State TV Channel In Arabic Launched

A state-funded, Arabic-language satellite news channel went on air Friday, becoming the latest front in a Kremlin drive to restore its Soviet-era influence in the Middle East.

Rusiya al-Yaum was set up by RIA-Novosti, which launched the state-funded Russia Today channel in 2005 to deliver a Russian perspective on news to English-speaking audiences.

Senior government officials say biased reports by foreign journalists tarnish the world's view of Russia.

"We will be able to inform Arabic viewers about what's happening in Russia and, most important, to convey to them Russia's viewpoint on the issues," said Yevgeny Sidorov, Rusiya al-Yaum's editor.

"[It is] objective in the sense that it is firsthand; that is, we broadcast this information directly out of Russia," he said.

Analysts said the channel -- which its creators say will reach up to 350 million viewers in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe -- is aimed at extending Russia's influence abroad.

"Russia wants to build ... a system of influence in the Arab region," said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst with the Center of Political Technologies, a think tank.

"Russia has interests in Iraq and is keen to preserve the contracts signed under Saddam Hussein ... and to remain effective sponsors of the Middle East peace process," he said.

The Soviet Union was a big diplomatic and commercial player in the Middle East, but that influence faded in the 1990s.

Buoyed by plentiful oil revenues and growing confidence on the international stage, President Vladimir Putin has been trying to restore Russia's standing in the region.

Makarkin said Russia was determined to deliver its news to Arabic speakers independently, "not as retold by Western or Arab media.

"After all, this is a channel controlled by the state and conveying the state's position firsthand," he said.

NTV television showed Putin on Friday telling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the Arabic channel's launch in a telephone birthday message.

Rusiya al-Yaum, which will broadcast from its Moscow studios via satellite 20 hours per day, will compete with well-established pan-Arab television channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, as well as numerous local stations.