Radio Sawa: All dressed up with nowhere to go

Since my last visit to Jordan a few months ago, the United States government has launched its new effort to win the hearts and minds of the people of the Arab world, an FM radio station called “Radio Sawa” (Radio Together). At first it seemed that this station was blaring from every radio. My rental car had it preset, and the throbbing beats of Britney Spears could be heard emerging from more than a few taxis. Sawa is now heard on FM stations in five Arab capitals, all except Amman, in the Gulf region.

Radio Sawa is deceptively innocuous. About 53 minutes of each hour it broadcasts cheap Arabic and Western pop, the rest of the time divided between one short news bulletins at quarter to and one longer one at quarter past each hour.

On August 18, I listened alternately to the BBC and Sawa throughout the day and took notes about how they covered the news. First thing in the morning, the BBC led with news of a report from the Palestinian Ministry of Health documenting a one hundred and twenty five percent increase in child malnutrition in the occupied territories since Israeli began its siege and repression. Sawa led with news that an Israeli “special unit” had arrested Hamas members. Saying nothing about the health report, Sawa made only a vague reference to calls by Palestinian officials for the international community to intervene to “relieve the humanitarian and security situation affecting the Palestinian territories.”

For much of the day Sawa seemed to be concerned with damage control for the U.S. campaign against Iraq, prominently featuring denials by unnamed Israeli officials that Israel was trying to goad the U.S. into attacking Baghdad.

In the evening, the BBC and Sawa both reported on the visit to the region of the UN special envoy for humanitarian affairs, Catherine Pertini. While the BBC quoted Pertini as expressing deep concern about the grave situation, Sawa quoted her only as describing announced Israeli measures to relieve the plight of the besieged population as “encouraging.” The BBC highlighted a new report from the World Bank that put the number of Palestinians living in extreme poverty at over fifty percent. Sawa said nothing about that but repeatedly included an upbeat item about a planned meeting between Israel’s defense minister and the new Palestinian interior minister.

Sawa did report that three Palestinians had been injured in an Israeli “operation” in Khan Yunis, but only the BBC bothered to add that these were civilians, one of them a sixteen year-old girl.

In a late night bulletin, Sawa led with news that Jaweed Ghusein the former director of the Palestine National Fund had gone into exile in London from Gaza, and had told Israeli newspapers that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had diverted millions of dollars meant for the Palestinian people into his personal bank accounts. Only the BBC however mentioned that the same newspaper reports claimed that Ghusein had been spirited out of Gaza in a joint operation of Israeli, Jordanian and British intelligence, and that Ghusein had himself been accused since 1991 (before the Palestinian Authority even existed) of embezzling more than six million dollars from PLO funds.

Sawa did include news items that undermine declared U.S. policy, for example that the German Chancellor strongly opposes a U.S. attack on Iraq. Perhaps adding such information, which is in any case well-known to everyone here, helps boost the credibility of the station as an “objective” whole, making it a bit easier to sell the largely sanitized version of the news that Sawa offers.

While just about everyone knows that the U.S. government is behind Sawa, there is something very furtive about the whole affair. Unlike the BBC Arabic Service, or Radio Monte Carlo (the Arabic broadcasts of French radio), both of which have been available here on FM for several years, Radio Sawa’s news bulletins do not identify the station’s sponsor or where it is broadcasting from. Its anchors do not provide their names. This gives it an exceptionally sterile and anonymous quality that is in complete contrast to its competitors.

Occasionally, however, listeners are directed to Sawa’s highly uninformative website ( whose three short paragraphs of text in English and Arabic perhaps tell you all you really need to know, among which:

“Radio Sawa is a service of U.S. International Broadcasting, which is operated and funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an agency of the U.S. Government. The BBG serves as a firewall to protect the professional independence and integrity of the broadcasters.”

The site also explains that:
“In reporting the news, Radio Sawa is committed to being accurate, objective and comprehensive.”

Sawa shows a bit more sophistication than the sledgehammer propaganda of the old Voice of America only to the extent that there is no sign of the crude State Department “editorials” in which people are informed of why this leader is a pariah, or that country a “rogue” state and why America has their best interests at heart. Sawa’s approach is not to tell outright lies, but to subtly distort the news through careful selection and omission.

“One of the guiding principles of Radio Sawa” according to its website, ” is that the long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly in Arabic with the people of the Middle East by radio,” and that “Radio Sawa seeks to win the attention and respect of its listeners.”

Yet it is clear that the United States does not have much to say in Arabic, and scarcely more respect for its audience. Sawa is up against the BBC Arabic service, which provides detailed and authoritative news, analysis and interviews presented by friendly, but occasionally tough interviewers (who actually have names and personalities), as well as features, music, English-teaching and programs about everything from public health to local events in just about every corner of the Arab world and beyond.

Radio Monte Carlo also provides high quality news and discussion, lots of pop music, and while managing to sound a little ‘younger’ than the BBC still comes off as a serious effort. Both the BBC and Radio Monte Carlo have lots of audience participation, taking calls and reading letters from listeners—and responding on air—to questions from all over the region.

Sawa’s news bulletins and endless nightclub throb come off as the radio equivalent of invading soldiers handing out chocolate to children in a newly captured territory. Its sound is not unlike the mass produced commercial FM radio that has replaced local programming in almost every US city, the difference being that there are no commercials (which after a brief time listening to Sawa you actually start to miss), and it is in Arabic.

Underpinning Radio Sawa is the common American belief that people in the Arab world harbor resentment towards the United States because they are simply misled, do not understand their own interests and are too obtuse to realize that their views towards American policy are simply wrong. Its bland format and lack of content leave no room for an actual exploration of people’s views and the creation of a dialogue between the United States and the people it wants to influence.

While better communication between the U.S. and the Arab world is badly needed, it should be based on actually changing approaches to problems, and resolving key issues, not simply trying to sell the same old policies in a package of pop music. What people in the Arab world need is sophisticated insight into the United States as a country, the diversity of its people, and the complexity of its culture and politics. Americans need the same about the Arab world. Sawa, providing none of that, is a quick fix solution to a deep and worsening problem, that will ultimately prove disappointing to its creators.

Most people I have talked to agree that its nice to have the music, but that the news is a bit of a joke. A few are more concerned worrying that while Sawa may seem vacuous today, once it lulls its audience into seeing it as harmless, or even objective, the dose of distortion and spin will be gradually increased. But given the information saturation from other, far more informative radio stations, newspapers and satellite television, Sawa would have to pull off a miracle to do anything more than confirm the impression that when the United States is not being a bully it is just patronizing.

If the United States government thinks it is going to make people in the Arab world believe that its unconditional support for the Sharon government, and its threatened invasion of Iraq are really good for them just because Americans have learned to speak Arabic, then it is dreaming. If, however, the U.S. intention was to provide light entertainment to people as they ride in taxis, then it has come up with a sure fire scheme for success.