Since inception in February 2004, Alhurra has cost Congress more than half a billion dollars, and has ranked low in almost all viewership charts, according to surveys by the Washington-based Intermedia.
In Egypt, the Arab nation with the biggest population at 75 million, the channel did not feature among the top 20 satellite channels. In fact in Egypt, Alhurra scored a statistically insignificant weekly reach of 1.19 percent, in a survey with a range of error of plus or minus 2.2 percent.
The abysmal performance provoked both Congress and media to search for the reasons underlying this failure.
Congress and the American public were first made to believe that the overwhelming number of Lebanese staff had caused the channel’s underperformance.
Notwithstanding the discriminatory tone behind such profiling, the number of Lebanese at Alhurra decreased substantially as they were replaced by staff from other Arab nationalities.
Then there were accusations of Alhurra taking the side of “terrorists,” after it aired, live, a speech by Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. Allegations of “anti-Semitism” followed when Alhurra covered an anti-Israel conference in Tehran.
Alhurra consequently shutout any hint of anti-American broadcast. Yet its influence in the Middle East remained marginal.
America micromanaging Alhurra over staff nationality quotas and programming is certainly no solution. To reverse failure, Alhurra needs competent leadership and staff, which is not the case with the Congress-funded channel. So who is in charge of Alhurra?
Historically, public diplomacy, which includes broadcasting in foreign languages, was under the supervision of the US Information Agency (USIA) until its dissolution in 1999, when the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) replaced it in overseeing a number of Voice of America (VOA) services in several languages, including Arabic.
VOA employed federal employees. Thus the process of recruitment, employment, promotion and termination was up to federal standard.
For Alhurra, the BBG created the Middle East Television Network (MTN), which became a recipient of a federal grant from Congress. Free of the federal watchful eye, Alhurra recruited staff randomly as contractors, not federal employees. Terms of employment, promotion and termination remain whimsical until today, and compromising staff competence.
Months later, Radio Sawa, which had replaced the VOA Arabic Service, joined Alhurra and lost its federal status. MTN was thus changed into the Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBN), which operates both of them today.
Minimal government supervision encouraged nepotism, corruption and the lack of editorial controls. Several audit reports later found Alhurra lacking a clear editorial line and centralized in the hands of its Director of News, the highest ranking Arabic speaking of its leadership.
Meanwhile, MBN’s American supervisors either spoke no Arabic, or came from non-journalistic backgrounds, or both, thus rendering Alhurra’s News Director a tsar in his own right. With tsars came autocracy and the creation of fiefdoms inside the station, at the expense of qualifications and broadcast quality.
Even longtime CNN producer Larry Register, who was hired to salvage the station, turned out to be a tribal chieftain as he proved incapable of grasping the Arabic language or work culture.
Despite all the later reshuffles, the majority of Alhurra staffers still do not speak English, at the time they are required to communicate, from Washington, America’s perspective to the world.