A State Department investigation has found serious flaws in Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts for Iran, including charges of political bias and cronyism and a management that doesn’t understand Farsi, the language of Iran.
In a report completed last month, a copy of which was shared with The Washington Times, the department’s office of the inspector general concluded that none of the executive producers at the Persian News Network (PNN) speaks Farsi, also known as Persian, which means content is aired without high-level approval.
“In part because of the language issue, managing editors report not to the executive producer of their show, but to a Persian-speaking senior executive editor,” the report said.
“This arrangement is the source of confusion and sometimes of conflict. Lacking the language of the programs they oversee, as well as a background in Iranian affairs, executive producers must rely on their managing editor to approve the shows’ content and resolve differences of opinion among staff,” it said.
Those differences often result in deep mistrust and “a perception of cronyism” among the staff, “the operation of cliques, and the hiring and rewarding of unqualified people,” which “creates ill will and can hamper the employee’s effectiveness in the workplace,” the report said.
The U.S. government has increased spending over the years - to $17 million in this year’s budget request - on broadcasting to Iran and considers it an important tool to influence Iranian public opinion about a variety of issues, from Iran’s nuclear program to abuses of human rights.
Similar concerns about PNN have been expressed by PNN employees and members of Congress in the past, but this is the first time the issue has been officially addressed by the State Department. The department has a seat on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees VOA.
Last year, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, put a hold on the nomination of James Glassman, the BBG chairman who later became undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, over PNN’s mismanagement, which Mr. Coburn said allowed anti-American content to creep into broadcasts.
The State Department inspection of PNN’s radio and television programs, which took place between October and December, also found fundamental misunderstanding by employees of PNN’s mission.
“While everyone involved with the operation is cognizant of the importance of VOA broadcasting to Iran, some of those who work in PNN appear to lack a clear understanding of the mission of PNN and the centrality of the VOA charter to their work, underscoring the need for additional training,” the report said.
The BBG’s mission, according to its 2008-13 strategic plan, is “to promote freedom and democracy and to enhance understanding through multimedia communication of accurate, objective and balanced news, information, and other programming about America and the world to audiences overseas.”
Mehdi Jedinia, an Iranian journalist who recently moved to the United States, said that “unfortunately, VOA Persian is not making full use of the opportunity to reach Iranians and does not fully reflect U.S. diplomacy toward Iran.”
The service “could help influence Iranian public opinion if they created more imaginative programming that fits Iranian circumstances,” he said. “However, despite repeated statements by the U.S. government that it has no intention of forcing regime change in Iran, these media seem to support Tehran’s allegations that the United States wants to change the Iranian government by financially supporting the opposition, imposing economic sanctions and isolating Iran in the international arena.”
He said the service features “interviews with the family of the late shah and Iranian opposition leaders” and sometimes “has superficial and shallow programs that come through more as ideological propaganda, rather than professional journalism.”
PNN’s management attributed some of the service’s problems to cultural differences between American and Iranian-born employees.
“Some Persian-speaking and Iranian-born employees find American management insensitive to Iranian ways. Conversely, some American managers believe that Iranian and Iranian-American employees have not adapted to the expectations and atmosphere of an American workplace,” the report said.
VOA’s management welcomed the State Department recommendations.
“We are in the process of implementing [them], including ensuring that the PNN work force and managerial structure has the appropriate mix of language, TV production and journalistic skills,” said VOA Director Danforth W. Austin. “We also are working to improve news content, the quality and production values of PNN’s programming and TV production processes.”
The report also questioned the continued existence of PNN’s radio service, “given the round-the-clock broadcasts of Radio Farda,” a joint project between VOA and U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is based in Prague.
The BBG should “determine whether Voice of America radio broadcasting in Persian should be discontinued or reinvigorated,” it said.
Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former producer at Radio Farda, wrote in a 2007 paper about similar problems at that service.
“Some of Radio Farda’s Prague team members are noticeably anti-American, which can be discerned from their language and the news they choose to produce,” Mr. Khalaji wrote, but he did not cite specific examples.
However, “some Washington team members are well-known for their anti-Islamic stance, their opposition to the Iranian regime,” and “they reflect their own political views in news production as well as feature segments,” he wrote.