TCS Daily

Fixing What Ain't Broken

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - January 31, 2003 12:00 AM

Until recently, the Voice of America's Persian language station, which broadcasts radio programs into Iran, provided invaluable news, information and intelligence for Iranian reformers. The VOA offered substantive coverage of pro-democracy demonstrations and other news concerning the reform movement in Iran.

Often the reports offered by the VOA served as veritable lifesavers-giving information about a reform movement member who might have been arrested by the hardline authorities, or letting the Iranian public know about the latest acts of censorship that have been engaged in by the Islamic regime. The Iranian reform movement was then able to rapidly respond to events in the country, thus increasing its effectiveness. The VOA also urged on the activities of Iranian reformers, and served to foment and engender further protests against the Islamic regime. In addition to serving as a source for news, the VOA represented a source of hope for Iranian reformers-hope that the United States was actively encouraging, and was prepared to actively support the goals of the reform movement.

However, the VOA's news and information broadcasts have now been replaced by a program called Radio Farda ("Radio Tomorrow") that is intended to mimic the success that another radio program-Radio Sawa-has had in presenting American culture and society in a favorable light in the Arab world. Instead of concentrating on news reports and substantive information, Radio Farda mostly plays American music and tries to inculcate interest and fascination in American culture among its Iranian listeners. The theory behind this new programming is that the Iranian people will be inspired by the degree of freedom and diversity in American culture, and will agitate for the same in their own country.

The nature of American culture will certainly play an important role in undermining the current Islamic regime, and liberalizing Iranian society. And indeed, Iranians have long been fascinated by, and attracted to various aspects of American culture-even in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Journalist Robin Wright, who is well known for her examinations of Middle Eastern politics and the phenomenon of terrorism, tells the story of having visited Iranian soldiers in the early years of the Iran-Iraq war and interviewing them in front of television cameras. The Iranians spent their time in front of the cameras issuing the requisite denunciations of the United States and the West-chanting "Death to America" and other such slogans to show their supposed hatred of the United States. But after the television cameras were turned off, those very same soldiers approached Wright and asked her detailed questions that betrayed an interest and fascination with American culture that the Islamic revolutionaries could not crush, including questions about whether certain rock groups had released new albums, or the results of college football games from the previous year. It is clear that the allure of American culture, and the exposure of that culture to the Iranian people will be important in instituting needed and fundamental changes in the Iranian sociopolitical environment.

However, despite the importance of introducing Iranians to American culture, nothing is more important than ensuring that Iranians are able to receive vital news and information that may help spur and encourage their pro-democracy movement. Iranians craved and still crave listening to the VOA's news broadcasts, as they were one of the few reliable sources of information available. And because the VOA was able to give up to date information on what was happening with the reform and pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran, it helped the reformers contend with the power and resources of the regime.

Now, with the VOA giving way to Radio Farda, the reformers are deprived of that information and their ability to contend with the regime is undermined. It's a cliché to say that knowledge is power, but when trying to foment a revolution, it truly is power - and the Iranian reformers have become less powerful thanks to the unwise change in programming by the VOA. The change in the VOA's broadcast format has also served to demoralize many Iranian reformers who viewed the broadcasts as evidence that America would back the reform movement.

Steps should be taken to revert American programming in Iran back to its recent format. The Iranian people are virtually starved for news and information, and the VOA's sudden and surprising decision to so drastically alter its programming format is incomprehensible. Given the absolute control exercised by the Islamic regime over official channels of news and information, and given the increasing degree of censorship that has been instituted against Iranian reformist papers, the VOA's previous news format - and the encouragement it provided to reformers who dared to stand up against the regime - is especially missed.

As for introducing American culture to the Iranian people, that remains an important and essential policy objective. However, there are ways to expose Iranians to the alluring aspects of American culture without cutting off their information lifeline.

The Iranian black market is filled with Americana-from blue jeans to CDs of American pop stars. Iranians frequent the black market often in order to purchase these items, and will continue to do so.

And if the United States really wants to encourage the further exposure of Iranians to American culture, it need provide funding to National Iranian Television (NITV)-which is broadcast into satellite television-equipped homes in Iran by the Iranian expatriate community in Los Angeles. Because NITV is low on funds, it has had to cancel its policy of providing free transmission of its programs into Iranian homes with satellite televisions, and now requires a subscription to its services that most Iranian families cannot afford. The subscription fee is needed to help NITV counter the jamming of its programming by the Iranian regime. With funding from the United States, NITV could then fulfill Radio Farda's function of providing Iranians with information about American culture. And the VOA could then go back to providing for the Iranian people's need for news and information in order to more successfully pursue and encourage the reform movement inside the country.

Much has been accomplished in the way of liberalizing Iranian politics and society in the past year. But much remains to be done as well. For the reform movement to succeed it must have the vital news and political assurance provided to it by the VOA's news and information broadcasts. There are other ways to infuse Iranian society with the liberalizing aspects of American culture than to cut back on transmitting news to the Iranian people. Simply put, the VOA should never have tried to fix what was not broken.

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