Tehran and Warsaw: Two Uprisings, Two Voice of America Failures


A Blueprint for Reform

By Ted Lipien


The Voice of America (VOA), formerly a beacon of hope for victims of communism, is failing the people of Iran and failing U.S. taxpayers who pay for its existence. The latest warning about this comes from Reza Pahlavi, the older son of the late Shah of Iran. He said in a video interview with London-based former Voice of America journalist Bijan Fahroodi that VOA and Radio Farda, both managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. federal agency, help the Iranian theocratic regime stay in power. Reza Pahlavi makes a reference to “reformists” as those who believe that the Iranian Islamist regime can be reformed and need not to be replaced with a secular and democratically-elected government.

رضا پهلوی: تنها راه چاره دست برداشتن آخوندها از حکومت است



Unofficial Partial Translation

Bijan Farhoodi: Do you think that the U.S. government makes the optimum use of Farsi-speaking media outlets it has at its disposal (specifically, Radio Farda and Voice of America) to advance the cause of democracy in Iran?
Prince Reza: The main issue with these outlets you named is the infiltration of reformists in their ranks and they try to perpetuate the reformist discourse, which helps the regime stay in power.
There needs to be a complete purge of these reformists elements in these outlets because the Iranian people have called the legitimacy of the entire theocratic system into question and are no longer interested in reforming it.
The programming of these outlets also needs to be in keeping with what the Iranian public have called for, which is to get rid of this theocratic regime.

As a refugee from communism and later journalist in charge of VOA radio broadcasts to Soviet-dominated Poland, I feel a strong moral obligation toward anyone still waiting to be freed from oppression and censorship. In recent weeks, the Iranians expected VOA to give them information which the Islamist regime bans within the country. They also wanted to hear a message of hope without false promises or calls to violence. What they got instead from the U.S. tax-funded VOA was a repetition of the Iranian regime’s propaganda. VOA devoted a generous amount of time to the Iranian Mullahs’ warnings that the protesters must behave and stop calling for “regime change.”

This is not the first time the Voice of America has failed to live up to its noble mission. It also happened during World War II and a few times to a much lesser degree during the Cold War. But what I have seen in the last several years under holdover Obama administration officials still in charge of VOA and the Broadcasting Board of Governors media outreach agency is a disaster which threatens U.S. national security and U.S. interests around the world.

As a journalist who countered communist propaganda and an observer of 20th century history, I know that the Iranians deserve much better from the Voice of America at this critical time. As a Polish-born American, I also feel strong solidarity with their struggle for freedom. Not many Americans may know that after Hitler and Stalin had become allies and attacked Poland in 1939, launching World War II, Soviet communists deported hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens to Siberia and Central Asia, murdered tens of thousands, and let many more die from inhuman treatment. The Poles were, of course, one of many such victims of the brutal Stalinist regime. Eventually, as Hitler turned on his former ally, some Poles who were left barely alive were allowed to leave Russia with the Polish Army and found themselves in Iran. These mostly Christian and some Jewish men, women and children all spoke afterwards of the gracious hospitality extended to them by the Iranians, the majority of whom were Muslims.

Tehran, Iran. Polish youngster carrying an armload of loaves of bread made from Red Cross flour at an evacuation camp. Photo by Nick Parrino, Office of War Information, 1943. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540.

When the Polish refugees arrived in the summer of 1942 at the beach at Pahlavi (now known as Anzali), Persia, on the Caspian Sea, they were met by the Iranians with exotic food and drink, Wesley Adamczyk, a Polish boy refugee from Russia who was 9-years-old at the time and would soon lose his mother to exhaustion and disease after three years of imprisonment in Soviet Russia, wrote in his memoir published in 2004.

