All the major U.S. networks were in the nation’s capital when it went on lockdown today after a suspect attempted to ram barriers at the White House with a car, but only one little-known station managed to get video of the suspect’s car chase just moments before it was all over — Alhurra TV, a U.S. government-funded Middle Eastern news station.
Operated by the non-profit organization the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and financed by a grant from the U.S. government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Alhurra is designed to “provide the United States with an undistorted line of communication with the people of the Middle East.”
Alhurra’s website says the station’s goal is to provide “objective, accurate, and relevant news” to its foreign audiences and says that the BBG acts as a “firewall” to protect the network’s independence, but that hasn’t stopped the station from previously being accused of being propaganda. BBG spokesperson Lynne Weil defended the network to ABC News, saying today that allegation is “an affront to these journalists, many of whom work in some of the roughest spots in the world and at great risk.”
“That does not reflect the Alhurra of today. Alhurra does great work and has received awards,” Weil said. “Its programs are quoted by other media quite frequently across the U.S. and in the regions that they serve.”
The BBG itself, which also operates Voice of America and Radio Free Europe among others, raked in more than $700 million in Congressional funding last year.
So why haven’t many Americans heard of Alhurra?
Up until this July, a 1948 law known as the Smith-Mundt Act prohibited government-funded news services that were designed to provide news to a foreign audience, like those that fall under the BBG’s umbrella, from broadcasting domestically. The recent passage of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act eases that restriction, but the BBG says it still is authorized only to create programs for foreign audiences and the BBG “does not seek to change that.”
As for how they got the chase video, the BBG’s Weil told ABC News, “The TV crew was in the right place at the right time to capture extraordinary and exclusive footage of a major news event [that] took place in the U.S. and needs explaining to people elsewhere in the world.”
Then American news networks, including ABC News, were able to take it from there to show their own audiences at home.
[EDITOR'S UPDATE Oct. 4, 2013: BBG spokesperson Lynne Weil clarified that in her defense of the network, she was responding only to accusations that Alhurra was a propaganda network leveled in a pair of reports late 2000s and not a broader range of criticisms, including allegations of ineffectiveness. Today Weil declined to comment on those allegations.]