How Washington failed to communicate with the Arab world for decades

During Trump's presidency, the image of the USA deteriorated a lot in the world.
 The United States has long been a pioneer in communication and journalism field. Since early the 19th century, both in terms of content and the innovation of tools. However, US failed to convey an ideal image of the country to the rest of world public opinion and especially to the Arab world. This happens in spite of different public projects, starting with the Arabic version of Voice of America in the 1940s to the Alhura Television Channel after the Iraq war in 2003. Even private sector initiatives such as CNN Arabic have not been successful.

Washington’s foreign policy towards Arab affairs, such as the issue of Palestine, may help understand this failure. The weight of this factor cannot be denied. However, we are faced on a different perspective, the professional one. And the question in this case is: why have other Western countries like France and Britain been successful, not the American press?

In fact, the journalistic panorama is the most strongest through the world, thanks to the prestigious newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, magazines such as The Time or The Newsweek, as well as television channels such as CNN. American academic research in communication and journalism being excellent. Books published by authors like Walter Lippmann for journalism are like Kant books for philosophy.

With all this, the US has failed to convey an acceptable self-image. This probably explains the undercurrent anti-Americanism in the world. Its image is much worse in the Arab world for example, but not less in Latin America, neither in Europe. This goes back decades, it did not happen with the arrival of Donald Trump to the presidency of the country. The paradox is that Paris and London colonized the Arab world, while US has never been a colonizing power, except Iraq in 2003.

After the Second World War, and in the face of Soviet danger, Washington was forced to defend the West and allied countries, including some Arab countries, because of oil such as Saudi Arabia, or the strategic geographical situation such as Morocco. Washington has opted to build bridges of communication with the Arab world. Within this framework, he founded Voice America in Arabic in the 1940s. With the passage of time, Voice of America did not have the expected success. It was widely surpassed by BBC Arabic, Monte Carlo Arabic (France), and by Radio Moscow.

In order to consolidate its cultural and informative presence in the Arab world, the France Press Agency AFP, created in 1972 the Arab department for the Arab press. It has been an unprecedented success since its foundation. Reuters did the same by creating an Arab department, it also became an indispensable source for the Arab press. Indispensable as a source for the press translates in geopolitical terms into much cultural and political influence, it also benefits the image of the country, in this case France and Great Britain.

Luck did not accompany much the Arab departments of Associated Press and United Press International. The latter was successful between 2000-2006 but the economic crisis hindered its development. AFP and Reuters Arab continue, UPI and AP Arab have disappeared. Another argument about the failure of US communication to the Arab world. The majority of US news reaches the Arab world through French and British eyes. Washington founded the first Western Arabic-language television aimed at Arab public opinion, Alhurra in February 2004.  The aim was to improve the image of the US after the war in Iraq.

Alhurra wanted to compete with Aljazeera television. Washington accused the Qatari channel of sowing hatred against the West in the Arab world. It did not achieve this dream, the worst thing is that it was surpassed by new channels created by other Western countries, France 24 in 2006 and the Arab BBC in 2008. The current director of Alhurra,  Alberto Fernandez,  acknowledged in an interview with the Moroccan newspaper (February 2019) that “With the structural changes we have made, Alhurra is a new channel that has nothing to do with the old version, I ask the Arab audience a second chance. It is Sad, Alhurra must almost start from scratch in 2019, 15 years after its foundation. It is also very sad that Alhurra is seen as a television channel under the influence of the Arab Emirates. A country far from democracy and does not respect freedom of expression.

In relation to this, the paradox is that prestigious media in the U.S. agreed to create Arab versions with the investment of Persian Golf regimes such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. the situation is surreal, in the US media respect and defend freedom of expression and civic values, while Arab versions of these same media do not reflect plurality of opinion or respect freedom of expression.

In academic research in communication there is the technique of: Content analysis. A comparison exercise between CNN digital content in English and CNN digital in Arabic will demonstrate the difference. I wonder: after the atrocious assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, it is ethically acceptable that the Arab versions should be maintained by parties financed by people close to dictatorial regimes. Money cannot prevail over the true mission of the press: to defend human rights and to inform honestly.

In short, the pioneering country in the development of communication and journalism in the world does not know how to communicate with the other. This explains the continued failures to improve the image of the U.S. abroad, particularly in the Arab world. It deserves to be the subject of a doctoral thesis. 

Moroccan Journalist, PhD in journalism

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