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Bush administration plans to broadcast Muslim satellite TV in Europe

LONDON - A US-backed Arab-language satellite television station may be broadcast to viewers in Europe under new plans by the Bush administration, it has emerged.

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Al Hurra is a commercial-free network currently broadcasting to the Middle East, primarily devoted to news and information. It expects to transmit 24-hour programming to European Muslim communities, regarded by the administration as possible breeding grounds of extremism.

Al Hurra, which means "the free one", was set up as competition to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based channel, which Bush officials view as anti-American.

Al Hurra is owned by the Middle East Television Network and overseen by the US-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors.

US officials say that the broadcasts would focus more attention on France and Germany, which have western Europe's largest Muslim populations.

The station, which founded in February 2004, has come in for sharp criticism as being a US propaganda mouthpiece and was described by a former US ambassador to the region as "a big waste of money" with no chance of competing with popular Arab stations, such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the London-based Arabic News Network.

The Washington Post described Al Hurra as "the US government's largest and most expensive effort to sway foreign opinion over the airwaves since the creation of Voice of America in 1942".

However, the channel says it is dedicated to presenting accurate, balanced and comprehensive news. "Al Hurra endeavours to broaden its viewers perspectives enabling them to make more informed decisions," it said.

The channel broadcasts regional and international events, as well as discussion programmes, current afairs and entertainment features.

Initial funding for the $3.5m (£1.8m) venture would come from George Bush's $81bn supplement budget request for military operations in Iraq. Officials hope the Virginia-based Al Hurra could begin broadcasting to Europe by autumn of this year.

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