Voices That Tehran Fears

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By Jeffrey Gedmin
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Our reporter Parnaz Azima finally made it out of Iran yesterday. Iranian authorities, who had blocked her exit from the country since January, returned her passport two weeks ago but then proceeded to create a series of bureaucratic obstacles that prevented her from returning to her family and colleagues. Azima, who has U.S. and Iranian dual citizenship, works for Radio Farda, the Persian-language broadcast service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the congressionally funded broadcasters based in Prague.

Azima is one of Iran's best-known literary translators. She is famous for her translations of Ernest Hemingway's works. In January she traveled to Tehran to visit her ailing 94-year-old mother and unwittingly became ensnared in a larger game being played by Iran's regime. Its aim is simple: to intimidate dissidents at home while pressuring the United States to refrain from supporting Iranian civil society.

Consider the way Tehran is attempting to put Radio Farda ("Farda" means tomorrow in Persian) in a bind. The Iranian government calls Farda a "counterrevolutionary radio station." In fact, Farda simply provides the Iranian people the news their government denies them. Our ratings remain high. The regime expends considerable effort trying to jam our signals and block access to our Web site. It's not hard to understand why.

This summer Farda provided in-depth reporting on Iranian protests over the regime's gas-rationing policies. Farda relied on stringers around the country for dozens of interviews with experts, officials and ordinary citizens. We provided first-rate, objective analysis from economists outside Iran. While there had been some opening in the media landscape under reformist president Mohammad Khatami, this process of liberalization was shut down by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after he became president in 2005.

Today, government censors tell editors how they may cover "sensitive" stories. One may, for example, report on Iran's debate with the world community over Tehran's nuclear program. One may not, however, use the words "bomb" or "United Nations Security Council." Not surprisingly, news-hungry Iranians turn to Farda and Voice of America for accurate news and information.

Recently, Farda covered the arrests of members of Tehran's bus drivers union. Our broadcasters reported on the expulsion of Baha'i students from Iranian universities. This summer we analyzed the crackdown on women's dress code violations. Last week we featured a sad, bizarre story on "dog prisons" in Iran (clerical rulers view pet dogs as out of step with Islam); some police officers are apparently chafing under pressure to arrest kids walking their pets in parks. These social fissures are important. In a free society, independent media would feel obliged to cover them.

Our broadcasters and correspondents are brave to do what they do. Intelligence officers in Tehran interrogate and threaten family members of Farda staffers. This summer, a young journalist working for us was summoned by an Iranian court to face charges of conducting "activities against national security." Authorities have threatened to take possession of his aunt's house (in exchange for "bail" he "owes") should he not appear for trial. Another colleague expressed concern to me about activities of the Iranian Embassy in Prague. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Iranian regime moved hard against exiles, killing Iranian citizens in numerous European countries. Iran's foreign minister, when he was ambassador to Turkey in the late 1980s, was expelled when it was discovered that he was involved in nabbing Iranian dissidents. Such activities, unfortunately, do not seem to have stopped; Iranian authorities have discouraged Parnaz Azima from returning to Farda.

In this context, it can be disheartening to witness the endless bickering in Washington over how to help Iranian civil society. It is strange to hear the outcry from some who rail against the U.S. government's earmark of $75 million to aid the effort. That seems a paltry sum considering the importance and magnitude of the task at hand. Does the regime use this modest support as a pretext to crack down on dissidents? Of course it does. That's what dictators do. All of us are still waiting for those flawless and risk-free alternatives.

Our Farda team is hardly a monolith. Our roughly three dozen colleagues include social democrats, monarchists, passionate pro-Americans and ardent critics of the U.S. president and his policies. Our youngest employee is 23, the oldest 73. One thing unites this diverse group: the conviction that Iran deserves a decent, accountable government and a political system far freer and more tolerant than the current one. For some that sounds like the dirty words "regime change." That's a pity. I thought we all liked "soft power," especially after Iraq. Many of us think this work still represents America at its best.

The writer is president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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