Daniel Nassif is the news director of Alhurra, a U.S.-funded Arabic satellite television news network created in 2004, and has also been news director of its sister network, Radio Sawa, launched in 2002. Nassif was born in Lebanon in 1958. He immigrated to the United States in 1977 and finished his undergraduate and graduate studies in political science and public policy for international affairs at the University of Michigan in 1986. He currently resides in northern Virginia with his wife and two sons. Adam Pechter, deputy publisher of the Middle East Quarterly, interviewed Nassif on October 19, 2007, in Alhurra's offices in Springfield, Virginia.
Breaking into the Arab Media Market
Middle East Quarterly: How do you think that the United States is currently perceived in the Arab world? Can Alhurra make a difference in that perception? Should it try?
Daniel Nassif: We are not a gauge for a popularity contest in the Middle East. Our mission by law is to provide accurate and objective news to the region. Alhurra's role is to report U.S. policy accurately to an audience that has often not received accurate and objective reports, but our role is not to advocate policy. We provide context and analysis so that viewers can make informed decisions. We want to satisfy some of the curiosity about America that many viewers in the Middle East share. The latest political, military, and diplomatic developments tend to drive news coverage, but that does not begin to exhaust the breadth of the engagement between America and the Middle East.
MEQ: Where would you like to see the station in five, ten, and twenty years?
Nassif: Whether it is five, ten, or twenty years, my goals are the same: to make Alhurra one of the top networks in the Middle East. Alhurra has already made successful inroads in the Middle East, and I want to build on that success. Alhurra is a forum to debate issues that are taboo in the region. We want these topics to become commonplace on television networks. We have a distinct advantage because we are free to discuss any topic while other networks in the region are limited by concerns about offending their backers.
MEQ: Are you planning changes to Alhurra's content?
Nassif: We are always looking for ways to improve and strengthen Alhurra's role as a place to turn for news and information. I want to ensure that our programming menu includes the types of programs that cannot be found on state-run television channels in the region—programs that focus on issues of freedom, democracy, and human rights in the Arab world. We are in the process of producing several new programs. The latest addition to the Alhurra schedule is the new show, "Women's Views." A weekly program will bring together four lively, engaging women to discuss social and political issues that are largely regarded as taboo in the region. Each of the hosts brings her unique perspective, and they address issues such as sexual harassment, women in prison, discrimination against women, the psychological impact on women who marry at an early age, and domestic violence against women.
MEQ: What other sorts of women's programs do you air?
Nassif: In the Middle East, you are talking about an area where women do not have rights. In Saudi Arabia, they are not even allowed to drive a car. We have another program called Musawat—Arabic for "equality"—which gives women a voice to challenge traditional views about them—for instance that a woman's place is in the house raising children.
People in the Arab world tell me that Alhurra is very important because it is raising the bar. Journalists at the other Arab satellite television stations say Alhurra is opening up subjects that they would never dare cover, but if Alhurra is doing it, they are encouraged and might tell their bosses or the people who finance them that they should follow suit and have the same topics. So, Alhurra is challenging all the taboos in the Middle East.
MEQ: What would programs focusing on democracy do?
Nassif: You could have elections in Iran or in China—but they do not mean anything. You have to create the culture, and this means creating a mentality where people concede when they are defeated. People in the Middle East don't concede. If they lose, it's a conspiracy: It's Israel's fault or the United States' fault. It is better if there is an understanding that a loss in elections means the loser improves and then runs again.
MEQ: So how can Alhurra support this path?
Nassif: Don't forget that there are closed societies in the Middle East. Most people have orthodox views. They are born into societies with these views, and they grow up and die with these same views. At Alhurra, it is our job to show that there are other opinions that they should consider.
I have to believe that people are smart enough and rational enough to be able to tell distortion from fact because human beings are human beings even if they are born in different environments or different cultures. At the end, in the long term, reason will prevail. The truth will prevail.
Also at Alhurra, we show them the debate in Washington. We go beyond reporting on the decisions but take an inside look at how that decision was reached. There are many think tanks in Washington—from Brookings, to the American Enterprise Institute. We tap into these institutions extensively and interview their scholars about policy debates and current affairs.
