ARCATA, CALIF. — Terrorism and disorder in Iraq keep alive a burning question: Why do they hate us in the Arab world, and can we reverse the trend?
For months the administration has experimented with new forms of "public diplomacy" including videos of Muslim life in America, radio spots with Western music, and ads promoting good relations between cultures.
Now comes a State Department-appointed committee charged with compiling recommendations for Margaret Tutwiler on how to chart a different strategy when she takes over the public-diplomacy division at State this fall. But all the commissions and recommendations will fail if they don't take into account fundamental lessons about how people communicate on the Arab street.
The first lesson is for the administration to differentiate between public diplomacy/propaganda and independent media. Both are useful, but they're not the same - those on the receiving end know the difference. Take Iraq: Six months after President Bush declared the end of major combat operations, the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) still has little ability to communicate effectively with the majority of Iraqis. The Iraqi Media Network, created by the CPA, is dismissed by many it is aimed at as a crude propaganda mouthpiece.
Iraqis are suspicious of a military information machine. Fed a steady diet of propaganda under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, they're exquisitely sensitive to being manipulated by government media. The Baath Party exercised totalitarian control over the flow of news and information through state-run media. Independent voices and views in Iraq were brutally suppressed. Many Iraqis were jailed, tortured, or killed for daring to openly disagree with the Hussein regime.
Small wonder, then, that Iraqis fail to appreciate US public-affairs programming. In fact, most Iraqis continue to receive their news from emphatically anti-American radio and TV reports originating over the border in Iran.
That's the second lesson to absorb. The US must recognize the limits of public diplomacy and take stock of new trends in the Arab world. Where authoritarian regimes once maintained monopoly control over the mass media, satellite TV and the Internet have revolutionized access to information. Americans are familiar with Al Jazeera, but half a dozen other Arab-owned transnational satellite channels had been broadcasting to the Middle East before Al Jazeera went on air. Today there are 45 Arab-language satellite channels. Competition among these transnational broadcasters creates enormous pressure on Arab governments to liberalize media laws and opens the way for growth of independent media in Iraq and the Arab world.
The State Department should make the promotion of independent media in Iraq and the region a priority. Rather than resort simply to censorship and counterpropaganda, Washington should make use of the greatest weapon it has in its arsenal: the values enshrined in the First Amendment. It's no coincidence that countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq - with little access to outside information or free and independent news media - are the very places terrorism is bred. But while polls show that large majorities in Muslim countries oppose US policies in the Middle East, they continue to express a strong desire for American-style freedoms.
The US should take the lead in training and equipping a new generation of journalists in Iraq and the Middle East. Experience in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world suggests that providing assistance to local independent media is a vital way to promote freedom and democracy. Independent journalists can help open the closed societies of the Muslim world to democratic culture. Exposing journalists to international news standards can develop habits that will moderate the tone of reporting. Well-produced, objective indigenous journalism will get higher ratings than either exhortative reports from state news organs or distant news from satellite broadcasts. Ultimately, audience always drive the media.
The most urgent challenge is Iraq. The US needs to create a credible information architecture and to train hundreds of new journalists who can report fairly, objectively, and independently on their society. It is essential that Iraqis have access to information that is locally produced and that most citizens recognize as fair.
And enshrining the rights to a diverse and pluralistic media in the new Iraqi constitution will do more to promote democratic values in the region than any manufactured messages US public-affairs experts can produce.
Freedom of speech and open exchange of information are the real levers. That, more than any number of advertisements about American values, is what will bring light to the darkness from which terrorism has come.
• David Hoffman is president of Internews Network, an nonprofit organization that promotes open media worldwide and organized a conference in Athens last summer that drafted media law reforms for Iraq.