An internal struggle within the Voice of America (VOA) over its news coverage of Iran is spewing outside the agency as veteran staffers claim the channel tilts coverage in favor of the Tehran regime.
The divisions erupted in late January when VOA chiefs removed a popular TV anchorman from the flagship U.S. broadcast into Iran, after he and about 30 Persian-speaking broadcasters had a confrontational meeting with VOA Director Danforth Austin, Newsmax has learned.
The broadcasters, who work for VOA’s Persian service in Washington, D.C., challenged the editorial judgment of two senior managers because they banned stories about the violent crackdown on protesters in Tehran in recent months.
“What motivates us to be here is that we have the best interest of [VOA] at heart. . . at this crucial moment in history when Iran is front and center of U.S. foreign policy and the Iranian public are looking to VOA for top-notice journalism,” one of those present at the meeting told Austin.
VOA is a taxpayer-funded multimedia network with a $194 million budget that employs 1,300 people worldwide to “broadcast accurate, balanced, and comprehensive news and information to an international audience,” according to its Web site. The Persian-language version of the VOA got special attention for its ability to do reach Iranians in the period after 9/11.
The broadcasters criticized Alex Belida, acting director of the Persian News Network (PNN), for “poor editorial judgment” and a lack of understanding of Iran and Iranian affairs. Belida does not speak or read Persian.
They also pushed to reform the Persian service’s organization, in line with the conclusions of a March 2009 audit by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).
Austin pledged not to retaliate against the VOA whistle blowers, according to several broadcasters at the meeting. But just one week later, Belida demoted VOA’s top Persian on-air personality, Ali Bijan Farhoodi, one of the self-avowed “ringleaders” of the meeting with Austin, and another top broadcaster, Setareh Derakhshesh.
Belida also announced that he was promoting a 27-year-old novice producer with rudimentary Persian-language skills to be executive editor of the entire Persian language TV operation.
Farhoodi made public his departure as anchorman during a live broadcast of his highly respected talk show, “48 Hours,” which is known as “First Two Days” in Farsi. VOA viewers set up a Persian-language Facebook page calling on management to “return Mr. Ali Farhoodi to his place in front of the camera” that attracted 700 supporters in two days.
“Ali Farhoodi is one of the best talents at PNN,” said Faraj Ardalan, a former colleague. “He has a tremendous command of both English and Persian, something that is rare in that office.”
The whistle-blower dispute is erupting just as the Broadcasting Board of Governors submits a $768.8 million fiscal year 2011 budget request to Congress that asks for additional funds for Persian language TV broadcasts into Iran.
When Newsmax investigated the controversy, VOA Public Affairs Director Joan Mowers issued a statement saying, “There has been no retaliation against any PNN employees.”
The statement acknowledged Austin’s meeting with the broadcasters, saying, “Austin has an open-door policy, and frequently meets with VOA services to discuss various issues.”
Newsmax has interviewed more than a dozen sources for this story with direct knowledge of these events, including current and former broadcasters from the VOA Persian language service, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
We also sent a lengthy series of written questions to VOA’s Alex Belida and have incorporated his responses in our story.
The Persian service has been plagued with problems for decades, as exiled broadcasters with competing political agendas vied for influence in byzantine backroom disputes.
But since the student uprising in July 1999, a new generation of broadcasters has come to America to join VOA. Many still have close family members back in Iran, and the regime has exerted pressure on those relatives in several instances to coerce VOA journalists to tone down their reporting.
With strong support from Congress, the Bush administration engineered a dramatic expansion of U.S. government Persian-language broadcasting in 2006. In just two years, VOA’s renamed Persian News Network went from 30 full-time employees to 83, with another 120 contractors. That rapid expansion has not come without a cost, as non-Persian speaking editors and producers were put in charge of programs whose content they couldn’t understand.
The inspector general’s March 2009 audit described the rapid growth as “a huge challenge to management,” and said VOA’s mixed-language management had become “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,” the OIG audit found.
The VOA management’s failure to rectify the problems prompted the broadcasters to seek the Jan. 21 audience with Austin.
Belida relies on the language expertise and cultural background of executive editor Ali Sajadi, whose views have been criticized by many Persian-language broadcasters and VOA guests as being too soft on the Iranian regime.
