Reaching Iran: Problems with U.S. Media Messaging

Reaching Iran: Problems with U.S. Media Messaging

Helle Dale Summer 2012
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The stakes of U.S. international broadcasting to Iran are high. For one thing, Iran is the leading sponsor of global terrorism, an aspiring nuclear power, a threat to Middle Eastern stability, and the world’s fourth-largest oil producer. For another, Iran is a nation of 74 million people, 60 percent of whom are under age 30. Many in the under-30 cohort are thoroughly fed up with life under a fanatic theocracy and hunger for news of the outside world. Therefore, for the U.S. government’s international broadcasting complex and other Western broadcasters, Iran is a place where a good communication strategy is a necessity. Tragically, America’s principal instrument, Voice of America’s (VOA) Persian News Network (PNN) is simply not up to the task. PNN is riddled with problems that prevent the service from being an effective tool of public diplomacy.

PNN Past to Present

Voice of America first began radio broadcasts to Iran in the early 1940s. This program, originally called Farsi Service, functioned intermittently until 1979, when the Iranian hostage-taking of U.S. diplomats and capture of the U.S. embassy placed bilateral relations on a hostile footing. Since 1979, U.S. broadcasting to Iran has been on the air continuously in some form or another. In 2001, the service was renamed Persian Service, and in 2007, VOA renamed it again—as the current Persian News Network—and established it as a round-the-clock news network, making PNN the first network of its kind in VOA. As part of VOA, PNN is under the auspices of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). PNN is thus part of a government agency that is entirely supported by taxpayer dollars, running on an annual budget of over $20 million. This amount reflects several years of rapid growth. From a staff of 30 and one hour of programming a day in 2007, PNN went to 83 full-time employees, 120 contractors, and six hours of original television programming a day (and one hour of radio) two years later. PNN currently has about 140 full-time employees, more than 60 contract employees, and offers 24 hours of TV and radio programming.

PNN’s rapid expansion has been a major contributing factor to the problems that beset the network, concluded a report of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in 2009. “Rapid growth brought a number of problems along with it, including questions of program mix and quality and a lingering atmosphere of discontent among employees. Despite complaints from Congress, a new director, and changes to the production process, many of these problems persist. In an unprecedented statement released in December 2011, BBG member Victor Ashe detailed the persistent problems at VOA and PNN.

Today, reaching the Iranian people is not easy. The regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one of the world’s most repressive and is clearly aware of the danger to its power presented by the information revolution. It ranks as one of the world’s most adept at censoring the Internet and at scrambling radio and satellite television transmissions. The protests that followed the flawed presidential election of June 12, 2009 spurred the Iranian government to slow down Internet speed at critical times. An increasing number of Iranian bloggers have been threatened, arrested, tortured, or kept in solitary confinement. Some have died in prison. As the Middle East uprisings toppled regime after regime in 2011, Iran stepped up its jamming of the BBC, Voice of America, and other Western networks with Persian-language news channels.

The Persian News Network is front and center in the U.S. government’s attempt to reach the Iranian people with independent news about world events and information about U.S. policy. It is the U.S. government’s only platform for reaching an Iranian audience directly. The United States has not had an embassy in Tehran for more than 35 years, making VOA the official voice of the United States in Iran. When asked what the U.S. government could do to support political change in Iran, Amir Abbas Fakhravar, an exiled Iranian student leader, former political prisoner, and secretary general of the Confederation of Iranian Students, stated that two things were critical: (1) tougher oil sanctions and (2) reform of PNN.

Management Structure

PNN is overseen by a director, currently Ramin Asgard, who reports to the director of VOA, currently David Ensor, as well as to VOA’s executive editor and the director for language programming. They all report to the director of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), headed by Richard Lobo, and the BBG itself.

A persistent problem is that those in positions of authority at PNN include very few Farsi speakers. At the same time, many of the Farsi-speaking staff members (e.g., scriptwriters, copyeditors, producers, and production assistants) cannot communicate effectively in English. As a result, bilingual members of mid-level management, such as managing editors and executive producers, are often the only point of communication between the director and the employees.

Among the Iranian employees, moreover, there are persistent divisions. Ideologically, most could be described as pro-Western, but there undoubtedly are some who are less so, which occasionally shows up in the programming. What is more, it is clear that there are well-informed pro-regime individuals currently working at PNN and providing sensitive internal information to Iranian authorities. This has compromised PNN’s ability to serve its mission.

The combination of full-time employees and contract staff has created an atmosphere of discontent and sense of unfairness. The Office of the Inspector General found that there is no difference between the type of work done by contract employees and full-time employees. Furthermore, both groups are required to work the same amount of hours. Yet, the two categories of employees are treated differently and have different benefits. This is, of course, the nature of contract work, yet it has a major detrimental effect on personnel morale and satisfaction.

Suspicions of favoritism also run rampant. The belief that network stars are treated with kid gloves and protected from punishment of their misdeeds is a cause of deep resentment among the rank and file. Indeed, an argument frequently advanced on Iranian political websites is that the U.S. government has no business preaching to Iranians about democracy and human rights when its own agencies allow abusive and harassing behavior. The disarray in the PNN staff and management can only be a source of great satisfaction in Tehran that undermines the mission of the network.

PNN Programming — and Pro-Iranian Bias?

