Rays of hope in reaching the young Arab mind

Reaching a skeptical Arab audience with the straight story about America is a daunting challenge.

But for those whose job it is to accomplish this, there are occasional rays of hope.

Take this e-mail from a student in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad to an American government radio station: "My examinations are so soon so I stay up late at night, so I found in magic and charming way that your radio programs show my most old and new favorite songs. And many friends listen to you every day. I wish to be a permanent friend."

Or this from Syria: "I told everyone I know in the college about your station and they were all very surprised especially the way you introduce your news. Please try to amplify your signals, we are waiting for them."

Or from a student in Kuwait who says: "I've programmed your channel on most of my friends' cars." Or a journalist in Jordan who says the channel is widely listened to by taxi drivers in Amman.

They are all responding to Radio Sawa.

Radio Sawa? This is the fledgling new Arabic-language radio service ("Sawa" means "together" in Arabic) of the US government targeted at young people in the Middle East, where 60 percent of the population is under 30. That's an audience of 300 million.

Radio Sawa is a production of the Middle East Radio Network, a pilot project of the Voice of America, which has long experience in multilingual broadcasting around the world, primarily by shortwave. But Radio Sawa specifically seeks out youthful listeners, and reaches them by a combination of medium wave (AM) and FM transmitters, to which they are primarily attuned. Moreover, the bulk of the programming is a carefully selected mix of popular Arabic and Western music, punctuated at regular intervals with newscasts.

The key question, of course, is whether Radio Sawa's audience is tuning in just for the music, and tuning out the station's newscasts, which offer factual information about events of the day in and out of the Arab world, and clarification of US policies. The influential Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram says that a major failing of the US government broadcasts is that while they attempt to let Arabs know about Americans, they are not doing anything about explaining Arabs to Americans. It concludes: "Chances are the Arab youth will ... take the US sound and discard the US agenda."

Al Ahram embraces the generally negative comments of Arab governments toward Radio Sawa, in contrast to the generally favorable view of young listeners responding to the station's invitation to comment. But governments that still seek to stifle the flow of information to their citizens are increasingly hard put to do so. Once, they could try jamming shortwave broadcasts from the outside world. Today, modern information technology knows no international boundaries. A student in Iraq can pick up Radio Sawa from a relatively local transmitter and send e-mails to Washington, and there is little the Iraqi government can do about it.

Radio Sawa, set up this year with a $35 million budget, is still in its infancy, adding new transmitters and custom-tailoring programs to specific Arab countries and regions. First audience figures will not be available till later this year. Maybe, as critics suggest, it won't be significant in converting Arab doubters to support of US policies. But if it captures a substantial audience, it will play a useful role in opening dialogue with a youthful Arab audience the US must engage.

Radio is but one vehicle for this. Television is another. People-to-people exchanges are another. The professional training of a free press in the Arab world is another critical goal if Arab peoples are to be exposed to diversity of opinion and find their own way to the truth.

Bernard Lewis, the noted Princeton expert on the Middle East, in pondering the Arab world's decline from a once-great civilization to its present sorry state, concludes in his book "What Went Wrong?" that "it is precisely the lack of freedom – freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny – that underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world.

"But the road to democracy, as the Western experience amply demonstrates, is long and hard, full of pitfalls and obstacles."

The further contribution the West can make to encouraging this transition will be the subject of a future column.

• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, was former Director of the Voice of America. He is former editor of the Monitor.

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