‘People are waiting to have their own station that talks to them and about them,’ says the Israeli-Arab executive director of the channel.

Jozef Atrash, Hala TV

Jozef Atrash, executive director of Hala-TV.

Israel’s Communications Ministry has just granted a license to the state’s first independent Arabic-language TV station, to start broadcasting later in 2011.

“Our mission is to give people some good information and entertainment, to be a mirror of the local Arabic community in Israel,” says Jozef Atrash, executive director of Hala-TV. Atrash, an Israel-Arab who lives in Haifa, tells ISRAEL21c that “hala” is Arabic for “hello.”

Most of Israel’s 1,200,000 Arab households receive worldwide broadcasts in Arabic via satellite dish, and they get local Israeli channels as well, according to Atrash. About 10 percent of those households also subscribe to local Israeli cable stations HOT or YES. “But there are no local TV stations where they can learn about local issues,” he stresses.

“According to our research, people are waiting to have their own station that talks to them and about them,” says Atrash.

It’s not for lack of trying. “The Communications administration, Minister Moshe Kachlon and myself wanted to build this channel for a long time,” says Nitzan Chen, the ministry’s chief regulator and chairman for cable and satellite TV broadcasting.

“It is really sad that 20 percent of Israeli citizens don’t have their own economic, social and cultural channel. The Israeli public-service channel is supposed to offer Arabic programming [several hours a day] but unfortunately nobody is really watching it because Arab citizens feel that public channels are not objective.”

Businesses get behind Hala-TV

Since cable and satellite stations aren’t permitted to take advertising, two previous attempts to start an Arabic TV station were scrapped for lack of funds. So over the past three years, the Communications Ministry appealed to both Arab and Israeli businesses to invest NIS 20 million ($4.6 million) to launch a commercial, independent station.

“We found eight organizations that came together and formed a board of deputies for this channel, and we hope and pray this time it will succeed,” Chen tells ISRAEL21c. “I feel this time it will.”

These are not just empty words. The ministry even changed its licensing requirements to give Hala-TV some commercial advantages. “For the first two years, they won’t have to create news programs for themselves, but can buy programming from other sources. In the third year, they should have their own news department. We wanted to encourage them to take the risk,” says Chen.

The station will run 24 hours a day, offering family programming, entertainment, “infotainment,” sports, reality shows – anything that will resonate with the Israeli-Arab sector, with no government interference.

“From my point of view, after I give them a license all I care is that they will be objective and law-abiding,” says Chen. “All the rest is open content.”

He has no illusions that Hala-TV could ever overtake the popular Arabic station Al-Jazeera, which reaches more than 220 million households in more than 100 countries, with 65 international bureaus. “But at least it can be a ‘blue and white’ Arabic channel to cover issues in a more objective way.”

Atrash, formerly CEO of Newsound Interactive, one of the shareholders in the project, thinks his fellow Israeli-Arabs will welcome Hala-TV. “We believe no one will be against it because it will be of the community and about the community, and maybe even give rise to a local [broadcast] star.”

He expects the new station to provide direct or outsourced work for about 50 to 100 people, including employees of existing production companies who will be recruited to support it.