Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the Executive Director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.
Last Wednesday, the New York Post published an op-ed by the State Department’s Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, which blamed the taxpayer-funded Voice of America for turning its Persian service into something more akin to the “voice of the mullahs.” VOA Persian should lose its public funding, he said, if its coverage of Iranian affairs does not change.
Hook is right, and his criticism comes at a crucial moment. The regime is facing an unprecedented set of challenges but public awareness of this fact is falling behind. Tehran’s longstanding efforts to control the flow of information notwithstanding, the Iranian people are desperately trying to evade the regime’s extreme media censorship through modern technology. But they must have reliable sources of information to call on.
In the presence of this information, Iranians from all walks of life can develop a clear understanding of the suppressive regime’s vulnerabilities. Independent news outlets can provide essential insights on the regime’s corruption and its disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic, for example. Such outlets can help Iranians to understand that there is value in organizing, and that there is support for their cause throughout the world.
This is what the Voice of America should be articulating. The broadcasting services was specifically designed to represent American values and policies to foreign media markets. But sadly, VOA’s Persian service has often repeated the official narratives of the Iranian regime.
VOA’s executives and contributors feel some anxiety about standing up to Iranian state propaganda. The regime has taken revenge on other outlets for doing just that. In 2017, it froze the assets of more than 150 staff and contributors of the BBC’s Persian service, even though the BBC is more pro-regime than VOA in its official narrative.
Awareness of this repression may explain why VOA would be hesitant to seek out Iranian reporters and sources. Independent contributors may risk arrest, imprisonment, and even torture.
Yet this hesitation cannot explain why VOA refuses to air content provided by people whose desire to tell the truth has already made them targets of the regime’s crackdowns.They are courageous and they want the world to hear their voices.
Last year, the main opposition coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), issued more than 70 statements about the nationwide anti-regime uprisings in November. It released names for half of the estimated 1,500 protesters who were killed during the unrest, as well as pictures of about 200 of them. Despite the NCRI’s best efforts to communicate this information through respected news outlets, VOA repeatedly rebuffed the offers.
It’s not just that VOA has refused to cover the NCRI’s estimates and findings on the ground inside Iran, where there was an all-out internet blackout in November. It shamefully hasn’t reported on November’s crackdown on dissent at all. As Hook noted in his op-ed, while the nationwide protests were still in full swing, VOA Persian eschewed the news altogether and aired nature documentaries.
That the outlet disregarded any mention of the driving force behind the protests is also troublesome. Its last known mention of the NCRI, for example, is a year and a half old.Yet over that same period, senior regime officials pointed to the NCRI and its leading constituent group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), dozens of times. The regime has warned that it has, and will continue to, suppress “resistance units” of the MEK, which have been spreading across the country.
In recent weeks, the NCRI has reported a wave of arrests and interrogations targeting suspected supporters of the MEK. This, too, has been categorically ignored by VOA Persian. Do U.S. officials require further indication that the American news outlet flagrantly disregards publicly disclosed narratives that might reflect badly on the regime?
The Iranian people deserve a reliable source of news about Tehran’s failings and its abuses.They deserve to know that foreign media will not turn a blind eye to the efforts of organized movements for political and social change. For that matter, U.S. taxpayers deserve the same thing. American interests would be well served by exposing the Iranian regime’s malign activities and promoting domestic groups that have proven willing to stand up to the mullahs.
If Voice of America will not serve that role, perhaps its 17 million dollars in annual taxpayer funds would be better spent helping existing Resistance-affiliated news outlets to reach the Iranian people directly.
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