An interview with Alberto Fernandez, the MBN leader behind Al-Hurra’s re-launch on how he is taking the channel and other MBN outlets in an aggressive new direction
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Ambassador Alberto Fernandez is the President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) which runs Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa. A fluent Arabic speaker, Fernandez came to MBN in the summer of 2017 after serving as Vice-President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) from 2015 to 2017. He previously served as a US ambassador in Equatorial Guinea and diplomat in Sudan, Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.
Good morning Alberto Fernandez. You’ve been posting online about the re-launch of Al-Hurra, could you describe what’s new and why this is important?
I took over last year with a mandate from the US Agency for Global Media to try to reform a broadcast operation that was underperforming. Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) operates Al-Hurra and it never amounted for the force for good or influence it was supposed to have after it was created in the years after 9/11. I know a lot about Arabic media because I worked on it or in it for most of my time as a diplomat. I participated as a guest many times, including on Al-Hurra and I’d seen it through the years as it developed.
So I was brought in to change things and we are doing that. We are taking advantage of a specific moment in pan-Arab media. You have a saturated market, tons of media outlets but after the Arab Spring you have a closing of the limited space that existed in pan-Arab media. The media [sector] is even more polarized and more narrow and censored; the red lines are much more red, whether at Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabia or elsewhere, this is true of all of them.
A-Hurra and other properties had kind of failed in their mission. I thought, ‘what needs to change’ and basically everything needed to change. So after many months of work, on November 4 we had the re-launch which we had been building to since I got here in 2017. On November 4 we rolled out the new Al-Hurra. There were a lot of technical issues to address, such as having better graphics, better picture, sets, but also anchors, news readers and a much stronger emphasis on news.
What does that mean, more news?
Al-Hurra had four hours of news in the past. That was clearly inadequate. So we went from 4 hours and by the middle of this week (November 20, 2018) we will be up to 12 hours of news a day; coming both from the Washington area and Dubai. We will have much more intense newsworthy coverage including breaking news coverage of things that are usually not covered. In addition to the enhanced news coverage, we are doing focusing on reformist, free thinking and critical thinking voices, without redlines, in a series of new current affairs programs.
You’re already facing criticism offal-Hurra’s new coverage in the region, you’ve characterized that as a good thing since it means you’re having an impact and people are taking notice?
It began shortly after I took over and began in several places. You could put them in three baskets relating to this politicized media commentary. One is negative commentary on a lot of stuff we have done, the choice of coverage. This criticism has come from Pro-Hezbollah media in Lebanon, criticizing our news focus. They weren’t complaining before I came, but [now we see] a new focus on us, criticizing us for negative coverage of the so-called “axis of resistance” countries. Another bunch of criticism has come from pro-Iranian news outlets in Iraq. We have a good audience in Iraq. Al-Hurra in Iraq has a loyal following, unlike other places where audience wasn’t as good and this criticism is also politically motivated.
The third area, interestingly enough has been in Egypt. This is a kind of strange criticism, that includes pro-government media criticizing us, and its unclear why. They critique us for a variety of sins that don’t make sense. Some was personal because I was previously Vice-President of MEMRI, and attacking us for being pro-Muslim Brotherhood or anti-Muslim which makes no sense. It is a campaign of vilification in some Egyptian media that is heavily influenced by the government. It’s odd, the criticism in Lebanon and Iraq is obvious due to the outlet because you know whois behind the criticism and why, but in Egypt it makes less sense, unless it is because they fear it is because we are not under their control or perhaps disgruntled former employees. So one Egyptian media called us a creature of the Pentagon and CIA and another said we are a rogue operation that was different then the foreign policy of the US, so how can we be both? Unlike the case of Lebanon and Iraq, the Egypt commentary seems less focused on what we have done and more on what we may do.
That reflects some of the contradictory conspiracies we tend to see in the region?
Yes, that is the reality in the region. It’s all conspiracy, all the time, and that creates an environment of confusion and chaos. So that’s the kind of criticism we received before the re-launch from 2017 and well into 2018.
I understand there are a lot of new people?
