Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week
Washington, D.C. – October 1, 2007 . . . Major stories this week included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s furor-causing visit to New York, including a lengthy Q&A with PNN at a UN news conference; his and President Bush’s addresses to the UN General Assembly; Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University; an interview with Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi; an interview with Arsham Parsi, Executive Director of the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO, formerly known as the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization); the US Senate’s vote to designate the Royal Guards as a terrorist group; the administration’s request to Congress for supplemental funds to pay for the Iraq war; and the launch of PNN’s newest show, a one-hour daily television discussion program called Today’s Woman;
VOA correspondents Nazzy Beglari and Vafa Mostaghim spoke directly to President Ahmadinejad at a news conference Wednesday evening following his speech at the United Nations. Most notably, Ms. Beglari asked him about his assertion that there are no gay people in Iran (the Q & A was picked up by several media outlets, see below). Mr. Mostaghim asked him about persecution of Bahais, a religious minority in Iran. (Mr. Ahmadinejad’s response was picked up by the BBC.) Our correspondents asked him about the double standard posed by his Iranian delegation coming to America and speaking freely while U.S. scholars traveling in Iran get detained; press freedom in Iran; VOA correspondent travel in Iran; and academic exchanges. Ms. Beglari, PNN’s New York correspondent, specifically asked President Ahmadinejad if she could travel to Iran as a VOA reporter and the president responded, “Yes.” In a side meeting with the Iranian press attaché, our correspondents asked if he watched PNN programming. “Yes,” he responded, “even President Ahmadinejad watches you.”
This week’s coverage from New York on President Ahmadinejad’s visit included Ms. Beglari’s formal acceptance –on our live television programming – of his invitation to travel to and report from inside Iran. Two PNN correspondents covered Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University, the massive street protests, his speech at the United Nations and international reaction to his speech and visit. Programming on September 25 featured live camera reports from New York at the top of each hour. Ms. Beglari reported live from the street protests and had comments from numerous protesters. PNN interviewed human rights activist and former political prisoner Akbar Ganji on his views of the Ahmadinejad visit. PNN also interviewed Akbar Atry, another former political prisoner and the leader of Iran’s 1999 student uprising. First Amendment scholar and Columbia University School of Law professor Michael Dorf joined us live to discuss President Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia. Valerie Lincy of the UN-affiliated Wisconsin Project also joined us live to discuss Iran's nuclear ambitions in the context of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and Vice President of the Middle East Institute David Mack joined us to discuss Gulf state reaction to President Ahmadinejad’s speech.
News and Views focused on President Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University on September 24. University president Lee Bollinger told Mr. Ahmadinejad he exhibits all the signs of a “petty and cruel dictator.” He also said Mr. Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust made him “simply ridiculous,” and that he was “either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” The Iranian president expressed dismay at what he called Mr. Bollinger’s “insults.” He defended Iran’s human rights record, and said women are more respected than men and the country’s judicial system persecutes only criminals and drug dealers – not homosexuals, because the country doesn’t have any homosexuals. Mr. Ahmadinejad would not directly answer a question on whether he seeks the destruction of Israel. He said his solution was a referendum of the people in the disputed areas. He also dodged a direct answer to questions about the Holocaust and his previous denials that it took place.
Prior to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech, American politicians across the political spectrum criticized Columbia’s president for issuing the Iranian leader an invitation to speak, while praising his freedom to do so. News and Views reported that Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), the leading Democratic presidential contender, said, “If I were president of a university, I would not have invited him. He’s a Holocaust denier. He’s a supporter of terrorism. But I also respect the right in our country to make different decisions.” Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) called the invitation “an outrage against civilization. But Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) defended the decision: “We have major differences and problems with Iran. But I don’t think that helps find some consensus and work through some of these issues when you don’t allow people to speak. That’s not who we are as Americans.” Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sharply disagreed with each other, with Mr. Brzezinski saying a university is one of the best places controversial issues should be discussed: “Look, if his views are odious, we can say so, but we have a society of openness,” he said. “If we start censoring in advance what it is we like to hear and what we don’t hear, we’re on a slippery slope.” Mr. Kissinger said Columbia’s issuing the invitation to Mr. Ahmadinejad was inappropriate, “I don’t oppose his speaking. I oppose its sponsorship by Columbia University.”