Not surprisingly the internal divisions are reflected in PNN programming. Accusations of pro-Iranian bias and favoritism in the production of shows are commonly heard from employees and those who follow PNN closely, such as the Iranian Freedom Institute’s “VOA PNN Watchdog.”

In one notable instance, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards attacked Iranian exiled student leader Amir Abbas Fakhravar for criticizing PNN programming. The denunciation was first published on the Revolutionary Guards’ “Young Journalists Club” website, and was then reprinted on Ammariyon, a website belonging to Ansar-e-Hezbollah, the special forces of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Fakhravar’s Conference of Iranian Students has monitored PNN over several years. In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on April 6, 2011, Fakhravar cited numerous instances of anti-American bias at PNN including the following incidents: (1) On November 2, 2007, during a PNN broadcast program on Hiroshima, commentators suggested that only an American would be able to drop an atomic bomb, and (2) on December 10, 2010, the night before one of the most important protests of the Green Movement in Iran, PNN aired an interview with an American Marxist, the gist of which was that the Green Movement is a creation of “American imperialism.”

Additionally, PNN has tellingly omitted or downplayed important events such as the brutal murder of Neda Agha-Soltan while she demonstrated for democracy on June 20, 2009. Though the graphic images went around the world within hours, PNN did not show the video for three days, as editors refused to accept its authenticity.

Reaching an Audience

As recently as 2010, PNN was the leading international broadcaster in Iran, with an estimated audience of nearly 20 percent of the adult population. PNN’s audience share, however, has been declining precipitously. According to a review of PNN published in May by the research firm InterMedia, “the combined weekly audience of VOA across radio, TV and internet, declined from 20.1 percent to 6.5 percent,” over the course of a year. Meanwhile, “the weekly audience of VOA PNN TV went from 19.6 percent to 6.1 percent.” It is worth noting that PNN radio remained stable over the same period. According to the BBG, the precipitous decline is due to effective countermeasures by the Iranian government. That may be true, but it is only part of the issue. Quality and credibility are also important issues.

According to recent and reliable survey data, the most successful foreign news broadcaster to Iran is BBC Persian—not PNN. Some estimates even put BBC Persian’s viewership at twice that of PNN. This, despite the fact that BBC Persian has only been on the air since 2008. Unlike PNN, BBC Persian is not run as a government agency; it functions as an independent agency that is government funded. BBC Persian fields many more on-site journalists than does PNN, which gives it news coverage with more accuracy and vitality.

PNN Radio: In line with existing BBG strategy, shortwave radio broadcasts have been sacrificed at PNN in favor of satellite television, Internet, and a surrogate broadcaster (Radio Farda). Just one hour of Farsi radio programming remains on PNN, despite the fact that shortwave broadcasting is a viable medium for reaching Iranians and the one least sensitive to Iranian government jamming and censorship. According to InterMedia, 33 percent of Iranians in 2011 reported listening to radio for entertainment and news. (This compares to 99 percent for television, 37 percent for newspaper, and 22 percent for Internet). Most of the assets of VOA’s Persian radio service, however, have been transferred to Radio Farda (which is run by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich). As noted in the 2009 OIG report, “VOA does not appear to have a clearly delineated mission for Persian-language radio as part of PNN or to have engaged in strategic thinking regarding its role.”

PNN Internet: The BBG has hitched most of its strategic planning and hopes to the Internet in the new plan adopted in its October 13, 2011 meeting. Websites have fairly low overhead compared with broadcast media, and in tight budgetary times this factor is a clear allure. Yet, there are problems with this strategy. While 22 percent of Iranians report using the Internet, a number that has been trending upwards over the past five years, the increase in traffic has not translated into more hits for VOA’s websites; in fact, quite the reverse. According to the 2009 OIG report, while PNN’s website reported 6 million hits in December 2007, this was down to 3 million in January 2008, and in November 2008, there were only 2 million. According to InterMedia, in 2011, just 2 percent of Iranian Internet users paid weekly visits to the PNN website, less than half a million people.

The regime’s targeting of the Internet is well documented. In fact, the Iranian Cyber Army (created after the June 2009 demonstrations) has on several occasions hacked VOA websites. Controlling cyberspace is one of Tehran’s highest priorities and its sophistication is considerable. Of the 37 countries examined by Freedom House in its “Freedom on the Net 2011” index, Iran ranked dead last, allowing its citizens the least amount of Internet access and freedom to express themselves.

How the U.S. Can Reach Iran

PNN presents a complex portrait: On the one hand, its contribution has undeniable importance in support of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. national interests. On the other, the actual implementation of PNN’s mandate is clearly flawed. To make PNN an effective part of a comprehensive U.S. strategy toward Iran, the BBG should restructure the PNN workplace, improve the hiring process for regular and contract employees, create a board of Farsi-speaking advisers, and demand that PNN editors and producers use the resources of U.S. taxpayers to provide more professional broadcasts that align with U.S. national interests. Additionally, Congress should exercise its power of oversight and hold regular hearings on issues relating to U.S. international broadcasting.

The Obama administration needs a consistent policy that supports the human rights and democratic aspirations of Iranians—and U.S. international broadcasting has a major part to play.

Helle Dale is the Heritage Foundation’s Senior Fellow in Public Diplomacy studies. Her current work focuses on the U.S. government’s institutions and programs for strategic outreach to the public of foreign countries, as well as more traditional diplomacy, critical elements in American global leadership, and in the war of ideas against violent extremism.

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