The Persians were horrified when we told them about our imprisonment and starvation in the Soviet Union, which was plainly attested to not only by our physical condition and the diseases we brought with us but by the number of people who died shortly after arrival. … The Soviet government meanwhile countered with a perfidious public relations campaign, blaming the Germans for the condition of the Polish evacuees and claiming to have saved the Poles by taking them in at great sacrifice and expense. The incongruity of such assertions was transparent, and we wondered how the Soviet leaders could think the world so gullible.[ref]Adamczyk, Wesley. When God Looked The Other Way: An Odyssey of War, Exile, and Redemption. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 137-138.[/ref]

What Wesley Adamczyk did not know at the time was that World War II Voice of America radio broadcasts spread such Soviet propaganda overseas and tried to hide the truth about Polish prisoners in Russia also from the Americans. Resorting to lies and illegal censorship of domestic media, VOA’s wartime U.S. government agency, the Office of War Information (OWI), managed by pro-Soviet officials, made sure that information about the treatment of Polish prisoners in Russia and mass murders ordered by Stalin would not get wide publicity in the United States.

Reading stories of how the Iranians welcomed Polish refugees from Russia in the 1940s, one can easily see that they present quite a different image of Iran from the one now found in many Western media reports. Some American journalists still all too eagerly embrace the inevitability of an Islamist regime rule over the ancient nations of Persia. But there is nothing inevitable about it, as the latest Iranian protests against the clerical regime have shown. The Iranians themselves will eventually decide what part of their rich religious tradition they want to preserve and what they wish to discard. They will eventually choose their own government in free elections.

Based on the accounts of Polish survivors of the Soviet gulags who sought refuge in Persia, and my own personal encounters with Iranian immigrants, I never doubted that most Iranians who know the history of their long and rich civilization and are proud of their religion would abhor to be ruled over by the Mullahs whose minds have never left the Middle Ages. The Islamist rule in Iran is not predetermined by history. The Iranians have every right to be offended by VOA programs that favor President Rouhani and the so-called religious “reformists” as if there are no other options. Speaking to Egypt’s Al-Ain, Reza Parchizadeh an analyst at Indiana University of Pennsylvania predicted that the Iranian clerical regime will fall sooner or later.

REZA PARCHIZADEH: The demonstrations and all other kinds of dissidence will continue in Iran. The regime has lost all ideological footing, and the economy is in shambles. People don’t want the regime any longer. Eventually the regime must go. However, it remains to be seen whether it goes peacefully, or as a result of a revolution, or in the aftermath of an international war.

Those in charge of the U.S. government’s media agency still seem to believe, however, that the future of Iran belongs to the Mullahs. Iranians and Americans who advocate nonviolent “regime change” in Iran have been largely banned by the management of VOA and Radio Farda in recent years. I can confirm that this kind of bias and censorship exist; I was told once by the VOA Persian service not to use the term “regime change” in a TV interview with VOA–an order I ignored.

This has been going on under the oversight of the Broadcasting Board of Governors federal agency which is still run in February 2018 by Obama holdover appointees, some of whom are on the record of praising Obama’s communications advisor Ben Rhodes who has admitted to propagandizing to Americans on the Iran nuclear deal. To no one’s surprise, there has been a chorus of new complaints from Iranian journalists, human rights activists and Iran experts in recent days about how the Voice of America and Radio Farda have reported on the Iranian Uprising against the regime. Radio Farda, which operates as part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), has been just as much criticized by the Iranian protesters as VOA has. Both can’t quite free themselves from some of the Obama administration’s propaganda about the nuclear deal. Both have succumbed also to the power and influence of the Iranian regime’s own propaganda.

Commenting on one of VOA English News early reports on the Iranian Uprising devoted almost exclusively to highlighting the warnings issued to the demonstrators by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, Eurasia analyst S. Enders Wimbush, former BBG Board member and former Director of Radio Liberty, observed:

S. ENDERS WIMBUSH: This is really awful. Since when does the Voice of America provide a megaphone for authoritarians to tell their people to behave? That’s what this report amounts to. Where are the statements of support, not just from Trump but from the many experts in this country and Europe who understand that the Iranian people ultimately will take their future in their hands? I cannot imagine a report like this one being broadcast during the days of Solidarity trade union protests in Poland.

