One of the most important forces against terrorism in the Arab world has no army and fires no deadly weapons, yet it is waging the most effective longterm offensive for democracy in the Middle East.
As Iraq’s first democratic elections in 80 years are about to be held at the end of this month, a U.S.-backed Arab language television network has been heavily promoting them as the ultimate counter-offensive to defeat the terrorist criminals in their midst. Their only weapon: the truth.
Operating out of Northern Virginia in sleek, high tech, state-of-the-art TV studios, Alhurra Iraq television is broadcasting news reports, interviews and other programming across the war-torn region and reaching millions of Iraqi voters. Its chief focus is on the importance of the Jan. 30 elections which will decide Iraq’s future and, with it, the success of the U.S. military mission there.
Beamed via satellite into Iraqis cities (and elsewhere in the Middle East) Alhurra’s election news reports have one overriding message: vote as if your life depended on it.
“We are telling people why it is important to take part in the elections and how they can decide their own future by voting,” said Alhurra news chief Mouafac Harb. Its newscasts are reaching receptive ears — Iraqis who have suffered under Saddam Hussein’s terrorist regime.
“We are interviewing people who lost families under Saddam Hussein’s rule, who were tortured, and the message is if you do not take part in these elections, they can come back and rule you again,” Harb told me.
A series of public-service ads are also being broadcast repeatedly by Alhurra to encourage Iraqis to get out and vote. One of them shows Iraqi victims of Saddam’s reign of terror talking about their suffering, followed by a voice-over and screen caption that says, “So the horrors won’t recur, be a part of drawing your future. Vote!”
Despite a dangerous, intimidating environment where election workers, candidates and other officials are being brutally attacked and killed, scores of political parties have nevertheless sprung up across the country, fielding hundreds of candidates for seats in a provisional legislature that will write Iraq’s new governing constitution.
Thus far, the Bush administration has poured more than $100 million into this new broadcast venture, launched last April, and there is a lot of evidence that America’s investment is paying off. A poll of Iraqis in June by Oxford Research International found that 61 percent of them said they had watched Alhurra in the previous week, and 64 percent said they found its news programming “very or somewhat” reliable.
Alhurra’s programming over the past several months has been geared to reporting profiles on who the candidates are, their platforms and their promises, often airing live C-SPAN-style broadcasts of major campaign speeches, with no editorial spin by the broadcasters or pundits.
“All of Alhurra Iraq’s production is done in Iraq by Iraqis,” said Harb, an intense broadcast journalist who was born in Lebanon, studied at George Washington University and is a U.S. citizen.
First and foremost, Alhurra’s election focus is aimed at educating and motivating Iraqi voters and getting them to better understand the election process. Among its programs:
- Iraq Decides,” a weekly show on the latest election news, along with interviews explaining how the election process works. There is a steady parade of political and religious leaders on this show. “You see clerics on our channel, telling people to go and vote,” Harb says. (That’s something you never see on the nightly news here.)
- “Vote,” a weekly program that shows Iraqis where and how to vote and what they can expect to happen on election day.
- “Iraq Today,” a daily program of election news that leads off the first 30 minutes of each day’s newscasts, which will be lengthened as election day nears.
- “Half of Iraq,” a series aimed at encouraging women to participate in the political process.”
All of this programming is part of the steady build-up to Alhurra Iraq’s intensive coverage on election day “when we’ll have 50 correspondents and TV technicians all over Iraq, in the north and the south, in every Iraqi city,” Harb said. “We’re in the process of building the technical system so we can go live in key Iraqi cities. That’s our story and we want to own it.”
Harb and his brave ground crew know that there will be dangers in reporting this story and its outcome, but they are ready to face them. “If we see people voting in Fallujah, I’ll send my [news] truck to Fallujah,” he says.
But there is more to Alhurra’s programming than the elections. It also carries local reports, something that its competitors do not, about school openings, profiles of Iraqi teachers, clerics and business people.
And something else we do not associate with Iraq, a country where soccer is immensely popular and its top players are considered national heroes: sportscasts.
“There’s life in Iraq. It’s not only violence,” Harb said.