Persian News Network Finds New Life in Contested Iranian Election

After a hotly contested election pitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against leading challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, the government declared Ahmadinejad the winner on June 13. Mousavi's supporters took to the streets to protest the results, and were met with harsh security crackdowns.
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009

Voice of America beams a youth-oriented TV show into Iran each evening, usually a mix of Hollywood releases, music videos and tips on high-tech gadgets. This week's show featured a weightier topic: how to evade a crackdown on free speech.

"What we're seeing is a new level of cyber warfare," said producer Gareth Conway, referring to the Iranian government's blocking of text-messaging services and Internet sites, and Iranians' attempts to fight back. "We're trying to give viewers updates on technology, how they can continue to communicate with each other."

As protests have erupted over the heavily disputed reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, VOA's Persian-language TV network and a similar BBC service have emerged as a critical way for Iranians to share information. It is a moment of redemption for the VOA service to Iran, which grew rapidly during the Bush administration but has been dogged by problems.

Unlike some of the U.S. government's other Middle Eastern broadcasting efforts, VOA's Persian News Network is genuinely popular, according to analysts. Iranians have bombarded the satellite network this week with calls, e-mails and amateur videos of demonstrations. In a sign of their concern, Iranian authorities have tried to jam the VOA and BBC services.

And yet, some analysts say the Persian service has been slow to capitalize on the moment. For example, hours after the presidential voting ended in Iran on Friday, the VOA reported the initial results, then ended its live programming. It did not broadcast fresh material until 16 hours later.

"They could have done a much better job," said Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who once worked for the U.S. government's Radio Farda, which also broadcast in Farsi, or Persian. "It seems to me they don't understand the sensitivity of the time."

The Persian network is part of a shift at government-funded VOA from the days of Cold War shortwave broadcasts to an era in which U.S. officials are trying to blunt the influence of media-savvy Islamist extremists. As part of a U.S. broadcasting push into the Middle East and South Asia, the Persian service increased its live programming from one to seven hours a day in the past two years and more than quadrupled its staff, to about 200. The network had a budget of $16 million in 2008 and has a Facebook page, a dedicated YouTube channel and blogs.

Satellite dishes are technically illegal in Iran, where the domestic news media are largely under state control, but they exist by the millions. VOA estimates that 30 percent of Iranian adults tune in each week, based on a survey it commissioned in January.

And VOA officials say they think that number has jumped in recent days.

"It amazes me -- people in Iran are willing to speak, willing to identify themselves. They feel very strongly," said Alex Belida, the network's acting director.

That was evident this week on "Straight Talk," a Persian News Network call-in show. One Iranian after another called the studio in Washington to air opinions and describe what they were seeing.

"Today a lot of people were gathering downtown. They wanted to voice their objections. Police forces were trying to force the people, not let them into the streets," said one caller yesterday who identified herself as Saidi from Ahvaz.

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