June 12, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Iranians desperately need a better Voice of America

June 12, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Iranians desperately need a better Voice of America

After more than a year of delay, the Senate confirmed Michael Pack as the new chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the Voice of America and other government-funded news services. Pack’s confirmation provides a welcome opportunity for much-needed changes at Voice of America’s Persian service, which is failing in its mission to report the truth to Iranians blanketed in propaganda by the country’s Islamist dictatorship.

VOA Persian was once one of the most popular Persian language broadcasting services in the world, yet fell prey to dysfunctional management and unpopular programming. To return to its position of leadership, the network must restore its marginalized talent to positions of influence, rebuild its human capital, and create flagship programs that appeal to Iranians. In addition, VOA Persian should commit itself to investigative journalism that exposes the truth behind the Islamist regime’s disinformation campaigns.

The network should also avoid two key mistakes of the past. First, its coverage should not favor the alleged “reformist” faction within the Tehran regime. There are fissures in the regime, but no faction has broken with the militant anti-Western ideology that animates the Islamic Republic. Second, the network should avoid entangling itself in Washington’s partisan debates.

The programming these days on VOA Persian has become unappealing. It provides little insight and information to Iranians seeking to bypass state media’s propaganda. VOA Persian has more than 1 million followers on Twitter, a reflection of the popularity it enjoyed a decade ago. Yet now, the network’s tweets rarely get significant engagement.

One reason the network’s output doesn’t go viral is that VOA Persian does not provide sufficient and timely coverage of major events such as the mass demonstrations of November 2019 and the brutal crackdown that followed. VOA’s programs have little chance of appealing to Iran’s young and repressed population seeking information and stimulation forbidden by their authoritarian regime.

The first step to restoring the influence of VOA Persian is to bring back once-popular but now-extinct flagship programs such as Ofogh, OnTen, Tafsir, Khabar, and Parazit, programs which can gain a wide audience in Iran and help the program rebrand itself aggressively. The network should also hire new talent that not only understands the art of media but also relates to the needs and wants of Iranian viewers. VOA should also create more original programming and news coverage rather than borrowing and rerunning material from mainstream U.S. media. Iranians want original investigative journalism and thought-provoking discussions rather than anchors just reading the news to them.

Since rebuilding VOA’s in-house talent pool may take time, the network should contract out some of its programming to Iranian-born producers with deep experience in Persian language media, many of whom are now helping private Persian language broadcasters such as Manoto TV and Iran International create popular and exciting programming.

In addition to talented staff, VOA Persian must challenge the Islamic Republic’s propaganda and disinformation. Sadly, the agency is now dominated by Iranian-Americans who cling to the discredited view that there are true reformers within the Islamist regime, even though the Iranian people know better.

Instead of favoring the alleged reformists who serve as the Islamic Republic’s loyal opposition, VOA should give voice to a wider spectrum of Iranian opposition activists and human rights campaigners. This change would help VOA counter the regime’s propaganda and disinformation campaigns. By highlighting the Islamist dictatorship’s corruption, mendacity, and systematic human rights violations, VOA could fulfill its mission of reporting the truth while undermining regime propaganda that portrays the United States, not the regime itself, as the enemy of the people.

Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, VOA Persian requires a systematic change in its management and work culture so that it welcomes the input of its talented but marginalized staff. The combination of poor management, partisanship, and pro-“reformist” bias means that Iranians will continue to view VOA Persian as an ineffective if not untrustworthy institution. For many Iranians, the network is not the voice of America but the “voice of the mullahs,” a perception which will be difficult to erase without fundamental changes.

Fixing VOA Persian will not be an easy task. Nevertheless, VOA Persian still has a chance of winning back Iranian viewers through a combination of new and bold leadership, the revitalization of its talent pool, and more objective and original investigative reporting.

Alireza Nader (@AlirezaNader) is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Saeed Ghasseminejad (@SGhasseminejad) is a senior Iran and financial economics adviser. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power.

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