One Iranian wrote, “We, the Persian language audience, can’t distinguish between @VOAIran, @RadioFarda … and IRIB.” (IRIB stands for the Iranian regime media.) “The only minor difference is: the last one forces female staff wear veils and ties are forbidden for male staff, and that’s it!,” the tweet continued.

While the criticism may be somewhat exaggerated in this particular tweet, it expresses the essence of the problem with U.S.-funded international media outreach. It definitely reflects deep disappointment among the anti-regime Iranians with VOA and Radio Farda programs to Iran.

A journalist, human rights activist and former political prisoner in Iran tweeted: “Dear Americans, the U.S. taxpayer-founded @VOANews & @RFERL never took the right stance on #IranProtests as well as they have done in favor of Mullahs. It’s shameful. #ReformBBG.”

The Voice of America has seen similar crises and failures in the past. When one looks at how patriotic Poles felt about VOA in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, there are remarkable similarities to the complaints we hear about today from the protesting Iranians.

A Polish anti-communist journalist wrote many years ago: “With genuine horror we listened to what the Polish language programs of the Voice of America (or whatever name they had then), in which in line with what [the Soviet news agency] TASS was communicating, the Warsaw Uprising was being completely ignored.” A few months ago, an Iranian tweeted: “I don’t want my tax dollars spent on voicing the Iranian regime’s propaganda through VOA & Radio Farda disguised as free media. #ReformBBG.”

But not everything may be lost, even though the BBG is now a largely forgotten agency with minimal impact and dismal employee morale on top of everything else while still costing U.S. taxpayers around $700 million in annual appropriations. There is a history of VOA’s failures, but they were always eventually followed in the past by successful reforms enjoying bipartisan support. We need more American voices calling for changes to U.S. international media outreach, similar to those who had come to Voice of America’s rescue in the late 1940s and early 1950s. After pro-Soviet propagandists turned VOA into a platform for glorifying Stalin and covering up his crimes during World War II, many prominent Americans spoke up against it. Their criticism led to creating Radio Free Europe as a stronger and more independent anti-communist station. Voice of America broadcasts were improved after criticism and were made more relevant for audiences behind iron and bamboo curtains.

As great as VOA’s initial betrayal of millions of Central and East Europeans who did not want to live under Soviet captivity was at the end of World War II, at least at the time of conflict with Nazi Germany, the Soviets were a valuable military ally for the United States. Russia’s autocratic rulers, however, have almost consistently remained a strategic enemy of American democracy, as seen by their attempt to interfere with the 2016 elections. The Iranian Islamist regime, far from being America’s ally in any sense and at any time, never ceased to wage a war against the United States and Israel through its sponsorship of international terrorism.

How can the Voice of America and Radio Farda help the Iranians?

Anti-regime Iranians don’t need VOA to tell them in great detail what the regime’s media are already reporting non-stop. They need to hear the information that the regime censors. They need a message of hope from Americans without false promises or any enticement to violence. Absent of major reforms, U.S. media outreach by the BBG will not only continue to fail those who seek freedom; it will be helping our enemies and harming America’s security.

The 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis collapsed after two months because the Soviets had refused to help. President Roosevelt had already agreed to assign Poland to Soviet domination at the Big-Three conference, which coincidently was held in Iran at the end of 1943. These decision were later confirmed at Yalta in February 1945. But when more Americans found out about the deal made secretly with Stalin at Tehran and Yalta, American foreign policy and VOA programs drastically changed after the war, although it took several more years to carry out reforms: abolish the unaccountable and pro-Soviet Office of War Information in 1945, move the Voice of America to the State Department (1945), prevent domestic propaganda by the U.S. government (the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act), create Radio Free Europe (1949) and Radio Liberation (later renamed Radio Liberty), establish the United States Information Agency (USIA) and put VOA under USIA (1953).

