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Analysis: Russia Enters Arab-World Media Battleground

The Arab world will soon be able to watch Russia's take on events (AFP) PRAGUE, June 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's RIA Novosti announced on June 15 that by the end of the year it will launch a satellite-television channel that will broadcast to the Middle East and North Africa. In doing so, the state-run news agency joined the growing list of countries vying to gain a media influence in the region.

There are currently three major 24-hour satellite-television news channels in the Arab world: Qatar's Al-Jazeera, the Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah, and the U.S.-funded Alhurra. In addition, more than 10 percent of the more than 200 free channels available via satellite are devoted to news, according to the "International Herald Tribune" on June 20.

Those channels will soon be joined by new, state-funded satellite television entries from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and now, Russia.

Financial Support

In an interview with the "Financial Times" of 15 June, a RIA Novosti source said that the news outlet's new Arabic-language service will be an independent project comparable in expenditure to Russia Today, the international English-language news network RIA Novosti launched last year. "The Arabic service will cost $35 million, while whole Russia Today costs $30 million," he said.

According to the pro-Kremlin website, the goal of the new channel is "to reassert Russia's political influence in the Middle East and to confront international mass media that have a critical position toward the Russian Federation."

Khuzam Akram (RFE/RL, file photo)

RIA Novosti's project will be headed by the former Moscow bureau chief of Al-Jazeera, Akram Khuzam. Khuzam, who had headed the bureau since it was launched in 1996, was fired in September -- reportedly after running afoul of Russia's Muslim community.

Al-Jazeera Director Wadah Khanfar, whose station's policies have often been criticized by the United States, said that his station welcomes the appearance of a Russian channel, "Izvestia" reported on June 20. "Russia can present her opinion on the air," Khanfar said, "and viewers will only gain from that."

Nikolai Shepelev, the chief of the international department of Rossia television's news program "Vesti," told that the main task of Russia's Arabic-language television channel will be to provide not only news, but a window into the mentality of the Russian people.

The topics will be addressed through a prism of traditional Islam so that "ordinary citizens of a Muslim state can understand nuances of life in the Russian Federation," Shepelev said.

Counter To U.S.

Shepelev does not conceal against whom he believes the Russian state news agency's maneuverings in the Arab world are directed. "The closer we are to [the Arab world], the stronger our positions in the region will be. Understandably, U.S. [positions] will be weaker," he told

Russia has sought to downplay U.S. concerns over Russia's recent dealings in the Middle East, which include weapons sales to Syria and Iran, Gazprom's efforts to create a "gas cartel" with Algeria and Iran, and contacts with and loans provided to the Palestinian Authority's Hamas government.

In June, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov said that Moscow "has no goal to compete with the United States for influence in the region."

However, Rossia's Shepelev told that Saltanov was merely attempting to mollify Washington. "Let them think that we are friends and partners," Shepelev said, noting that RIA Novosti is readying plans for a Spanish-language television channel intended for Latin American and Spanish audiences.

For its part, commented that Moscow's ultimate aim is to restore powerful, Soviet-style foreign propaganda machinery, including foreign broadcasting.

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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