We have a lot of new faces. All our anchors are new. We have news blocks on North Africa and on a deeper dive into news from the US. The plan is to have deeper news about the US. But the North Africa block is to offer news coverage of that part of the world, kind of what we do for Iraq. In ‘current affairs’ we try to highlight critical thinking and free thinkers. For instance we launched the Sam and Ammar show, which are two Washington based intellectuals, Samuel Tadros and Ammar Abdulhamid. It is a show that is liberal and free wheeling, covering all sorts of interesting events, including the intellectual and political. They recently did an episode on the Holocaust from the US Holocaust Museum and got a lot of attention in the region. They did one this week on the 30th anniversary of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. That is an example of free wheeling [debate] and no red lines. We can look at politics and can criticize anyone, including the US government. And we followed that with a program with Ibrahim Issa, the well-known Egyptian journalist who talks about political Islam in depth, and he analyzes and criticizes it. It is a daring show about political Islam.
We’ve also been joined by Joumana Haddad, the well known activist and writer from Lebanon, who talks about the concept of forbidden things in Arab intellectual and media life. [Her new show looks at] forbidden film, books, ideas, things that are transgressive, that authorities seek to ban and silence. These are some examples of the liberal voices, secularist, free thinking voices we have. So along those lines we have a show with the prominent young Egyptian scholar, Islam al-Buhairi, who speaks about religionin a freewheeling, open minded worldview. All of these shows go toward presenting a specific world view that is humanistic, and into showcasing universal values, and the importance of free and critical thinking, all of these qualities that we think are important in the Arabic speaking Middle East and which are part of our identity.
It’s a new era in the region that coincides with this re-launch, but the region is sort of reverting to an ancient regime of reactionary governments?
If the re-launch is successful we will become even more of a concern for regimes and bad actors in the region. They thrive and they live in this space of a skewed authoritarian discourse, with heavy doses of disinformation and false information, fake news, and propaganda. That’s the kind of environment they live in right now. So if we are successful at aggressive hard-hitting news, no holds barred current affairs, even without being particularly hostile at anyone, that presents a real challenge to the new status quo, which is authoritarian opposition and authoritarian regimes. The main default opposition to many regimes is the Islamists, so it is either authoritarians in power or authoritarian (or worse) Islamist opposition waiting in the wings.
It sounds like liberals have no breathing space today in the region?
Regimes often go after Islamists and secularists and liberals. They also often try to co-opt elements of intolerant Islamist discourse. Islamists themselves also go after free thinkers and secularists. These regimes may be different, but in their worldview and the actions they take, they are the often same.
Al-Hurra is only in Arabic?
Only in Arabic. We have Al-Hurra, AL-Hurra Iraq, and Radio Sawa and various social media platforms.
Why is there Al-Hurra in Iraq as its own entity?
For historic reasons. It was set up after the liberation from Saddam Hussein. That is something we have kept. So if you are in Iraq, you have access to the Al-Hurra pan-Arab stream and then a significant amount of local content. So that’s the idea. It makes sense given the nature of media in the region. There is so much segmentation and fragmentation so providing premium content for people online and on the screen is the way to go in media.
We are also looking to do special programming for Syria. We started a block of Syria coverage last week. We are also doing a special investigative news reports section, as well. Looking at under-reported stories, scandals and corruption.
Do you face a hurdle in having correspondents in countries in the region, especially given the authoritarian trend?
I think that there have been efforts [against us]. We had one reporter disappear in Syria in 2012, we don’t know what happened to him. but any reporter in the region faces this. People get arrested, detained or called in for a “friendly” cup of coffee, such as might happen in a place like Gaza. That kind of stuff happens to media in the Arab world all the time. What gets the most attention is when someone gets arrested or killed, but there is this other kind of co-opting through corruption or pressure and threats. That does happen and I expect to see more, rather than less.
We don’t have a correspondent in regime controlled Syria. We have in Yemen, Libya, lots in Iraq. The region is dangerous everywhere, there is no safe place.
How about US policy? How does that affect your work. I’m thinking back to the era of the Iran deal, for instance, when policy is changing?
I wasn’t here for the Iran deal or the Obama Syria policy which I strongly opposed. I don’t know how I would have handled it. There is a mandated firewall between US funded broadcasting and the US government, such that government should not unduly influence us. Those are the rules. But obviously we try and and do cover the US administration fully and fairly. We cover everything fully, we also cover US critics of the administration fully. But I admit that I’m not facing these big issues yet where I strongly disagree with US policy.
