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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sen. Tom Coburn: Voice of America Harming U.S. Interests in Iran

Kenneth R. Timmerman
Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn has released a pair of bombshell reports on U.S. government broadcasting to Iran, writing to President George W. Bush that the broadcasts "undermine U.S. policy on Iran, often even supporting the propaganda of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Last year, the administration asked Congress for an additional $50 million to fund Persian-language broadcasts by the Voice of America television and Radio Farda (Tomorrow), which is jointly managed by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

But the government's interagency Iran Steering Group found in a report released by Coburn that neither network has been effective at representing the views of the U.S. government, a mission defined in VOA's charter, let alone at promoting democracy.

"Neither station is a primary source of news for Iranians," the Steering Group report found.

The report found that Radio Farda, whose mission is to be a "surrogate radio" similar to the Radio Free Europe broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity movement, "rarely takes a stance that could risk antagonizing the Islamic Republic."

The radio's "normal coverage of views inside Iran seems to vary between sympathetic and neutral with respect to the regime," the report added. Before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over as Iran's president in August 2005, Radio Farda was known derisively inside Iran as "Radio Khatami," after Ahmadinejad's predecessor, the much-touted "moderate" Mohammad Khatami.

Rather than present original reporting from sources inside Iran, "the majority of the news read on Radio Farda is actually from the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the official news agency of the Iranian regime," the report states. "Residents of Iran do not need to turn to Radio Farda to receive IRNA news. This is probably one reason why Iranians do not turn to Radio Farda as a source of fresh news."

The situation at the Voice of America, which is seeking to expand into a 24/7 television network, is arguably worse.

VOA's Persian service rarely invites U.S. government officials to debate or even explain U.S. policy. But it has given ample air-time to top Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon, and to anti-American advocates, the report found.

Oversight of the Persian language broadcasts paid for by U.S. taxpayers has been complicated "because there are no English transcripts of our international broadcasting," Coburn wrote.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors commissioned a translation of VOA's presentation of the President's 2007 State of the Union address at Coburn's request. The results showed that VOA "failed to provide Iranians a clear and effective presentation of our foreign policy but provided another platform for its critics," Coburn said.

One of the two guests invited by VOA to comment on the speech was Dr. Mansour Farhang, a former Islamic Republic of Iran ambassador. Farhang dismissed the speech as "a baseless statement" and opined that U.S. policy in Iraq had "no connection to reality."

Apparently agreeing with these views, the VOA moderator, Setareh Derakhshesh, added that most Americans opposed the president's policies, including the proposed troop surge. "There is no poll cited or any other basis for the statement, but it is presented as fact," Coburn noted.

Dr. Farhang claimed that Bush had rejected the "wise diplomatic solution" to Iraq, which involved direct negotiations with Iran, and was expanding the war in order to "not lose international clout." Farhang also claimed the U.S. was to blame for the increased violence and instability in Iraq. "The only other guest, Hormuz Hekmat, who we are told was supposed to be the balance to Dr. Farhang, when asked, said he agreed with Farhang," Coburn added.

The Iran Steering Group report found that while VOA Persian TV "often invites guests who defend the Islamic Republic's version of issues, it consistently fails to maintain a balance by inviting informed guests who represent another perspective on the same issue."

In one April 18, 2006, program devoted to Iran's nuclear program, for example, VOA News invited two nuclear "experts." One of them was a Mr. Nakhai.

"VOA News did not describe his academic and/or professional affiliations. As it turns out, Mr. Nakhai was an adviser to the Iranian regime and a defender of its nuclear policy," the report found.

Another show, broadcast on April 14, 2006, was devoted to U.S. policy toward Iran, inviting guests who were almost uniformly critical of the administration.

Perhaps the most stunning comments were made by Hoover Institution scholar Abbas Milani, who recently has been called to testify in Congress as an "expert" on the pro-democracy movement in Iran by Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In a segment devoted to Iranian human rights abuses, Milani was asked how can a country that violates human rights be a defender of international human rights?

"I think that what you are saying is 100% correct, that is why the U.S. is in a problematic position because of this," Milani replied. "An America that has the Guantanamo Bay jail in it, an America in which minorities, blacks, have suffered from legal deprivations, without a doubt has international issues with regards to this. . . ."

The VOA host thanked Milani for his answer. "Of course, the country I was referring to as the violator of human rights which cannot be a defender of international human rights was the Islamic Republic of Iran," he added.

Much of the anti-American rhetoric at both networks stem result from personnel decisions made by station managers in Washington, D.C. and Prague, the Iran Steering Group report found.

In Washington, the Voice of America West and South Asia division that overseas the Persian service is managed by Sheila Ganji, an Iranian-American who is widely criticized by VOA employees for her management style and decisions.

To her credit, the report found that she had hired professional young producers from MSNBC who had given VOA's flagship "News & Views" program a new look, but found that none of them spoke Farsi or had an understanding of Iranian culture.

But Ms. Ganji was also faulted for having shut down VOA's highly-regarded shortwave radio program, replacing it with simulcast broadcasts of television programs.

"People have phoned me to ask why we shut down the radio," said a well-known VOA radio host, who spoke to NewsMax on condition we protect his identity. "We were allowing Iranians to express themselves freely on air, something they don't have inside Iran. Now that has been shut down."

After 27 years on air, the VOA's Persian radio broadcasts went off the air on July 23, 2006.

The problem with focusing everything on TV is that few Iranians have satellite dishes that allow them to watch foreign networks, because they are "expensive, risky, and cannot be easily hidden," the VOA radio host said.

The regime regularly cracks down on satellite owners, sending teams of intelligence operatives and police house to house in Tehran and other major cities to confiscate the dishes and fine their owners. Similar problems don't exist with radio.

VOA broadcasters have faulted former Broadcasting Board of Governors member Norman Pattiz, a major Clinton donor and the owner of Westwood One media in Los Angeles, for transforming Radio Farda from a news station into a music station.

In 2002, Pattiz told the New Yorker that "it was MTV that brought down the Berlin Wall," and argued that Britney Spears could bring down the mullahs in Tehran.

Later that year, "Ken Tomlinson, then the board's new chairman, approvingly quoted his son as saying Spears's music ‘represents the sounds of freedom.' It seems that the board transformed the ‘war of ideas' into the battle of the bands," former VOA chairman, Robert Reilly, wrote in the Washington Post last week.

The director of Radio Farda programming in Prague, Joyce Davis, came in for strong criticism in the Iran Steering Group report for her "sympathetic view of Islamic fundamentalists."

The report noted that she asked Radio Farda staff "to broadcast times of fast-breaking during Ramadan, which is hardly necessary for anyone living in Iran."

It also revealed that Davis hired broadcasters "whose most recent journalistic experience was in IRNA or the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, IRIB."

Iranian exiles familiar with how the radios and the Iranian intelligence ministry works, expressed the fear that many of these former Iranian government journalists were "plants" sent by the regime.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors did not return repeated phone calls requesting comment for this story.


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