Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Michael Pelletier, the director of the Regional Media Outreach Center in the Middle East established by the US State Department told Asharq Al Awsat that he would seek to strengthen and respect “independent, responsible” media to explain US policies to Arab nations, especially in view of the increased influence on public opinion via satellite television channels, the internet and the press.
In an interview with Asharq Al Awsat from Cairo, Pelletier said that he faces difficulties in his new post on account of Arab media outlets that are hostile towards US policy, denying that US Arabic-language media has failed to attract the Arab audience.
The interview proceeded as follows:
Q: Media outlets highlight the long-standing ties between the US and the Arab world. What will the Regional Media Outreach Center achieve that is different?
A: What is new is that thanks to satellite television channels, the internet and modern technology today, we have great opportunities to communicate with the Arab audience. In the past, this was not available due to the language barrier, for instance. US diplomacy is now seeking to overcome this language barrier and there are American officials who are currently learning the Arabic language to give a real picture of America in the native language. They would be available to answer questions from Arab media outlets, particularly radio and television, which are both the first source of information for people, as well as the press.
Q: As you are aware, there are Arab media outlets that adopt an anti-US position, especially independent outlets. How will you tackle them?
A: We do face various difficulties when it comes to independent and opposition newspapers, which, unlike state-owned papers, adopt an anti-US approach. I do not deny that there are several hurdles that the office will encounter. However, it remains that a true journalist and good press are those that maintain neutrality and present conflicting viewpoints. I admit that the US administration long suffered from being isolated from the Arab world on the media level. The official US voice has remained silent in the Arab media throughout the past few years.
Q: Is it fair to say that the establishing of the Regional Media Outreach Center is a result of the failure of US Arabic-language media outlets such as Hi Magazine, which has been suspended, and al Hurra television, the performance of which is being looked in to in the US?
A: I would not say that they have failed. They are still young, evolving projects. They are part of various ways to expand communication and mutual understanding with the Arab world. We try to be supportive of such media outlets. The new project will contribute to them and will be able to answer questions from Arab citizens.
Q: Will the Regional Media Outreach Center focus on media outlets as part of the American plan to “spread democracy” in the Middle East, particularly as part of the so-called New Middle East?
A: Democracy and freedoms are what everybody hopes for. We want to support this because we believe it would benefit everybody. One can say that the Center is part of the endeavor to improve communication and strengthen and respect independent, responsible media. Our basic goal, however, is simply to explain US policy and what lies beneath it.
Q: How much was allocated by US administration to this project?
A: I cannot disclose the allocated budget, but I can say that the Center is a small office that depends more on moving around and traveling than staying in an office. Over the next few weeks, a female assistant will join me to provide both male and female elements [to the team]. I do not think that branches of the Center will be opened in the region since there are American embassies throughout the Arab world and information bureaus that carry out specific duties in bilateral relations. Our center, however, is dedicated to dealing with the Arab media outlets without discrimination between the various Arab states, especially in view of the few questions asked by media personalities and journalists that are well beyond the capability of American embassies to give suitable diplomatic answers; hence the importance to set up the center.
Q: How did the idea emerge to set up the Regional Media Outreach Center? What are the main objectives?
A: The initiative was put forward by the State Department Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and was backed by the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Rice realized that there should be communication with the Arab public opinion through interaction with Arab as well as European media outlets.
We have another regional office for Europe based in Brussels. Due to the importance and influence that the media has, we had to develop our communication channels with the media towards improving the image of the US.
Q: In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, most Americans asked why they are hated. Was the US successful in answering the question through its attempts to communicate with the Arab world?
A: As I said, we respect the importance of the media and public opinion and have to interact accordingly. Through this, people will hopefully understand us better and understand the values that we share that motivate our policies. We believe in the importance and power of understanding which derive from cultural and educational exchange programs and commercial and diplomatic relations.
Q: What are the ambiguities, if any, of the American policy that the media fails to explain to the Arab public opinion?
A: As an example, I believe that everyone is for peace, stability and security in Iraq and a peacefully coexisting “two-state” solution for the Palestinian issue. I believe that everybody is for social, economic and political prosperity in the region. This is the objective of the US government and people. We trust that the majority of Arabs also share this objective. We may differ on some details and methods, but we share the wider goals and values. We should always keep that in mind.
Q: Will the Center provide Arab media personalities and journalists with training programs? If so, what will be the bases of these programs and what would be the selection criteria?
A: The US government sponsors various training programs for journalists and media personalities through US embassies in the region and through the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the many other programs offered by the State Department and other US departments. These programs, however, are run by the US embassies in the region rather than by our modest regional center.