MEQ: You ran Radio Sawa for five years. Is there a difference between your experience there and with Alhurra?
Nassif: Radio Sawa was targeted mostly to a specific audience of young people—the bulk of the population of the region—who were not being reached by Radio Sawa's predecessor. Its founders conducted extensive research about audience preferences and chose a programming format designed to reach the target audience that included news, features, and music. This entire process was a public-private partnership spearheaded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and fusing some of the best radio broadcasters, writers, engineers, and technicians at VOA [Voice of America] with some of the top people in the private sector, including newscasters hired from the Middle East. The result was an innovative broadcast operation that is very successful in reaching its target audience and has exceeded even the expectations of its founders.
I was a part of Radio Sawa's senior management as its managing editor and its news director and have been energized by its success. Radio and television are, of course, different mediums. Television is more difficult to establish in the Middle East because of all the options available to viewers. In addition, a congressionally-funded television network—actually three networks because we broadcast separately to the Middle East, Iraq, and Europe—automatically must overcome its own set of suspicions above and beyond the difficulties of broadcasting news to an audience that is inherently suspicious about many of the things it hears from the United States. But these are not insurmountable obstacles. The experience I bring to Alhurra from my work with Sawa is not just a set of techniques and tools but a sense of hope that this new television venture will find its niche.
MEQ: The funding for Alhurra was significantly more than it was for Radio Sawa. Why is that?
Nassif: With television you need a lot more money, and it has to have breaking news. The audience will watch debates to a point, but the station will not gain a following by only airing debates. Because of all of the state-run media in the Middle East, people are naturally skeptical of the media. They want to see developments and breaking news for themselves.
MEQ: How do you address this?
Nassif: I want to make the news the best news, so people will come to us to hear stories that they do not hear on Al-Jazeera. What you have on Al-Jazeera or even at Al-Arabiya is sensationalized coverage. They take things out of context, for instance, Israeli soldiers firing on Palestinians. They concentrate on it, and they will start doing eight or ten hours of news about it without any background or second opinion. We intend to give equal time to all points of view—not to terrorists—but interesting, informative, and relevant opinions. So rarely does a show go on Alhurra without having somebody from the State Department or from Washington think tanks, refuting what stations like Al-Jazeera are saying.
MEQ: You think you can do it?
Nassif: The Middle East is not like here. In the United States, the average American does not care about politics. Sometimes, only 30 or 35 percent of eligible voters actually cast ballots. In the Arab world, people are political. When they see each other, the first thing that they talk about is politics, sometimes before they ask about the health of their families.
MEQ: You have correspondents all over?
Nassif: On any story, we will have reactions from everywhere—and now we go to Jerusalem, Cairo, Ramallah, Beirut, etc. You want to be there and tell the people the latest.
MEQ: Do you have a Jerusalem correspondent?
Nassif: Yes, and he travels with the prime minister of Israel all the time.
MEQ: How much funding does Alhurra receive from the U.S. government? Is it enough?
Nassif: Alhurra, Alhurra-Iraq, and Alhurra Europe's annual budget is about $67 million. Although Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya do not publicize their budgets, it is safe to say that both channels receive more than double what we put into three channels. I am confident that we put on a superior product with what we have. Could we use more money? Of course.
MEQ: Does Alhurra do better in some Arab-speaking markets than others? If so, why?
Nassif: When Alhurra launched almost four years ago, there was no budget for an advertising or marketing campaign. We relied mostly on promotions on Radio Sawa and word of mouth. We soon found that in the countries that can receive Radio Sawa on FM and where Radio Sawa is most popular, Alhurra thrived.
MEQ: In which countries does Alhurra do best?
Nassif: Radio Sawa and Alhurra enjoy a strong following in countries like Iraq. In fact, preliminary research in Iraq shows that more people are tuning to Alhurra than Al-Jazeera, in part because of Alhurra's commitment of a second channel, Alhurra-Iraq, providing Iraqi citizens with daily newscasts and talk shows that deal specifically with the challenges facing modern-day Iraq.
MEQ: Alhurra is based just outside of Washington. Most of the other Arab broadcasting networks are based in the Middle East. Does Alhurra's location hurt its effectiveness or damage its legitimacy in the eyes of viewers?
