As a US government funded network, Alhurra remains resilient to the current global downturn as it is funded by the "US taxpayers' money", says Fran Mires, Executive Producer of Alhurra's flagship programme, Al Youm.
As the Washington-based network battles for attention of viewers in the Middle East, the challenge to produce unbiased and balanced programmes involves a lot more than achieving financial independence.
The channel may never have to worry about financial feasibility as it will continue to be funded by the US government, being its propaganda. Mires, however, denies this perception of the channel. "We work in a balanced and unbiased manner with no influence, and that's not propaganda. You cannot put enough money on the table for me to take up a propaganda job," she says in a candid interview with Emirates Business.
How long has Al Youm been in production and beaming?
We have just completed a calendar year and a very long and successful year of broadcasting some very good quality programmes.
What is the objective of Alhurra television and how does Al Youm help in achieving that?
Funding for Alhurra television comes from US tax payers' money. But they don't control the channel's editorial content. Funding of the channel and its editorial content are independent divisions with neither interfering with the other.
This gives us the ability to produce unbiased and balanced programmes for viewers in the Middle East. Al Youm is a major player in achieving this objective through a daily three-hour programme, broadcast to more than 26 million people in the region.
Your audience is Arabs in the Middle East and abroad and your channel is funded and based in the West. How do you maintain a balance in the intepretation of facts from two different sides of the fence?
The perception in the Middle East is that if a channel is government funded then it will tow the official line. But that's not the case with Alhurra. We operate under the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), which is financed through a grant from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent federal agency funded by the US Congress. The BBG oversees MBN and acts as a firewall to protect professional independence and integrity of broadcasters.
With this very strong firewall in place and the integrity of people who work for the organisation, we maintain the independent nature of our reports without any bias or agenda. BBG's responsibility is not to just arrange billions of dollars of funding for various media organisations like ours but also to keep the government off our backs.
As the executive producer of Al Youm, which makes up for 25 per cent of our programming on Alhurra, there's no phone call at my office from any government official to dictate any story that is to be covered or to alter the tone of a story. They wouldn't dare call!
In case you do get such a call, what would your response and reaction be?
I would have to say, 'Thanks for calling and I will look into it'. In fact I will say, 'Thanks, but no thanks'." I have not received any such call in the past one year and nor do I expect [to receive any] in future. They know we are professionals and they are also professional enough to let us work independently without any intervention. We receive no favours from government officials and I have to seek their time for participating in our shows, just like any other channel would do.
Is there any kind of self-imposed censorship that you have noticed among your staff who work towards imposing a precarious balance?
Personally, absolutely not. But I have staff on five continents and they have differing work cultures and ethics. They are all professionals but often have to be reminded that "yes you can do that story".
They may be coming from different backgrounds, but I remind them often that you do work for an independent network with no influence on your reporting, and that's a constant process.
The only way they are expected to do a job is to do it the balanced way. I insist and remind them that there's only one way to do the job – the balanced way. We ensure that all aspects of a story are covered and we execute it the right way. If it's not done the right way, then it is propaganda. And we are not doing propaganda. I will not do propaganda, I will not take up a propaganda job, you cannot put enough money on the table to make me do a propaganda job.
You do not depend on advertising dollars to finance your network and that must have made you resilient to the current economic crisis. Still, the current global circumstances must have affected your budget and financing?
We are one of the very few media establishments that has not been impacted by the global economic downturn. In fact, our budget for the next year has already been approved with a fair amount of increase – keeping in view our expansion plans.
What are your expansion plans? Do these involve increasing your footprint beyond the Middle East?
Alhurra is focused on the region and our expansion will be in content and the service we provide. We do not intend to expand and grow our footprint. The network is visible in 22 countries across the region and today has over 26 million viewers, as per the Nielsen report.
What are the advantages of not depending on the advertising dollar for the network?
It is certainly a big advantage, as we do not have to accommodate any request from our marketing or sales department. Every advertiser expects a certain amount of exposure or perhaps a leniency in covering some stories and subjects. Since we are not dependent on the advertising dollar to finance the network, that dependence is absent and helps us to produce balanced reports without any bias.
Does Alhurra have any plans to become financially feasible as a commercial entity without having to depend on funding?
We started our operations in 2008 with a clear agenda that the network will broadcast unbiased news and programmes. It is financed by funds approved by the US Congress and we have seen a constant increase in our funding. So, historically speaking, establishments like Voice Of America or Alhurra will continue to be funded by the US taxpayer's money and are not to be financially dependent on any commercial establishment or any other source.
What is the annual budget of Alhurra television and what's the share that's given to Al Youm?
I cannot divulge details about our annual budget, but Al Youm has a decent sized budget that is required for producing a programme that covers events on five continents and is beamed live via satellite.
Before producing Arabic language programmes for Arabic television, you were producing a Spanish language TV programme, without understanding or even speaking the language. How do you manage to achieve this?
Some things in life you do not plan, but they happen. I studied mass communications in English and worked in various channels and platforms for most of my life. Then in 1987, I got the opportunity to work on a Spanish programme that was on the lines of Tonite Show. I took up the challenge because I believed that you had to be a professional in television production and not in Spanish. Similarly when I got this opportunity to work in the Middle East on an Arabic language television channel, I was applying the same skills and principles that I have done for so long in the international Hispanic market. So all I had to do was to replicate the efforts I had put in so successfully in the past.
Can you have the same passion in a programme when you don't know what they are saying or what they are talking?
I do, because, after seemingly working in the same manner forever, I have acquired this skill where I maintain the same professionalism and challenge without knowing the words they speak, because I know what they are talking about. I have a brilliant Arabic staff and I am the only non-Arabic speaking person, despite which we maintain a very cohesive bond and cover for each other's lack of language skills, if any. Most staffers are bilingual, trilingual or multi-lingual. Our daily meetings are conducted in English and when it comes to working on the script, we have a group of very skilled writers in Arabic language.
OF ALL THINGS AMERICAN
Located in Dubai's Media City, Al Youm is co-anchored by Jessy Trad and Ahmed El Naggar, who are joined by Mona Wehbi in Beirut, Amr Khalil in Cairo and Eman Haddad in Occupied Jerusalem, along with news updates from Alhurra's headquarters outside of Washington, DC. Through correspondents at the State Department, White House, Congress and the Pentagon, Alhurra sheds light on US policies and holds policy debates for Middle Eastern audiences. Guests from US think tanks and interviews with US officials provide a view of US foreign policy, an understanding of the American people and their system of governance.
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