To US Congress: Reform VOA-Persian Service to better communicate US policy to the peoples of Iran

To US Congress: Reform VOA-Persian Service to better communicate US policy to the peoples of Iran
27 Feb
12:06
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Iran is the most diverse country in the Middle East; understanding this population’s diversity has serious implications for an effective US foreign policy towards Iran and to the future US-Iran relations.  US need a consistent policy that supports the human rights and democratic aspirations of Iranians in their struggle for freedom and democracy.  Freedom-loving Iranians are looking for support from the outside world, especially from the United States. Most importantly, they are looking to be heard and the VOA-Persian must not silence anti-regime democracy activists belonging to non-Persian minority groups.

 Open Letter:

RE: Reform VOA-Persian Service to better communicate US policy to the peoples of Iran

 February 12, 2015

Dear members of the United States Congress:

We, the undersigned represent various segments of Iranian society, mainly the oppressed and unrepresented non-Persian nationalities.  As part of wider Iranian civil, democratic and secular opposition, we also represent our diverse constituencies in the United States.

Voice of America (VOA) as a United States Government (USG) broadcast service overseen by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) whose mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” strives to broadcast “The long-range interests of the United States” by communicating directly with the peoples of the world.  The VOA endeavors to win the attention and respect of its listeners and to be an effective US public diplomacy tool as described in its Charter.

VOA Persian, a subset of VOA, is America’s leading platform for reaching directly to all Iranians.. Given the regime of Islamic Republic of Iran’s tight grip on what information its citizens can have access to, VOA-Persian can be an effective medium in reaching out to all peoples of Iran and offering them unfiltered news and information.  Regrettably, the broadcast with over 200 full time employees and tens of millions of dollars in US taxpayers’ money, in our opinion, lags far behind objectives set by the BBG and the VOA

To begin, for VOA Persian to be effective, it must understand the societal structure of the target country.  As you all well know, Iran is not a homorganic country and despite the fact that Persian/Farsi is claimed to be the official language, it is not the sole language spoken in the country.  In absence of any ethnic-based statistics by the Iranian regime field research indicates that the Persian-speaking Iranians comprise less than half of Iran’s population, while Azari Turks, Kurds, Baloch, Arabs and Turkmens, Lors, Bakhtiari and Ghashghai make up the majority of the population.

Regardless of the undemocratic and illusory approach of current and formers Iranian regimes in regards to the issues of non-dominant non-Persian nationalities, it would be in the best interest of the USG to recognize this mosaic composition of Iran – especially by VOA Persian – to deliver information and US policies to the all Iranian national groups not a select group.  Unfortunately, the current editorial policy of VOA-Persian is primarily and specifically focused Persian speaking Iranians.  This editorial content and screening is clearly flawed and non-inclusive:  It is based on an ultra-nationalist, hubristic and chauvinistic policy that excludes the majority of the country’s population; therefore VOA-Persian fails to “win the attention and respect of listeners,” outlined in VOA’s mission statement.

The VOA’s Service should respect Iran’s diversity exemplified by America’s respect for diversity and human rights.  At VOA-Persian hosts and guests are usually handpicked Persian ultra-nationalists and former regime officials who harbor anti-US sentiments and overwhelmingly ignore or deny the existence of non-Persian nationalities in Iran.

VOA-Persian should strive to be a platform for oppressed nationalities and not a propaganda tool for Persian supremacists and the lobbyists of the theocratic regime in Iran.  On the rare occasions when representatives of non-Persian nationalities are invited to VOA-Persian programs, they have been subjected to an inquisition, on and off-air, as to whether they are members of “Aqwam” (derogatory term used when referring to nationalities meaning “tribal” in Persian) and whether they hold any secessionist thoughts, and most importantly whether or not they advocate regime change in Iran.

Those who dare to describe themselves as members of oppressed nationalities or simply refer to themselves, as Iranians belonging to an ethnic group other than Persian are not welcomed and deprived of further appearances.  The existence of this discriminatory vetting process in an USG-funded broadcast service is incredibly disturbing. One can only assume that it was allowed to continue because neither the VOA director nor the BBG oversight were aware of what was and is going on. These practices not only violate VOA charter, they are also against the First Amendment. In meetings with Mr. David Ensor, VOA director and with VOA-Persian management and staff, our representatives (all US citizens) have delineated these concerns

Partly, this misunderstanding or lack of awareness is the perplexity of US foreign policy toward Iran, and underlines its inability to chart out an appropriate foreign policy consistent with the long-term interests of both countries.  As a result, American policy makers have little understanding of the socio-political and ethnic dynamics of the country. The pro-regime lobbyists in Washington have also been quite instrumental in creating such misperception.

Regretfully, the Iranian regime through its proxies is deeply involved in the editorial policy and even hires and selects personnel. We confirm numerous reports by Helle Dale a Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy in The Heritage Foundation, Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon, and other journalists that there are pro-regime individuals currently working at VOA-Persian Service and providing sensitive classified information to regime security officials. Some of the key personnel in VOA are former employees and otherwise associates of Iranian lobby groups, and have worked for the various news agencies owned by or linked to the regime’s notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), listed by the US as a terrorist organization. This has clearly compromised VOA-Persian Service’s ability to serve its mission, and will continue to do so if left unabated.

