“What are the most effective actions the United States could take towards liberty for the Iranian people and political freedom for the Green Movement in Iran?” This was the question posed to Amir Abbas Fakhravar, Iranian dissident in exile in the United States, by the audience at a lunch hosted by the Heritage Foundation last week. “Two things,” was his brief and blunt answer: Impose oil sanctions and reform Voice of America’s Persian News Network (PNN).
The first item on this brief list comes as no surprise, given the overwhelming dependence of the Iranian economy on just one commodity, oil. The second item, reform of PNN, underscores just how important U.S. international broadcasting continues to be in closed societies like Iran. According to Fakhvarar, VOA’s Persian service is only one of two outside networks reaching Iranian audiences—the other being the BBC’s Persian service. He further noted that VOA has an estimated 17 million listeners in Iran, a sizable audience share in a country of 72 million people.
PNN has also come under severe criticism here in Washington for the kind of programming it provides its Iranian viewers and listeners, which has been accused by Members of Congress of being, in some instances, anti-American in sentiment. An example cited—and shown by Fahravar last week—is the 2007 YouTube music video made by two PNN employees, “demoKracy,” an attack on American policies. Last March, 70 members of Congress wrote to President Obama, asking for an investigation of PNN. Then in May, VOA management removed the director and the executive editor of PNN, and this summer an investigation was launched by the newly installed Broadcasting Board of Governors with board member Enders Wimbush in charge. Yet, so charged is this issue for Iranians in political exile that they are calling for a protest at Voice of America on November 5. For someone like Fakhvarar, this passion is understandable: He spent five years in solitary confinement and suffered torture at the hands of his captors for merely questioning the Iranian leadership.
All of this is especially troubling considering that the competition to define America and what it stands for is so intense, not just in Iran, but around the world. In World Affairs magazine’s blog this week, Roya Hakakian, a fellow at Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center and a founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, deplores the image of the United States received by Iranians, even well-educated, critics of the Ahmadinejad regime. Reflecting on a visit by group of Iranians, whom she hosted for an evening, she writes that their worldview is shaped by Michael Moore and “Fahrenheit 9/11”—as well as Iranian propaganda.
“Isn’t it true that the American media is manipulated by corporations and therefore one can’t trust anything they report?” they asked. “Hasn’t Uncle Sam done enough dirty things around the world to make it safe to assume that this, too, is his own doing?”
If Iranians are receiving most of their information about the United States from either Hollywood or Iranian propaganda, it is clear that the U.S. government’s public diplomacy institutions have their work cut out for them.