BBG Watch Commentary

An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Sohrab Ahmari, “At Voice of America, Complaints About Its Iranian Coverage,” focuses on claims that the VOA Persian-language service is accused of tailoring its programs to avoid offending the regime. The VOA denies it.

Ahmari, an assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal, quotes Rob Sobhani, a former Georgetown University lecturer in U.S. foreign policy, who says that VOA is uneasy with criticism of the Islamic Republic. Until a few years ago, Mr. Sobhani, a staunch critic of the regime, appeared weekly as a commentator on the Persian-language network. He found himself appearing far less frequently after 2009. “I was told I was too negative toward the regime,” he said. Mr. Kyle King, the VOA spokesman, said Mr. Sobhani “has appeared on several VOA programs since 2009.” He added that the network doesn’t coach guests “to be negative or positive,” nor does it “cherry-pick guests to promote a particular point of view.”

READ MORE: “At Voice of America, Complaints About Its Iranian Coverage,” Sohrab Ahmari, The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2013.

Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America associate director, told BBG Watch that Mr. King, the VOA spokesman, was no doubt told that the VOA Persian Service does not coach guests “to be negative or positive” and, being unable to verify this information independently, which would not be possible without knowing Farsi, repeated in good faith what he was told to The Wall Street Journal. Lipien said that he is not familiar with the current editorial practices of the VOA Persian Service. He said, however, that when he did a television interview with the Persian Service a few years ago (2007) from San Francisco about the Solidarity labor movement in the 1980s in Poland, he was advised by a VOA staffer not to be too bold in pointing out that just as Polish workers overthrew the communist regime in Poland, Iranian workers could do the same in Iran. It was a subtle but clear suggestion not to advocate a regime change through strikes or similar protests, but it was not made a condition of using the interview, which aired live, Lipien explained.

Lipien told us that he ignored the suggestion from a VOA Persian Service staffer and talked at length about the overthrow of the communist regime in Poland while pointing out that the regime change was peaceful and happened because both Polish workers and Polish intellectuals, assisted by the Catholic clergy and Pope John Paul II — which raised ironic comparisons with the role of Islamic clerics in Iran — were united in their opposition to the government.

Lipien stressed that he does not know whether suggestions against bold statements are still being made to guests interviewed for the VOA television program to Iran. He said that after the 2007 interview he was invited once more to record another interview for the VOA Persian Service in 2008 on the persecution by the Iranian regime of Mansour Onsanloo and other independent trade union leaders. No suggestions on what he should say were made during the second interview, Lipien said. VOA should have a clear editorial policy, communicated to all staffers, that coaching guests to avoid making controversial or critical statements is not allowed, he added.

In the past, surrogate U.S.-funded broadcasters served a very useful function of being able to attract controversial guests and raise controversial issues more easily than VOA, but the current International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) leadership, which runs U.S. international broadcasting on behalf of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), wants either to merge the surrogate broadcasters with VOA or to turn them into producers of light feature materials, as is the case with Radio Liberty in Russia, Lipien pointed out. IBB executives should not only strive to make VOA bolder in its reporting, but they should also leave the surrogate broadcasters alone and allow them to do programs that VOA may be unable to produce because it is based in Washington and it lacks enough local experts and closer links with the target countries, Lipien explained.