PNN covered President Ahmadinejad’s UN General Assembly speech by pulling a half-dozen highlights from his remarks and broadcasting them in a point-counterpoint format style of discussion, with each Ahmadinejad sound bite followed by analysis by PNN Executive Editor Kambiz Mahmoudi. The special 90-minute program was broadcast as soon as the address was completed. In this way, his speech was covered, but was provided with factual context.
While at Columbia, President Ahmadinejad stated – to great laughter – that there are no homosexuals in Iran. PNN gave the other side a chance to speak by interviewing Arsham Parsi, Executive Director of the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO, formerly known as the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization). Mr. Parshi, who now lives in Toronto, left Iran in May 2005. He told VOA that President Ahmadinejad also denies the existence of political prisoners, the torture of students and the treatment of women as second-class citizens. He said as important as uranium enrichment is to the United Nations, the UN’s top priority should be the defense of human rights – the rights of children and women, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, the rights of Iranian workers and political activists, and the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community.
Hossein Alizadeh, Communications Coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, was the featured guest on Late Edition September 26. The New York-based organization is dedicated to securing the full enjoyment of the human rights of all people and communities subject to discrimination or abuse on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and/or HIV status. “The first reaction of many of us was to join in the astonished response to President Ahmadinejad’s clearly outrageous view that no lesbians or gay people live in Iran,” said Mr. Alizadeh. “But the whitewashing of his comments from the eyes and ears of most Iranian citizens speaks to something more troubling. His denial attempts to simply erase from public view the lives of men and women who face regular abuse in his country. Perhaps he knows he could not credibly get away with such a denial among his own people.” The IGLHRC has documented widespread and systemic violations of the rights of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Iran.
PNN also reported on reaction in Iran to President Ahmadinejad’s trip. Iran’s official state-run news agency, IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency) picked up VOA correspondent Nazzy Beglari’s question to President Ahmadinejad regarding gays in Iran. Out of 15 major newspapers, six had pictures of Mr. Ahmadinejad on the front page with the rest having headlines on his trip and his speech at Columbia. His appearance at Columbia University received more coverage than his speech at the UN General Assembly. All of the newspapers condemned the opening remarks of Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, and reported that President Ahmadinejad came across as the voice of reason, using words such as “victorious,” “victory” and “winner” in most of their articles. Asreh-Iran’s lead was, “It was a national media event in the United States. President Ahmadinejad was charismatic. Despite negative press in the west – especially by Fox News – 500 million viewers around the world tuned in. . . . ” Aftab said “Bollinger’s comments show how much he was under pressure by the US [government].” One of Etellaat’s headlines was “The President’s victory, the Zionists’ failure.”
Roundtable with You September 26 opened up lines to viewers for their comments on President Ahmadinejad’s visit: Shadi from Kurdshahr said, “[President] Ahmadinejad believes the final solution of Israeli sovereignty must be decided through a national referendum. Is he willing to submit the Islamic Republic ‘s sovereignty to a national referendum?” Zamani called from Mahabad and said, “Didn’t Islamic judicial authorities announce the public hanging of a number of homosexuals in Iran? How could [President] Ahmadinejad deny that Iran, like every other society, has homosexuals?” Bahram called from Iran to say, “I belong to the Bahai faith. But I am Iranian. I am denied education and every job I have sought. I am denied all basic fundamental rights, contrary to the charter of the United Nations.” Los Angeles-based journalist Shahram Homayoun – owner of the Iranian satellite channel called Channel One TV – said all of the same things as Roundtable with You’s guest on September 25: “President Ahmadinejad forgot that only there weeks ago, the judicial authorities in Iran announced that two homosexuals were hanged. I am wondering who he is trying to fool. A look at the constitution of the Islamic Republic shows that women count as half of a man regardless of her position. How can that be called being free? Bahais are denied jobs and education, and they are imprisoned and tortured. How can he claim there is freedom of religion?”
Prince Reza Pahlavi was the featured guest on Roundtable with You September 24. “What President Ahmadinejad wants to do in the United States, the world wishes that Iranian youth, women, and people at large could experience in their own country. Mr. Ahmadinejad claims there is absolute freedom for women and youth to speak freely in Iran. That may be true. They may have the right to say what they want. What he failed to say is that afterward, they will be imprisoned, tortured or put to death, [because challenging authority is not allowed]. America is a free country and the constitution provides rights to everyone. Mr. Ahmadinejad is entitled to these same rights. But if he is given the right to speak at an American institution, the same right should be given to an American university president to speak to Iranian students.
