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.

"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.

Satellite dishes are technically illegal in Iran, where the domestic news media is 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.
That number has jumped in recent days, officials believe.

"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 "StraightTalk," a call-in show. One Iranian after another rang the VOA Persian TV studios 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," one caller said Wednesday, identifying herself as Saidi from Ahvaz.

"Students are all waiting to start fighting for their rights," said Ramin, a university student from Isfahan, on Tuesday. "The situation is very chaotic in Isfahan. There are police forces everywhere."

As the callers spoke, the show broadcast jumpy amateur videos of demonstrators, fires burning in the street, protesters showing off bloodied elbows and heels.

The one-hour show got about 2,000 e-mails on Tuesday, five times the norm, and saw a sharp increase in its blog posts. "We're being used as an information conduit," said the executive producer, Susan Jackson.

The VOA is facing stiff competition from the BBC, which is seen as more objective by many Iranians. It has added five hours a day of live programming since the demonstrations began, for a total of 13. The VOA has increased its programming by an hour. The BBC has recruited young journalists from Iran. In contrast, some of VOA's reporters left the country decades ago.

The State Department's inspector general blasted the VOA Persian TV service in March, saying morale was poor, the executive editors didn't speak Persian, and "maintaining quality presents a challenge."

VOA officials say they are addressing the problems, and that staff morale had definitely picked up.

"They're all psyched," said Belida. "It's a great story - both as a journalist and as a Persian."

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