U.S. international broadcasters work to achieve credibility, and understanding, in the Middle East

WASHINGTON — “Oh are you working for the CIA now?”

That is how Samir Nader, State Department correspondent for Radio Sawa described his friends’ reaction when he joined the U.S. radio network beamed to the Middle East.

But the key to their acceptance, and their large audiences, is that they are the only full-time correspondents covering the White House, Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department in Arabic language broadcasting. So people in Iraq, Syria and neighboring countries can see and hear that they are getting the news direct from Washington. And they can see that Americans disagree — and that U.S. society may not always be accurately reflected by Washington politicians.

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Left to right: Zaid Benjamin, Washington Correspondent for Radio Sawa; Rana Abtar, Alhurra Congressional Correspondent; Samir Nader, Radio Sawa State Department Correspondent; and Scott Stearns, Voice of America’s State Department correspondent

And Nader said they must always be objective.

“No one ever told me at State to say this or that,” said Nader, who added that it’s critical to his credibility. “Our strength is balanced news.”

But Rana Abtar, who covers Capitol Hill for Alhurra TV, said translating Washington DC politics for Middle East audiences can be challenging.

“It’s not easy,” she said, adding an example: trying to explain “filibuster” to her viewers. And sometimes she is constantly on deadline, such as during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress this week.

“My job is to explain why they [some members of Congress] are not attending the speech,” she said.

Zaid Benjamin, another Washington correspondent for Radio Sawa, said he is widely followed on Twitter by Syrian rebels and other dissidents, who want a real-time reality check on Washington politics, on prospects for U.S. humanitarian interventions — and for Ameican arms shipments.

Sometimes U.S. international broadcasters have a major exclusive.

“We are the only international broadcaster in the Kurdish language,” said Scott Stearns, Voice of America’s State Department correspondent. Even when their cell phone batteries start to run out of power, said Stearns, Kurdish listeners have called the VOA newsroom to relay news of emergencies.

Asked whether they feel free to report on such sensitive subjects as anti-Semitism and violence against Christians, Nader had a simple answer.

“We have a moral obligation to tell the truth,” he said.