News and Views reported September 28 from the State Department that the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – issued a joint statement saying they will finalize a new resolution to bring additional sanctions on Iran unless reports in November from the IAEA and the EU foreign policy chief “show a positive outcome of their efforts.” The decision to take another stab at European Union-led diplomacy while brandishing the threat of fresh sanctions if diplomacy fails reflected a compromise among the major powers. Mr. Ahmadinejad last weekend said his country would proceed forward with its nuclear program, sanctions or not. News and Views also reported that Iran’s president suggested the Islamic Republic could review economic ties with France following comments by French officials about the possibility of war over Tehran’s nuclear program.
PNN’s congressional correspondent reported September 27 on the Senate’s passage 76-22 of a non-binding resolution for President Bush to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group. President Ahmadinejad’s speech at the United Nations, in which he said Iran would ignore UN Security Council resolutions about its nuclear program, reportedly strengthened Mr. Bush’s support in the Democrat-led Senate. The Senate also passed another resolution calling for greater diplomatic efforts with Iraq. News and Views also reported that Defense Secretary Gates has dispatched a fact-finding team to Iraq to look into the killing of Iraqi citizens by Blackwater, a private US security contractor.
News and Views reported on the supplemental funds Secretary Gates requested September 26 from the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund the Iraq War. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said, “Another theory is that the war clouds are building with respect to Iran. And, of course, the supplemental would offer an opportunity to put equipment and troops and bases and that kind of thing in there for that…Let me ask you this question: Will any of this money in any way, shape or form be used with respect to Iran?” The Secretary responded thusly: “I would have to get back to you on that. The quick answer that I would give you is, no. But in terms of whether we are going to use some of this money to carry out operations against the Quds Force in Iraq or Iranian interference inside Iraq, I don’t know a specific answer to t hat. But I will tell you that I – and I will give you an answer for the record – that I don’t see any of this money being used in terms of preparing a military action in Iran.” Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) suggested the US undertake bilateral talks with Iran and Syria to underscore US efforts in the region. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said, “We have chosen to limit those discussions with the Iranians, for the moment, to the subject of Iraq.” As to Iran’s nuclear program, Mr. Negroponte said the US has chosen to pursue diplomacy through the United Nations and through the Security Council.
A physicist and researcher at the National Institutes of Health, Amir Hossein Ganjbakhsh talked with Roundtable with You September 26 about Iran’s nuclear program. He said the Shah never felt he could compete with the Soviet Union, so never tried. Islamic radicalism changed that mindset, and hostility with the West, he said, led the Islamic Republic toward obtaining nuclear weaponry. Mr. Ganjbakhsh said Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is peaceful are suspect if for no other reason than they don’t make economic sense.
On Thursday, September 27, Persian News Network launched Today’s Woman, a one-hour daily television discussion program featuring influential women from around the world. The inaugural program focused on the “One Million Signatures” campaign in Iran, a peaceful and civil effort to influence the country's parliament to reform laws discriminating against women. Today's Woman features a pool of participants discussing and debating a full spectrum of topics, including social, medical, human rights, legal, sports, and business. The show includes international call-ins, original reports, a male perspective, and profiles of women who make a difference. This program expands PNN’s broadcasts to 7.5 hours a day, seven days a week. VOA has the largest combined radio and television audience of all international broadcasters in Iran, with one in four adult Iranians tuning into a VOA show at least once a week. Programs are also streamed on our website, www.voapnn.com.
NewsTalk interviewed pop singer Hassan Sattar, who gained fame on Iranian television before the Revolution but left with his family for the United States when the Shah was overthrown. “When Ayatollah Khomeini went to Iran, and the executions started, I sang a song called Goleh Pooneh, which says we need to have hope and these days will end. We have not seen anything positive from this regime. They are getting revenge for 50 years of comfortable life of the Iranian people during the Pahlavi dynasty.”
PNN interviewed one of Iran’s most revered vocalists, Shahram Nazeri, in Paris over the weekend. Mr. Nazeri, who has previously been awarded the Légion d'honneur and Iran’s House of Music award for his decades of work on Rumi poetry, was decorated with the prestigious Lion d’honneur the Theatre de la Ville. Mr. Nazeri was reunited for the first time since 1975 with Dariush Talai, a student of the tar (an instrument like the lute) since the age of 10.
