An Arabic-language satellite television station financed by the US and aimed at winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world could shortly become a reality. President George Bush has been told of Initiative 911, which would put half a billion dollars into a channel that would compete in the region with the al-Jazeera channel and would be aimed specifically at younger Muslims who are seen as anti-American.
Senator Joe Biden, the Democrat chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, is the driving force behind the scheme, which goes beyond the current radio broadcasting initiatives. It represents a new phase of the propaganda war and would be a third prong for the US in the media battle along with a beefed-up Voice of America and a new Radio Free Afghanistan.
The US administration has been looking at new ways of combating anti-Americanism and of deflating claims by Bin Laden and al-Qaeda spokesmen on al-Jazeera.
Plans for such a network, albeit on a much smaller level, were being discussed before Sept. 11, according to a foreign relations committee aide Thursday, but the events of Sept. 11 gave them new urgency.
Following the attacks in New York and Washington, Norman Pattiz, the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors' (BBG) Middle Eastern sub-committee, put the idea of the station to Biden who was "intrigued by it and said in the current context we need to think bigger," according to the aide.
The US$500 million price tag was described as "eye-popping" but is being seen as a worthwhile investment if it lessens the possibility of further attacks by starting to dry up the pool of recruits to al-Qaeda and by convincing young Muslims that the US is not anti-Islam.
Biden has already discussed the issue with Bush and received his approval. The next phase will be a legislative move to turn Initiative 911 into a reality.
The move also falls in with the stated aims of Charlotte Beers, who was appointed as under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs last month. She said at the time: "If I have to buy time on al-Jazeera, I would certainly consider it."
A spokesman for the BBG said they were aware of the initiative "and we think it is a good idea". The network would be "a 24-hour, seven-day week analogue" on the basis that "the war of words is as important as the war of bullets." It would broadcast in 26 languages and would be aimed at around 40 Muslim countries around the world.
The broadcasting strategy is currently limited to the radio in the form of Voice of America and the launch of a Radio Free Afghanistan at a cost of around US$25 million. Voice of America, which has been in existence since 1941, came under attack from conservative politicians after Sept. 11 for interviewing people not sympathetic to the US. RFA is modelled on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty which was launched in the cold war era and which still exists in a different form in Prague.
One of the main tensions of such operations is between the journalists employed and those politicians who believe that, because the US is paying the bills, the journalists should not report anything that could be deemed harmful to the US. The BBG was created in 1994 to try to deal with that issue.
The BBG chairman, Marc Na-thanson, feels that "it is our [the BBG's] responsibility to serve as a firewall between the international broadcasters and the policy-making institutions in the foreign affairs community, both in Washington and overseas."
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