Nassif: Alhurra's location in the Washington area enhances its credibility as a go-to channel for coverage of the Washington debate on U.S. policies relevant to the Middle East. There is no better way for them to plug into the U.S. debate than by tuning in Alhurra. The regional media gives some flavor of this debate, but it is often in skewed terms, lacking in nuance and one-sided. I believe that Arab viewers want to make up their own minds and are willing to be challenged with factual information that may not reflect their own starting point on any given issue. I don't expect viewers in the region to agree with everything we broadcast, but I do want them to trust in our integrity as an independent news organization. For regional news, Alhurra has correspondents throughout the Middle East enabling us also to provide comprehensive reporting from the region. In a region where seeing is believing, Alhurra needs to be more viable with its on-the-spot coverage and more aggressive in its breaking-news coverage. We are looking to expand our network of correspondents throughout the Middle East, focusing on hot spots.
MEQ: During your predecessor's tenure, several congressmen complained that it was difficult to monitor what Alhurra was broadcasting. Have you taken any steps to increase the station's transparency?
Nassif: We are all for transparency. Alhurra broadcasts on-air twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. You cannot get more transparent than that. However, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 does not allow U.S. international broadcasting funded by the government to be broadcast within the United States. We currently have four programs that are on our website at www.Alhurra.com, so that anyone anywhere in the world can watch them. We are also looking into the possibility of live-streaming online.
MEQ: How do you respond to criticisms that the channel is "pro-American [and] boring" and "a bland Lebanese station."
Nassif: I don't mind Alhurra being considered an American channel, but I would definitely not say we are boring. We are the American channel as long as it does not mean propaganda—our strength should be the American perspective—not the U.S. government's perspective. We cover all sides of the issues. Recently, we had the most extensive live coverage of the elections in Morocco, Oman, and Jordan and of the Annapolis peace conference. Rarely does a news event take place without having Alhurra there. We cover Washington comprehensively, and we go live with every important speech, statement, or congressional hearing. For instance, we broadcast a documentary series called "Americans." Crews went across America and discussed political beliefs, the struggle of African Americans, and how America became a melting pot. As for the criticism that we are a Lebanese channel, that is not the case. We cover stories throughout the Middle East and around the world. Alhurra's journalists and my colleagues are some of the finest in the Arab language press. The Middle East Broadcasting Networks recruits throughout the Middle East and the United States. Its journalistic team includes professionals from Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Syria.
MEQ: But is it the United States' job to reach out to Arab countries?
Nassif: Alhurra is in an extremely competitive market. Most notably the French, the Russians, the British have all either created networks or announced their intention to do so—everybody has an Arab satellite television station. Even the Chinese have a radio station directed to the Middle East. So everybody is in the market. America should also be a part of that market of ideas and information in the Middle East. What we want to provide the Middle East with Alhurra are accurate, objective news stories with no distortion, no disinformation. This is the best way again to counter propaganda in the area and, at the same time, we want to cover American policy in clear terms. Nothing less, nothing more. We are not there to spread propaganda for the United States. We are here to tell the Arab world what Washington is thinking.
MEQ: Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have had a considerable head start compared to Alhurra. It would seem almost impossible for an American-backed station to compete with these regional heavyweights.
Nassif: We are not afraid of competition and are not trying to replace our competitors but welcome the fact that television viewers in the region have multiple sources of information, at present more than 200 channels. According to ACNielsen, Alhurra already has an estimated weekly reach of 20 million people, and more than 70 percent of the viewers find the news credible.
MEQ: But several polls over the last couple of years have underscored a trust gap between Alhurra and the Arab world. A Zogby International survey in June 2004 found that none of the surveyed Arabic audiences turned to Alhurra as a first choice for news, and only 3.8 percent picked it as a second choice. A poll of satellite users in the greater Cairo area found that over 64 percent felt Alhurra was not a trustworthy news source while 86 percent and 67 percent considered Al-Jazeera and CNN, respectively, to be trustworthy. Are these polls accurate?