How would you compare yourself to other broadcasters?
Before last week, we were severely lacking. The market is very complex and segmented. So Al-Hurra is one of the top broadcasters in Iraq. In other places it is near the bottom. It varies from place to place. I saw some report that our numbers that are going up in Tunisia, but I saw that our numbers in Egypt were very low. The old Al-Hurra was dull and slow, it lacked a lot of the basic elements that make for good television. I approached this as a consumer of pan-Arab media. Is this interesting and visually attractive? One thing I asked early on is why our picture isn’t as good as RT Arabic. We fixed that and are fixing other technical and aesthetic issues well into 2019. There hadn’t been investment required to be technically competitive in the market. And RT Arabic is just one example of where content is awful but it looks good.
Al-Hurra was kind of ossified, it sounds like you've really cleaned house?
Yes, we have had a turnover over 50% in terms of personnel since 2017.
What are the biggest issues in the region? ISIS, Iran, etc?
Iranian aggression is a huge issue. All of these political issues are priority issues for us. But aside from those things, aside from Iran, this is part of the larger struggle for dominance in the region by Iran, Turkey and other regimes trying to defend or carve out space for themselves. Also Russian machinations in the region. The other story that is woefully under covered is everything else. This is a region whose leaders have shown themselves largely incapable of reform and providing a better life for their citizens, a life of dignity for their citizens. Some talk about reform, a few try, most don’t even talk about it or try. This is a region that socio-economically is in free fall and that is an under covered story. Stories related to the struggle for human dignity and a decent life, is something that you’re going to see more of, and that is a challenge to cover and regimes don’t want to talk about it. Regimes want to wave a bloody flag and talk about Israel or the Americans. For instance saying they are the “resistance’ against Israel but not picking up the trash in Beirut. Covering the cultural and socio economic reality, the ferment occurring in the region, despite the apparent strength of regimes and siren call of political Islam, that is a story we want to cover.
That brings to mind the protests in Basra, Iraq?
Yes, we covered that heavily and people were rightly complaining about lack of services and dignified better life. That is a basic thing to cover for us.
You mentioned your background at MEMRI, how did MEMRI help inform you or provide background knowledge on the media in the region?
I was an admirer of its work and of Yigal Carmon, the president and cofounder in particular, long before I worked there. And I was interested in these issues before MEMRI. I was interested in intellectual life in the region, and media life, as a reflection of how people act and are influenced, what is it they say in the media and mosque and what do school books and textbooks say. I was always interested in how do people think through these issues. That was something that existed in my work as a public diplomacy diplomat, and existed at MEMRI, examining the political and intellectual trends such as jihadism or anti-Semitic or anti-Christian views, and that interest has continued into MBN. We look at those issues; we are interested in these trends of ideology and propaganda, the lines people put out, why they say what they say. For instance we just did an interesting piece on the rise of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, a mini-documentary on social media, his development, and the complex nature of it, the Iranian influence, and the counter Iranian influence, not a simple story but done fairly. We are interested in doing that kind of deep look on why people think and act the way they do.
What about synergy of social media, websites, TV?
One myth people had in the past about media in the Arab world is that people would sit around and watch TV together as a family and you needed family related programming. That’s not the case anymore, individuals watch segments on the phone and social media on television and you have to understand this multi-faceted omnivorous audience and create premium content that is scalable across platforms. You might see it on the phone or twitter or a website or TV. You need to get out of the mindset of people siting and watching hours of news; they won’t watch hours of news but rather bits and pieces, they may watch TV content on Twitter or on Facebook. Audiences in the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf, are in the vanguard of this type of consumption of content
Right, Al-Jazeera and Rudaw do that, for instance.
We have done it. We rolled out a new look and new content and focus on social media. What we are trying to do is offer people a choice and not an echo, something original and not just a tired copy found elsewhere, being aggressive and honest and refreshing in an environment where there are tons of choices and a lot of bad ones. That is why the motto we are using with the relaunch is “The Truth First” (Al-Haqiqa Awalan).