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Voice of the Mullahs? Not quite.

In an unsigned editorial titled “Voice of the Mullahs“, The Washington Times charges the “Voice of America is becoming the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The piece then cites two recent examples of the Voice of America’s Persian News Network giving “preferred treatment to pro-regime messages.” The individuals allegedly receiving this “preferred treatment” were Hooshang Amir-Ahmadi and Trita Parsi. The editorial closes with an incredible leap, declaring that

…if VOA is telling Iranians struggling for freedom that resistance is futile, we hope Tehran keeps jamming it

Somebody at The Washington Times is either confused or being mislead, or both. It would seem from the reading of this op-ed that these incidents are indicative of the overall programming of VOA, but the facts do not align with this charge. It would seem that if VOA’s Persian News Network (PNN) were really telling Iranians “resistance is futile,” the regime would stop attempting to jam transmission and reception of broadcasts, as well as conduct espionage against RFE/RL.

A recent report, released without fanfare by the Administration and required by Congress in the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act (VOICE Act, part of Public Law 111-84, otherwise known as the National Defense Authorization Act), shows audiences for PNN and other information properties of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, overseer of America’s non-military broadcasting, continue to grow. Perhaps The Washington Times believes these numbers or false or misleading. Could it be The Washington Times editorial staff believes PNN’s increased audience is primarily found among the Basij?

The linchpin of the editorial are the recent examples of Amir-Ahmadi and Parsi. It is unclear what the “preferred treatment” Amir-Ahmadi enjoyed, but the editorial states Parsi did not have to take callers while on a call-in show. At the very least, the editorial took issue with the mere presence and opportunity afforded both of these speakers to speak on the air.

As airtime is the cause of action for the editorial, The Washington Times should apply its label of “Voice of the Mullahs” to CNN, Fox, BBC, ABC, and PBS as Dan Austin, Director of VOA, points out in a rebuttal that Amir-Ahmadi, a professor at Rutgers University, has also appeared on each of those networks. The same label should be applies to The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and The American Conservative for publishing the articles of Parsi.

Surely the authors of the editorial, and its supporters, believe there are more than two recent instances to hang their hat. The editorial could have referenced the Baitullah Mehsud interview from last year, but perhaps they decided not to because then the editors would, to be fair, have to mention the paper’s past interviews with Kim Jong-Il and other statements by other unsavory persons. But in this case, the two persons of editorial interest are respected enough to be readily received by the mainstream media.

It is true that things are not always rosy with America’s international broadcasting. No broadcaster, government or private, is perfect, nor is any actor in any industry. It is important to note that the misguided and even naive editorial ignores, or perhaps is unaware of, the existence, and potential utility, of an existing governmental ombudsman for U.S. Government information activities: the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Perhaps more incredible, the editorial completely ignores that the managing body of America’s non-military international broadcasting, the Broadcast Board of Governors, is has been without a chairman and missing several members for years, and those that remain have continued long beyond the expiration of their terms. (This began to change today with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommending six of eight members of the board to the floor of the Senate.)

At issue here is understanding the purposes and requirements of a modern information service and the methods required to build an audience in a competitive and sometimes dangerous environment. Perhaps The Washington Times would like VOA and PNN to be more like Russia Today or PressTV, Iran’s propaganda station? In an email exchange, Alex Belida, Director of PNN, wonders “what kind of example of a free and professional press would the Voice of America be setting for countries like Iran if it started excluding certain points of view from its programming?” Kim Andrew Elliott agrees:

If the Washington Times and certain politicians want VOA to interview only those people with whom they agree, the result will be a broadcast service akin to those in many of VOA’s target countries.

  • Javad says:

    I guess much of the pressure on VOA comes from the fact that its senior editors are comparing themselves with BBC Persian and that they don’t wanna loose their share of the market.

    April 18, 2010 at 10:33 pm
  • Anonymous says:

    Reading Comprehension: A Cheap Slam Starting with the Title
    This post runs right pass the real communications issue here: the attempt by a person representing one point of view within the American policy discussion re Iran to discredit those with differing views, delegitimizing their views and accusing them of supporting the Iranian regime. It is also one more attempt by ideologues to limit both the Washington Times audience and that of Voice of America to the analysis of serious US scholars such as Trita Parsi, who is certainly NOT a supporter of the “mullahs” as the accusation states. [I don't know what the anonymous op-ed writer thinks about the fact that the opposition movement is also led by "mullahs."]
    The fact of the very appearance of such an article, rather than the particulars, demonstrates the sad state of our national discourse on serious national security concerns.
    It is sad, but true, that VOA language services regularly receives complaints by both Americans of various political stripes and foreign governments of so-called bias. In both cases, it is an attempt to silence opposing views. The more serious question, is whether the US can or should have a credible “news” broadcast given the pressure from all sides, including the Congress. Iran is a nation where those who are interested in news or opinion from the outside have multiple sources at their disposal, even if the regime does its best to block some sources. I worry far less about their jamming than that of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments whose citizens have far less access to alternative opinions.
    It is this effort by some in the US to discourage or prevent others from listening to a variety of viewpoints that we should focus on. This is serious; our tolerance for difference, even within mainstream opinion, seems quite wanting in some circles.

    April 22, 2010 at 8:31 am

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