Some of VOA’s earlier mistakes in accepting and repeating Soviet propaganda were later completely reversed, but it happened only because many Americans demanded reforms, which both Democratic and Republican administrations implemented in the 1950s. When some of the early VOA fellow-traveler “journalists,” a few of whom later left the U.S. and ended up working for communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain such as Polish communist propagandist Stefan Arski, did their best to ignore the 1944 anti-Nazi and anti-Communist Warsaw Uprising in line with the wishes of the Kremlin, no one would have guessed that many decades later Solidarity leader and Poland’s future President Lech Walesa would be praising VOA for its Cold War news reporting.

In 1989, Poland became again an independent nation thanks in part to Radio Free Europe and reformed VOA broadcasts funded by the U.S. Government with support from many Americans of both parties. The bravery of Polish Solidarity workers combined with the leadership of Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan played a key role in the fall of communism in the region.

The Iranians were also brave in the last few weeks, but the Voice of America and Radio Farda were not. They sided with the so-called clerical “reformist” in the theocratic regime. While VOA did not ignore the latest Iranian protests, it was quite late in reporting on them and never gave them prominent and objective coverage that they deserved. What VOA did was to give a platform in largely one-sided reports to the propaganda of the Iranian regime, with headlines such as: “Iran’s Revolutionary Guard: People, Security Forces ‘Have Broken the Chain’ of Unrest” and “Rouhani Rejects Trump’s Support for Iranian Protesters.”

Not until several days into the Iranian protests, did the Voice of America finally have an interview with Vice President Pence and reported belatedly on other Americans voicing their support for the Iranian demonstrators. VOA, however, did not grant these American voices nearly enough coverage compared to its extensive early reporting on the Iranian regime’s responses to the Uprising. This was noted with dismay by many anti-regime Iranians on Twitter and other social media.

One of them tweeted: “@SenTomCotton Thank you for your statement. If you want to really support us, please #ReformBBG.”

“#ReformBBG is one of the most important issues, which can help #IranProtests succeed, should @POTUS @realDonaldTrump admin really wish to support the Iranian people,” another Iranian tweet said.

Not even Russia’s propaganda channel RT quoted the Iranian Mullahs with such enthusiasm as VOA did in recent weeks, especially at the beginning of the latest Iranian protests. This should concern Republicans, as well as Democrats who worry about Russia’s digital interference in American politics.

Just as Americans of both parties came to the Voice of America’s rescue after World War II to make it an effective platform against Soviet communism, it is time once again for Democrats and Republicans to agree at least on the issue of reforming the BBG, VOA and RFE/RL. Let’s start with the White House nominating and the U.S. Senate confirming a competent CEO to run the BBG. This could begin the process of fundamental reforms and a complete rethinking of what America’s soft power should be and how it should be used. It does not need to be bigger and more expensive, but it has to be and can be more focused and more effective. The agency, whatever it ends up to be, needs a leader who can stay clear of partisan politics and make U.S.-funded media outlets an effective tool in countering propaganda from all of America’s enemies, including the Iranian Mullahs but also Russia and China.

After the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, ignored by Voice of America pro-Soviet propagandists on orders from Moscow, had failed, it took several years to reform VOA and many decades of new U.S. pro-freedom broadcasts to help bring democracy to Poland. We must not allow VOA to make the same mistake again with the latest Iranian Uprising. The Broadcasting Board of Governors must be reformed. Anything less in the age of digital international warfare will allow the current foreign propaganda threat to undermine America’s interests and security, not only in Iran but throughout the world and in the United States.

Ted Lipien is a former VOA acting associate director and co-founder of BBG Watch.

Featured Photo: Tehran, Iran. Polish woman and her grandchildren shown in an American Red Cross evacuation camp as they await evacuation to new homes. Photo by Nick Parrino, Office of War Information, 1943. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540.