory report, according to a tape viewed by The American Prospect with an Arabic translator. “All options are open to dealing with the problems, including a change in regime or air strikes to eliminate terrorist centers, such as the air strikes that targeted Afghanistan and Sudan in 1992. The elimination or taking out of terrorist gangs supported by the Syrian regime is a vital strategy to ensure stability, especially in Iraq.” Most strikingly, Tabet didn't seek official Pentagon comment about his potentially explosive report.

When such mistakes occur, the network staffers say that they reassure each other by joking, “Who watches Alhurra?”

On a deeper level, critics worry that the network treats authoritarian Arab regimes and even terrorist organizations with too much deference. “It's Al-Jazeera Lite,” says Nematt of the network's approach to terrorism -- a view echoed by staffers who contend that Harb and his producers have told them to use such Al-Jazeera-style phrases as “so-called terrorists” or “activists” to placate their audiences. In interviews and congressional testimony, Harb has said that he deliberately avoids such soft-on-terrorism language.

Yet one Alhurra source insists, “The pressure comes from the producers. They always told me we should never use the word `terrorist,' but use `what they call terrorists' or `so-called terrorists.'”

Last August, Alhurra reported that a study by the Center for Immigration Studies had warned against “the sleeper cells belonging to the groups accused by Washington of terrorism, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda.” Is al-Qaeda merely an “accused” terrorist group? A month earlier, the network reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had offered condolences and cooperation to Egypt after “what he described as extremist Islamic terrorism” in the attack on Sharm el Sheikh -- the most deadly terrorist act in Egyptian history.

Harb eventually fired an Alhurra producer who disputed his flexible definition of terrorism. That producer and anchor, Magdil Khalil, says that while working on a documentary exploring the roots of Islamist violence, he clashed with Harb over descriptions of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups. “He considers them resistance organizations,” says the dismissed producer. Khalil, who regards himself as a committed advocate of human rights, adds that Alhurra provides only shallow coverage of the Arab world's most contentious issues. "Nobody on Alhurra discusses deeply and completely women's rights, religious rights, or a civil society," he says.

Friendly connections between Harb and certain Arab regimes have also distorted the news on Alhurra, with particularly soft coverage reserved for Qatar and Tunisia. Last year the network suddenly canceled a scheduled broadcast on Tunisia's presidential elections when the Tunisian foreign minister balked at appearing with opposition groups.

Instead, according to Nematt and other Alhurra sources, the foreign minister was interviewed alone -- and the sole question-and-answer about human rights was edited out. At the time Harb's girlfriend, Paula Yaacoubian, who is now his wife, was doing public relations work for the Tunisian government's information service.

When Al-Jazeera broadcast a protest demonstration against the U.S. occupation of Iraq by supporters of Shiite extremist Muqtada al-Sadr, Alhurra covered the event as a “birthday celebration” for al-Sadr. “These kinds of mistakes diminish the credibility of the station,” complains Mamoun Fandy.

Bad broadcasting may well block the Arabic networks from winning broad influence and credibility, which have eluded them so far, according to experts on Mideast media, independent surveys, and research undertaken by other federal agencies. Alhurra constantly hypes its ratings, claiming last summer that its broadcasts reach a total audience of 35 million in nine Arabic-speaking countries. Last year it proclaimed that 61 percent of Iraqis were watching its local broadcast, although a confidential Coalition Provisional Authority–commissioned study found that it actually was the 14th-ranked network, preferred by only 1 percent. (In recent months, though, only one show has begun to draw a relatively large audience: the nightly all-Iraqi news hour.)

Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, who conducts Middle East research for the polling firm of Zogby International, is convinced that the Arabic networks "certainly don't connect with the public." His surveys found that only .02 percent of Arabic audiences named Alhurra as their first choice for news. “So few people are watching," says the respected scholar, "that I'd be shocked if it's making a difference."

Coming next: How Radio Sawa and Alhurra spent -- and squandered -- millions in tax dollars.

Art Levine is a Washington Monthly contributing editor who also writes for Mother Jones, The New Republic, and other publications. He wrote about Kenneth Tomlinson's controversial oversight of Voice of America for the September 2005 issue of The American Prospect.

You may also like