Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations two weeks ago laying out the case against Iraq was beyond any doubt among the most important statements in the war on terrorism, one that everyone in the world needed to hear.
Had Secretary Powell delivered that speech only two years ago, however, most people in the Arab Middle East would have heard it only through the distorting filter of radio and television stations controlled by those hostile to the United States. Only a tiny fraction – perhaps no more than one or two percent of the entire population – would have had the patience to tune in to the Voice of America’s Arabic Service that was broadcast exclusively on scratchy short wave.
But last week, the situation was very different. Thanks to the creation of Radio Sawa, a new program of U.S. international broadcasting, millions of people in the Arab world heard his speech as it was delivered – without the kind of distortions the media in the region all too often insert. Informal survey data show that Radio Sawa – the name means “together” in Arabic – is already the most popular station in many Arab capitals and has gained a significant audience even in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad!
Indeed, Radio Sawa has been so successful that one American commentator, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, has called the station “the triumph of the Bush Administration’s focus on public diplomacy abroad.”
Victories on the Media Front
Success for America’s international broadcasting combines two essential ingredients: trust earned by accurate reporting – which is critical to a democratic people’s ability to make informed decisions. And a free open channel to the other ideas that are at the center of this nation’s being. We are a nation built on ideas. Our international broadcasting must always reflect, examine, question and illuminate these ideas. Truth about the events we report is as critical to our mission as explaining to our audience why we value the truth.
Allow me to tell you something more about the Sawa success story – and also about some of the other successes in U.S. international broadcasting – not only because they are so impressive on their own and important in our war against terrorism but also because they point the way to the future.
Months before even the horrors of September 11, my predecessors on the Broadcasting Board of Governors – in no small part energized by my colleague Norman Pattiz – recognized the need for a far greater U.S. broadcast presence in the Middle East. And they set about negotiating agreements that would give us powerful AM transmitters broadcasting throughout the region.
With your support, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors launched Radio Sawa eleven months ago. A 24/7 service with 48 newscasts a day interspersed among a mix of Western and Arabic popular music, the station’s signals go out on a combination of AM and FM transmitters across the Middle East as well as via digital audio satellite, short wave, and the Internet. Because Radio Sawa represented such a radical departure from longstanding international broadcasting approaches, many were skeptical. But our surveys and reports from independent observers across the region highlight the new reality: in the Arab Middle East, Sawa has won the U.S. an audience including not only the young – who make up the vast majority of the population there – but also older people who turn to it for news and information.
When we launched Radio Sawa on March 23, 2002, we blanketed the Middle East, using a carefully conceived combination of medium wave and FM transmitters, digital audio satellite, short wave and the Internet. We installed a high-powered AM transmitter in Cyprus, and we’re poised to begin s