US Persian news service provides critical link
US government-run broadcast enjoys new popularity as Iran blocks other media.
The 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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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 Iran's presidential election, the VOA's Persian-language TV network and a similar BBC service have emerged as a critical new way for Iranians to share information. It is a moment of redemption for the VOA service to Iran, which grew rapidly under 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 Islamic 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.