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At Voice of America, Complaints About Its Iranian Coverage

January 10, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

A Persian-language service is accused of tailoring its programs to avoid offending the Iranian regime. The VOA denies it.VOA

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator, said in a television interview aired recently in the Islamic Republic that the country “is in full compliance” with the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear-safeguards agreement, and that there is “no evidence” the regime is diverting nuclear material for military purposes.

Both statements were deceptive at best: Iran isn’t in compliance with all provisions of its current safeguards agreement, and the lack of evidence for diversion doesn’t dispel the IAEA’s concerns about nuclear-weapons research and development. Yet neither assertion was challenged by the on-air host.

Islamic Republic officials are accustomed to going unchallenged by Iranian journalists, who prefer to stay out of the regime’s dungeons. But the interview with Mr. Mousavian appeared on “Ofogh” (Horizon), a television show produced by the Persian-language service of Voice of America, the U.S. government broadcaster founded in 1942 to provide “accurate, balanced, and comprehensive news” to “people living in closed and war-torn societies.” VOA’s Persian News Network, based in Washington, is funded by Congress and receives around $23 million in taxpayer money annually.

The “Ofogh” segment touched off a fierce reaction among Iranian viewers, who took to the show’s Facebook page to vent their anger. “Like Iran’s current leaders he is a master of sophistry,” wrote one about Mr. Mousavian. Other viewers directed their complaints at VOA. “Voice of America = The Islamic Republic,” wrote another.

According to current and former employees at the network, the viewers’ complaints are unlikely to register with executives. One high-level production staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is currently employed at the network, said the Mousavian interview fit a pattern of VOA’s Persian-language division allowing itself to be bullied by regime mouthpieces. “Mousavian dictated the terms of the arrangement,” the staffer said. “He would not agree to debate somebody else.”

Critics also charge that VOA’s Persian coverage is often distorted by an editorial line favoring rapprochement with the mullahs. There is “a clear slant in favor of Iran in terms of its involvement in terrorism,” the current production staffer wrote in response to queries for this article. The network, he said, often refuses to air criticism of Iranian terror unless it is “balanced with the perspective of the Islamic Republic who vehemently [deny] any involvement.” And because “no one in the Islamic Republic gives us interviews anyway,” VOA Persian abandons otherwise informative segments about terrorism.

A former employee and on-screen personality summed up the network’s nonconfrontational attitude by saying that VOA sees itself as providing “a bridge between Washington and Tehran.”

VOA denies these claims. Spokesman Kyle King said in a written statement that the network “airs material about the Islamic Republic when it is newsworthy. Decisions are not contingent on Iranian officials being available for comment, and they are usually not.”

Rob Sobhani, a former Georgetown University lecturer in U.S. foreign policy, says that VOA is uneasy with criticism of the Islamic Republic. Until a few years ago, Mr. Sobhani, a staunch critic of the regime, appeared weekly as a commentator on the Persian-language network. Iranians used to approach him in airports outside the Islamic Republic, he says, to thank him for “saying things we can never say in Iran.”

But Mr. Sobhani found himself appearing far less frequently after 2009. “I was told I was too negative toward the regime,” he said. Mr. King, the VOA spokesman, said Mr. Sobhani “has appeared on several VOA programs since 2009.” He added that the network doesn’t coach guests “to be negative or positive,” nor does it “cherry-pick guests to promote a particular point of view.”

VOA hasn’t been without its bright spots. Most notably, it aired “Parazit” (Static), a satirical news show that used irreverent, American-style humor to skewer the regime’s misrule. “Parazit” proved enormously popular with audiences. The show’s Facebook page, where new episodes were posted weekly after airing on the network, garnered over a million fans. Yet VOA pulled “Parazit” off the air early last year, leaving fans in the dark.

According to the production staffer critical of the network, VOA isn’t particularly concerned about the popularity of its programming: “What it boils down to is that they don’t attach a lot of significance to viewers’ feedback. If a show is popular and has a big following in Iran and you lose that following by dropping the show, so be it. The money comes from Congress anyway.”

Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.



January 6th, 2013

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