The Voice of America is becoming the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Recent programming choices have revealed a creeping bias toward opponents of the pro-democracy movement and de facto supporters of the regime. This ill befits the VOA mission and the purpose of U.S. public diplomacy.
On March 17, Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, sent a letter to President Obama signed by 69 members of Congress requesting that the White House "investigate reported mismanagement and bias at Voice of America's Persian News Network (VOA-PNN)." The lawmakers expressed concern over "the apparent lack of oversight regarding the management, staffing, mission and content of VOA-PNN broadcasting." The letter notes that the service "may have harmed the plight of those seeking human rights, rather than helping it."
Cases in point are two recent VOA broadcasts that gave preferred treatment to pro-regime messages. On March 29, VOA-PNN interviewed Hooshang Amir-Ahmadi, an anti-sanctions activist called "Iran's pseudo U.S. lobbyist" by Iranian democracy groups. Mr. Amir-Ahmadi expressed the view that Iran's belligerent posture and nuclear program are the natural results of being surrounded by U.S. missiles and bombs; hence, progress can come only through the United States softening its policies toward Tehran.
On April 1, VOA gave airtime to Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which has received millions of dollars in federal funds to promote democracy in Iran. Mr. Parsi expressed various odd positions, such as that Israel prefers to have hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power in Tehran, that members of the Obama administration know sanctions won't work but pursue them only as a bargaining position, and - most strangely - that even if Iran succeeded in establishing a democracy, the United States would nevertheless keep sanctions in place. VOA gave Mr. Parsi preferential treatment by banning callers while he was on the air even though he appeared on a call-in show; those who later took issue with his views were quickly cut off.
Mr. Parsi was the subject of an investigation by the Senate federal financial management subcommittee, which revealed that most of the federal funds received by NIAC were not used for their intended purpose and that he was working with a regime-controlled front posing as an Iranian nongovernmental organization. These and other developments have generated buzz in the pro-democracy Iranian blogosphere that VOA has become a pro-mullah outlet.
The rub is that the Iranian people may not even get to hear these messages because Tehran routinely jams VOA broadcasts. Voice of America recently drafted a strongly worded protest against the jamming, but the National Security Council intervened in an attempt to block the protest and, failing that, to water down the language. Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Sam Brownback of Kansas sent a letter to Broadcasting Board of Governors Executive Director Jeffrey N. Trimble on March 9 noting that such White House intervention constitutes "serious violations of U.S. law, policy and tradition related to the editorial independence of the taxpayer-funded" board of governors.
These events should be hot topics when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds hearings on nominations for new members of the broadcasting board. Meanwhile, if VOA is telling Iranians struggling for freedom that resistance is futile, we hope Tehran keeps jamming it.