Although many complaints about the network have been filed by various Iranian opposition and other non-Persian nationalities, the Service is still riddled with problems that prevent it from being an effective tool of US public diplomacy. Problems have worsened since the last report of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in 2009, and President Obama’s 2010 directive to investigate VOA’s ineffectiveness and find the root of the problems.

The widespread violation of individual and collective rights of non-Persian nationalities well documented by countless rights agencies including the UN Special Rapporeurs on the human rights situations in Iran, State Department’s annual country report, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others are rarely included in VOA Persian news and programs. VOA Persian Service refuses to broadcast news of human rights violations against non-Persian nationalities. Yet, according to Amnesty International nationalities “are subject to discriminatory laws and practices,” Furthermore, the UN General Assembly voiced concern over “increasing discrimination and other human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities,” and called on Iran to eliminate ethnic-based discrimination.

Unfortunately, VOA-Persian functions similar to the tightly controlled Iranian state media or other Persian media abroad when it comes to covering issues and events related to non-Persian regions of Iran.  Reports of imprisonment, extra-judicial killings, mistreatment, disappearances and executions of hundreds of Arab, Baloch, Azari, Turkmen, Kurd, Lor and Ghashghai activists in the past year under President Rouhani’s are rarely reported by VOA-Persian.  Also a listener to VOA-Persian Service one would rarely hear against the regime’s ethnic cleansing, forced population relocation, land confiscation, lack of access to services in native languages in courts, schools and public service centers, and systematic repression against Iran’s non-Persian nationalities.

The country’s socio-economic crisis and the regime’s profound unpopularity, especially in non-Persian regions are never or rarely covered in VOA-Persian programming. Such discontent has led to widespread armed and civil insurgencies and protests against the regime of Islamic Republic of Iran, with little or no coverage from VOA-Persian Service.  Clashes and skirmishes occur on daily basis in non-Persian areas, but VOA-Persian Service rarely mentions them because their main source of information is Iran’s controlled domestic media who pick and choose what to feed to the outside world.

Iran is the most diverse country in the Middle East; understanding this population’s diversity has serious implications for an effective US foreign policy towards Iran and to the future US-Iran relations.  US need a consistent policy that supports the human rights and democratic aspirations of Iranians in their struggle for freedom and democracy.  Freedom-loving Iranians are looking for support from the outside world, especially from the United States. Most importantly, they are looking to be heard and the VOA-Persian must not silence anti-regime democracy activists belonging to non-Persian minority groups.

We are available to meet and address in detail problems undermining the effectiveness of VOA Persian Service; meanwhile, for the time being we respectfully recommend the following:

  • Conduct a public Congressional hearing to investigate the effectiveness of VOA Persian broadcasts, its personnel, and management.
  • Conduct a study into the effectiveness and scope of VOA-Persian in Iran as it has been done with other VOA services, especially Turkish and public media behavior in Turkey. Given the enormous budget devoted to this Broadcast, BBG directors must know what percentages of Iranians are tuning into VOA-Persian as their news and information and what percentage of those Iranians are non-Persians.
  • Conduct a thorough enquiry into the staff and directors of the VOA-Persian Service for level of journalistic professionalism, partisanship, prejudice and bias; most importantly, mandate that the personnel, anchors and management of VOA Persian Service be diversified to truly reflect the demographic diversity of the Iranian population. Unfortunately, there can be little faith in change of service delivery without changes in the VOA-Persian Service’s staff and management.
  • It is highly recommended that the VOA should broadcast separate Iran-focused programs in other languages widely spoken in Iran, including Azari, Arabic, Balochi and Kurdish. Bearing in mind that VOA services in some of those languages are already available, except there is little focus on the nationalities in Iran and their issues. Given Iran’s strict censorship compared to its neighbors such as Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan Republic and other Gulf countries, the existing VOA Kurdish, Azeri and Arabic services should also focus more on Iranian nationalities as well.

Lastly, as mentioned, despite the millions of dollars in US taxpayers’ money, the VOA-Persian Service performs far below minimum expectations.  It also lags far behind other similarly publicly funded networks such as BBC Persian and others with a fraction of VOA-Persian Service’s budget.

Diversification of VOA Persian Service in both personnel and content will promote the US policies and values among all Iranians regardless of their ethnicity or religion.  It would also serve to inform, engage, and connect with all peoples of Iran in support of freedom, democracy and human rights.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Karim Abdian, Executive Director of Ahwaz Human Rights Organization and representative of Ahwazi-Arab Community in North America

Jalil Azadikhah, Journalist, magazine editor and US Representative of Kumleh Party of Iranian Kurdistan

Habib Azarsina, Representative of South-Azerbaijani (Iranian Azerbaijan) Community in the U.S and a former official of VOA.

Sharif Behruz, Kurdish-Iranian activist, political analyst and co-founder and President of Iran Roundtable.

M.H. Husseinbor, Professor of International law and human rights and executive Director of Baloch Council and representative of the Baloch-American Community in the U.S.

Ashkbous Talebi, Psychology Lecturer -activist of Language and Cultural Heritage of Ghashghai people in Southern parts of Iran.

Faramarz Bakhtiar, Spokesman, party of United Lurestan and Bakhtiari

Afraisab Shekofteh, Spokesman, Organization of Kurdish Kurmanji People of North Khorasan

Jousef Kor, Director of Iranian Turkmenistan Human Rights Organization

 

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