New Arab media offers an edge over West

As the popularity of satellite TV takes off in the Arab world, USpublic diplomacy is caught flat-footed.

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Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz gave a very strange interview last month to the Qatari-based satellite TV channel, al-Jazeera. Though both interviewer and broadcaster were Arab, Mr. Aziz switched into English midway to attack the US-British bombing offensive.

His intent was to make his case directly to the broadest possible foreign public. By speaking in English, Aziz guaranteed his remarks were widely reported on Western TV and in the print media with an immediacy voiced-over commentary or tedious translations lack. While his comments didn't galvanize Western opposition to the airstrikes, they did ensure his attack on Anglo-American policy was heard.

Aziz isn't the only foreign official who seeks to influence US opinion by arguing fluently in English. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the master of this craft, and former Palestinian minister Hanan Ashrawi also possesses considerable skills. In the region, leaders like Jordan's King Hussein also have taken to the airwaves to affect US public opinion.

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As American prestige in the Arab world reaches its lowest ebb in decades, an opportunity is being squandered. Although mostly ignored in the US, a wide array of Arab satellite television stations has erupted onto the regional media stage, displacing state-sponsored media and undermining censorship. At the low end, 10 percent of Egyptians watch Arab satellite stations; in Persian Gulf countries, whose support is essential to US containment of Saddam Hussein, satellite viewership is 70 percent of the population.

As the popularity of satellite TV rises in the Arab world, US public diplomacy is being caught flat-footed. Many US foreign service officers have studied Arabic, but none appear willing to appear on TV to make a case for American foreign policy in that language. The problem is due, at least in part, to their training, which is directed toward such traditional activities as reading Arabic newspapers. In addition, what the foreign service considers to be "advanced" Arabic is insufficient to make a point convincingly in the electronic media.

In the effort to win support for American policy abroad, Voice of America broadcasts produced by Arab expatriates simply can't replace US officials who can speak to the world news media authoritatively and in Arabic.

For example, at the end of 1998, only about 30 foreign service officers were highly proficient - not fluent - in Arabic. With a kind of "language supertraining," some of these officials could form the core of a US diplomatic response team in Arabic. Similar training also may be needed in other languages of politically strategic countries.

Developing a cadre of foreign service officers who can make a case for US foreign policy in the official languages of the UN - French, Spanish, Arabic, Rus sian, and Chinese - would be a start, and would give a significant boost to US diplomacy in a world in which the number of news outlets and TV viewers is increasing rapidly. The time is especially ripe now, as satellites are sharply increasing viewing choices worldwide, and as the State Department absorbs the US Information Agency, which has primary responsibility for public diplomacy.

During the December airstrikes against Iraq, Arabs took to the streets to protest what they saw as arrogant treatment of an Arab state by foreign powers. That image was reinforced in their minds by the fact that officials making the US case always did so behind the screen of an interpreter. To Arab observers, no US official engaged either with the Arab public or Arab sensibilities. Instead, in Arab minds, US officials issued pronouncements with little awareness of the people they were attacking.

The Middle East - with vast energy resources, numerous holy places, and enduring conflicts - will continue to pose challenges to US foreign policy that must be met with different, more creative tools. With modern technology vastly increasing information available to ordinary Arab citizens, officials who seek support for US policy should do so in a way convincing to Arab audiences.

Foreign leaders have learned to use skilled English speakers to convey their ideas to 260 million Americans. Can we convey our ideas to 260 million Arabs? And if we can't, what is the cost?

Jon B. Alterman is a research program officer at the United States Institute of Peace, in Washington, D.C. He wrote 'New Media, New Politics? From satellite television to the Internet in the Arab world' (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998).

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