Nassif: Without knowing the methodology of each of these polls, I cannot comment except to say that a poll taken in June 2004 would have been only four months after Alhurra's launch. But I will reiterate that ACNielsen—one of the most respected television research companies and using internationally accepted research methods—finds that Alhurra has a weekly reach of an estimated 20 million people. That same research finds that more than 70 percent of the viewers say Alhurra's news is credible.
MEQ: You don't think these earlier surveys are worth a hill of beans?
Nassif: These surveys were conducted in 2004, a while ago. Now we have our own polls done by ACNielsen and others. We are not in the top two, but I hope in a year or two, we will be there.
MEQ: Alhurra has been criticized for not having enough Arabic speakers in management. Does this hurt the network?
Nassif: The editorial and news staff is composed entirely of Arabic speakers.
MEQ: Testimony last May before Congress revealed that Alhurra broadcast a 68-minute call to arms against Israelis by a senior figure of the terrorist group Hezbollah; deferential coverage of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference; and a factually flawed piece on a splinter group of Orthodox Jews who oppose the state of Israel. Are broadcasts of this type necessary to gain trust with the Arab world?
Nassif: Absolutely not. These broadcasts were errors, not examples indicative of any editorial position. On Alhurra, we tell the story without giving an open microphone to terrorists. We can talk about a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah using a sound bite so viewers hear the most newsworthy points of his speech without airing inflammatory statements intended to play to audience emotions. Additionally, more checks have been put in place to ensure that these mistakes do not happen again. The starting point for my role at Alhurra is to prevent such mistakes from recurring.
MEQ: You don't consider it wrong to broadcast Nasrallah?
Nassif: We should not be in the business of giving the microphone to terrorists. But if Nasrallah is making news or a declaration, we are going to cover it by reporting what was said. It is not necessary to broadcast the whole speech or give him free time on Alhurra.
MEQ: Isn't there a correlation between anti-Americanism and popularity in Arabic news coverage?
Nassif: We are not in a popularity contest. It's crazy to think that we have to put on more anti-American stuff in order to be popular.
MEQ: Do you think that America will ever have a chance to win the "hearts and minds" of the Arab world as long as it supports Israel?
Nassif: Alhurra and Radio Sawa report on policy; they do not make policy. Foreign policy is the responsibility of the president, the secretary of state, and Congress. It is our responsibility to report this process thoroughly and factually.
MEQ: So where is all the criticism about Alhurra coming from? Are these critics just trying to sink what you are doing?
Nassif: Well, you have hundreds of people who are graduates of Middle East schools. When they see that there are US$67 million spent on a Middle East project, they want to have a bite there. If you do not give them a bite, they will take off. You cannot satisfy everybody.
If someone is pro-PLO, pro-Hamas, they will suggest the channel takes that point of view. Everybody wants you to think what they think or to cover the things that they want you to cover. At the end of the day, you have to make decisions about what stories to cover and what guests to have. If you don't call a particular expert or pundit, sometimes they complain or imagine a slight where none is intended.
MEQ: How do you respond to the critics who claim that the model on which Alhurra is based, Radio Free Europe, is an outdated relic of the Cold War and that unlike Soviets or Cold War Poles, Arab populations today are not shut out of free media, and therefore, we should abandon Alhurra and encourage private industry in the Arabic broadcasting market?
Nassif: The Broadcasting Board of Governors is well aware of the differences between Eastern Europe and Arab countries and designed Alhurra and Radio Sawa accordingly. But an audience that has an abundance of choices and is likely to be skeptical of, or hostile to, U.S. policies and values is not an audience that America should ignore. Many media sources in the Arab world are severely biased and lacking in professional journalistic standards. The result is seen in poll after poll. For example, one recent survey found that "only 3 percent of Pakistanis think Al-Qaeda conducted the 9/11 attacks." Many people in the Arab world subscribe to the same conspiratorial beliefs. Simply getting the facts to such an audience is an enormous job.
 The Financial Times, Nov. 6, 2005.
 The nonprofit corporation that operates Alhurra.
 Anne Marie Baylouny, "Alhurra, The Free One: Assessing U.S. Satellite Television in the Middle East," Strategic Insights, Nov. 2005.
 The New York Times, May 17, 2007.
 Worldpress.org, July 10, 2007.