May 6, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Major US influence on Iranians sidelined by anti-Trump bias

May 6, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Major US influence on Iranians sidelined by anti-Trump bias

The Voice of America’s Persian news network was once a powerful tool in Washington’s efforts to shape public opinion in Iran. Now, it is arguably the least-watched of the Persian-language channels available to Iranians seeking an alternative to regime propaganda. The story of VOA Persian’s decline is not one of stagnation but of self-destruction at the hands of a director who is accused of poor management and running the network in opposition to the United States’s maximum pressure campaign.

During her tenure at VOA Persian, Director Setareh Derakhshesh has gutted popular shows, sidelined talented presenters, and reduced resources to the most influential programs that remain. The White House even complained that VOA amplifies the voices of America’s opponents, including that of Iran. VOA surely must report on critics of U.S. policy, but is it the job of VOA routinely to let the Iranian regime’s untruths go unchecked? Urgent and drastic changes in VOA Persian’s management and programming are necessary, especially as Iran witnesses increasing turmoil and profound shifts, making objective and timely reporting more necessary than ever.

VOA Persian used to be one of the most highly rated Persian-language television channels in the world. Iranians, deeply distrustful of the state media monopoly (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) would regularly tune in to shows such as VOA Persian’s wildly entertaining and influential Parazit (modeled after Jon Stewart’s Daily Show) or the highly professional Ofogh news program. Those days are long gone, as talented staff have been pushed aside or driven out. According to analysts and experts working on Iran, the network’s viewership has declined precipitously in recent years, overtaken by the immensely popular London-based private channels Manoto TV and the relatively new Iran International.

The situation within VOA Persian is concerning. Derakhshesh’s mismanagement has created a depressed and dysfunctional work environment according to numerous Iranian democracy activists, Iran policy analysts, and even former VOA journalists. Alarmingly, prominent journalists have accused VOA under her leadership of favoring programming in opposition to the U.S. maximum pressure campaign and promoting engagement with the regime even as the regime is virulently and openly hostile to American interests. VOA has also been accused of maintaining a list of pro-democracy activists and analysts who are forbidden from appearing on the network.

A recent major, self-inflicted wound was the firing of Ali Javanmardi, one of the most popular journalists in Iran, officially for challenging regime apologists on social media, although Javanmardi disputes it as the real reason. The sharp and eloquent Javanmardi is a scourge of the country’s religious dictatorship, attracting a large Iranian audience hungry for information and incisive analysis. Formerly based in Erbil, Iraq, Javanmardi has faced threats to his life by a regime with a long history of assassinating and kidnapping journalists and activists.

According to Javanmardi, Derakhshesh fired him due to his support for the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. He describes VOA Persian as an “intensely politicized work environment” where “any support for the U.S. maximum pressure campaign is punished” and only programming promoting the Obama administration’s policies are tolerated.

Javanmardi’s voice is being silenced, not by the Islamic Republic but by the U.S. agency responsible for providing “accurate, balanced, and comprehensive reporting” for “a global audience denied access to open and free media.”

Javanmardi’s departure is likely to lower morale even further and cripple VOA Persian’s ability to attract and retain talented Persian-speaking staff.

U.S. Persian-language broadcasting to Iran is more important than ever, as the Islamic Republic faces an existential crisis due to a collapsing economy and widespread popular demonstrations. Iran is going through historic changes that are not adequately depicted and reported back to Iranians.

But many in both the U.S. and Iran who care deeply about the future of democracy in Iran have lost hope that VOA Persian could be reformed. Better not to have a dysfunctional agency that stifles voices of freedom, they reason. But the network is not beyond repair yet, even as it faces unprecedented competition. What it needs are new leaders with full-throated commitment to VOA’s founding vision of bringing truth to those living under dictatorships.

Alireza Nader (@AlirezaNader) is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute focusing on foreign policy and national security.

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