By Edmund Blair
CAIRO (Reuters) - A U.S.-backed satellite channel has begun broadcasts to a skeptical Arab world but its target audience said Sunday Washington needs a new political message, not a new messenger.
The Arabic-language Alhurra (The Free One) channel began beaming news, talk shows and features to the Middle East on Saturday pledging to provide accurate and balanced news to viewers "enabling them to make informed decisions."
But the channel faces an uphill task winning over Arab viewers in a region where anti-U.S. sentiment runs high. Many Arabs fume at Washington's perceived bias toward Israel and are deeply opposed to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
"They want us brainwashed to accept their way of thinking. The thing they don't realize is that we have a cause and that cause is more important than hamburgers and blue jeans," said Syrian university student Nasser when asked about the channel.
A few Arabs said they had watched the channel briefly, while some said they were not sure where to find it on their receivers. Others simply said they weren't interested.
"I don't think I want to watch it. This is America's television. It will be covering reports with an underlying American approach," said Raja Sarghali, 43, a pharmacist in the Palestinian West Bank town of Tulkarm.
Saturday's launch aims to counter the influence of popular Arabic satellite channels such as Qatar-based Al Jaze era and Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, which Washington accused of anti -American bias, a charge both channels dismiss.
Alhurra's early broadcasts carried slogans between programing saying: "You think, you aspire, you choose, you express, you are free. Alhurra (The Free One), just as you are." Some presenters previously worked for other Arabic TV stations.
The channel is the latest U.S. initiative seeking to improve its image in a region where it says it wants to promote freedom and democracy. But many say the principal U.S. image problem is in its politics, not its presentation.
"There is a problem of credibility related to the United States. This channel will have that problem from the beginning, that it is a cover-up for basic, American unacceptable acts," said Abdel-Monem Said, director of Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
But he said it was too early to judge how independent the channel would prove, although he said the U.S.-backed radio Voice of America (VOA) had never built up a big audience in the Middle East because it was seen as projecting a U.S. agenda.
He said Britain's state-funded BBC was seen as more independent and had built up a Middle East audience even though British policy and its role in Iraq was also criticized in the region.
In Algeria, Omar Belhouchet, director of the influential daily El Watan, said Alhurra could help the United States. "If the channel's content is good, professional and not just propaganda it could help its image," he said.
Alhurra will be supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an agency that supervises U.S.-backed non-military international broadcasts, such as the VOA.
The BBG said in a statement on its Web site that Alhurra would be an example of the U.S. free media.
Abdel-Wahab Badrakhan, deputy editor of the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, said: "If there are any exceptions (to free news coverage), Arabs will notice it quickly."