U.S.-funded Arabic TV might have affected events in Egypt

Survey commissioned by Broadcasting Board of Governors says as many as 25 percent of Egyptians in major cities viewed coverage by Alhurra TV.

Alhurra TV, a U.S. government-funded Arabic language satellite television news channel, said on Thursday that 25 percent of Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria viewed its coverage of the 18-day uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak from office on Feb. 11.

The finding, which is based on a poll, puts Alhurra ahead of TV broadcasters BBC, CNN and al Jazeera, although behind four other broadcasters. The most watched channel was Dubai-based al Arabia.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had questioned Alhurra's effectiveness in a 2010 report, calling it "little watched" and expensive.

"The survey results confirm what we had been hearing throughout the last three weeks, that Alhurra was a prominent source of news and information for the Egyptian people," said Brian Conniff, president of the U.S. government's Middle East Broadcasting Network, which operates Alhurra.

Conniff said Alhurra reporters covered the sometimes violent demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria despite threats against them. In addition to interviews with protesters, the channel provided Egyptians an American perspective of the uprising, and it was the first to report that Mubarak would resign.

The poll, conducted Feb. 4-Feb. 10 by telephone, asked 500 randomly selected adults in Cairo and Alexandria about their most important sources for information about the uprising. The poll was commissioned by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. government agency that funds the Middle East Broadcasting Network.

In a report on the poll, BBG said, "Among the more surprising aspects of the survey results is the comparatively low ranking of al Jazeera," which previously had a large following in Egypt.

Al Jazeera's poor showing might have been due to Egyptian government efforts to block its broadcasts, BBG said.

Television was by far the most important source for information, according to those polled. Ninety-eight percent said they got some information from TV, and 86 percent said it was their most important source.

Thirty-three percent said they got some information from the Internet, with 7 percent saying it was their most important source. The Egyptian government also tried to block access to the Internet, text messaging, social networking and e-mail, the Middle East Broadcasting Network said.

Alhurra's $90 million-a-year budget is far larger than other U.S.-funded broadcast operations, such as the $37 million Radio Free Asia; the $30 million Radio/TV Marti, which targets Cuba; and the $17 million Persian News Network Television, the Senate committee report said.

Unless viewership is increased, the Senate report said, "Policymakers will have to decide if continuing Alhurra's operations are worth the cost."