The VOA whistle-blowers cited several of Belida’s and Sajadi’s editorial decisions in recent months to support their claims that they have not been using U.S. taxpayer dollars wisely.
The most dramatic was a refusal to air video footage of Neda Agha-soltan, a 26-year-old bystander whose murder during a post-election demonstration on June 20 catalyzed the protests and transformed them overnight into an anti-regime movement.
The Neda murder was captured on cell phone cameras and went viral across the Internet in just minutes. The BBC and CNN ran the footage almost immediately. But Sajadi told newscasters not to air it because he felt it was too violent.
VOA relented several days later, once Neda’s murder became an international cause célèbre.
Belida defended that decision, saying that there “was discussion on how much to show out of deference to the girl… and initially, we only played a portion but later we played it all.”
Many VOA reporters are former dissidents who are plugged into the student movement. Many have been jailed in Iran and brought a valuable new perspective to the network.
A fired reporter, Ardeshir Zarezadeh, told Newsmax, “Ali Sajadi was selecting the news, instead of letting me report the truth.”
VOA fired Zarezadeh without notice last summer after he clashed with Sajadi and Belida about interviewing protesters and their family members.
“We were told to report on non-political subjects and not to report stories that were embarrassing to the Islamic Republic,” he said.
Belida disputed that claim, insisting that the network “does not shy away from any stories” and its coverage of the protests “was exemplary.”
Zarezadeh, an award-winning journalist in Iran who was a good catch for PNN, told Newsmax: “I cannot believe this type of thing is happening in a free country.”
One former dissident still working for VOA nearly was fired last summer until he filed a complaint with Broadcasting Board of Governors Office of Civil Rights. He declined to speak with Newsmax on the record for fear of losing his job.
Scott Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, severely criticized VOA’s Persian language broadcasting during congressional testimony last week.
“Poorly managed by people who do not know Iran or its politics, PNN’s journalistic professionalism currently meets only minimal standards. Most of VOA’s 200 employees lack any television experience beyond what they have gained at VOA, for example,” he told the Middle East Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
VOA managers trim coverage to eliminate anything that the regime might view as threatening, he said.
“To cite just one example, on the day after the death of Ayatollah Montazeri, when the BBC Persian Service was blanketing Iranian airwaves with coverage similar to that given in the United States to pop star Michael Jackson’s passing last summer, PNN was airing documentaries on global warming. Indicative of its lack of impact is the fact that (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei rails against the BBC Persian Service but rarely mentions VOA.”
Belida called that claim “nonsense,” and said VOA “devoted extensive coverage to Montazeri’s death and its impact.”
But one Persian-language broadcaster told Newsmax: “I feel ashamed to be working at VOA. We are starting to look like Press TV,” a regime-controlled English network that glosses over the regime’s violence and corruption.
Several VOA reporters and producers told Newsmax that the pressures to exclude anti-regime political content from their broadcasts has intensified as young reporters close to a pro-Tehran lobby in Washington have risen to top positions within VOA.
The National Iranian-American Council sent an e-mail to Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s office from the National Iranian-American Council asking for help “cleaning house” at the VOA Farsi service. The council has lobbied against sanctions against Iran and urged a cut-off in pro-democracy funding.
During the run-up to the June 12 presidential elections, Sajadi and Belida discouraged VOA reporters and producers from inviting guests who were calling for an election boycott, as Newsmax reported at the time, in “State Department Backs ‘Reformists’ in Wild Iranian Election.”
Belida justified that decision in his written replies to questions from Newsmax.
“As I told the staff in my News Notes on April 9th, 2009: ‘While there are those who consider the elections undemocratic, we also know there are Iranians who take their participation in the vote quite seriously. We must respect their beliefs. We cannot simply dismiss the balloting or focus only on explaining flaws in Iran’s electoral system. If a guest or contributor, for example, should encourage a boycott of the polls, a host must never signal his or her personal approval of such a suggestion and must in fact challenge the guest or contributor.’”
Complaints about VOA management go beyond the Persian language service. Tim Shamble, president of Local 1812 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which covers many VOA employees, complained more than two years ago about the “old-fashioned dictatorial management style” throughout VOA.
“We are supposedly interested in promoting democracy around the world, but democracy is the last thing the management here is interested in,” he said. “They would rather micromanage and rule through fear and intimidation rather than providing the employees with the tools and support they need to excel and then stepping out of the way.”