History Channel segments included a profile of Las Vegas, the city built on indulgence and wish fulfillment whose hotels house the world’s biggest gambling playgrounds; a profile of computers and how they have revolutionized the way people calculate, communicate, work and live; a profile of actor William Shatner, who became a pop culture icon with his role as Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek; a profile of the Empire State Building and the remarkable story of how the landmark New York City skyscraper was constructed during the depths of the Depression; and an episode on great inventions and the indelible impact they have made, for better or worse, on virtually every facet of our lives.
This week’s “On the Record” – Persian News Network’s once-a-week program featuring senior managing editor Kambiz Mahmoudi as ombudsman – focused on the difference between the media in democratic societies and dictatorships, and on the behavior of dictators when confronted by the journalists of free societies. Mr. Mahmoudi talked about the protections given free expression and free press in the free world, and that government-funded media like VOA and BBC act independently from the government. Mr. Mahmoudi discussed President Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia University, the UN General Assembly, the press conferences he attended at the UN and the teleconference he held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. He said the president’s inexperience with dealing with such tough, critical questions came through loud and clear with his body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, all of which were unnatural and quite dissimilar to his norm in Iran. Mr. Mahmoudi also said that dictators typically answer questions with questions, as President Ahmadinejad during his UN press conference.
Several major news outlets picked up PNN reportage of the Ahmadinejad visit. In its coverage of President Ahmadinejad’s news conference, the BBC’s Persian web site highlighted in quotations the president’s response to correspondent Vafa Mostaghim’s question on Bahais. MSNBC, CNN and The Washington Post used correspondent Nazzy Beglari’s question to Mr. Ahmadinejad regarding gays in Iran.
President Ahmadinejad might watch PNN, but he doesn’t want Iranians to have the same freedom. One Iranian viewer e-mailed PNN this week asking for help. “My name is Aria, and I have been your viewer since 2001. I cannot access VOA’s web site. Please send me a filter breaker that works. Thanks to you and others for programs that let us see the world better.”
Other viewers from Iran wrote: VOA Television’s nightly services on HotBird and TeleStar 12 satellites were disrupted in Tehran for about 20 minutes [September 24], as soon as President Ahmadinejad was to be introduced at Columbia University’s podium. Iranian citizens did not hear the criticism of Mr. Ahmadinejad by Columbia President Bollinger. The way the Islamic Republic does this is to scramble the signals of these satellites locally, using stationary and mobile microwave dishes.”
“Greetings to freedom. I would like to express my gratitude to the President of Columbia University. He said all the things to this dictator that we ourselves do not dare to express. Thank you also for not giving him enough time to respond. I appreciate those who somehow convey our views to him.”
“What President Bollinger did in exposing Ahmadinejad’s lies was extraordinary. People like Ahmadinejad who cannot tolerate any dissent and criticism at home need to be challenged and exposed while abroad.”
“I would like to congratulate Columbia University for demonstrating the true meaning of freedom. But they should know that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s invitation to [Columbia faculty and students] to visit any Iranian university they choose should be on the same terms as his visit to Columbia in that you should have total freedom to debate about clerical rule in Iran.”
“Thanks a lot. Your brilliant program shines a way to freedom for the Iranian people.”
One Iranian viewer wrote in about an up and coming scientist who is turning heads among university students in Iran: “I am in my senior year at Sharif University of Technology, in electrical engineering. I am currently in an internship program for a few months in Europe. My friends and I are among many of your viewers in Iran, and enjoy the quality of the [discussions on your programs]. Recently, a famous Iranian scientist named Dr. Shervin Taghavi began appearing as a special guest every Wednesday on Mehrdad Parsa’s program on Pars TV [which originates in Tarzana, CA]. Dr. Taghavi [a Caltech grad], is very well known in Iran and his work has been extensively reported on. He is even more popular among Sharif students who have been more exposed to his work. His recent interviews with Mr. Parsa are devastating for the current regime, which was not prepared for a young renowned scientist to take such inflammatory standings and exposing the public to the hidden side of the Islamic Republic. However, many people are wondering why VOA has never invited him on your shows….this could hurt your reputation among many Iranian students who are partisans of a regime change.”
VOA has the largest combined radio and television audience of all international broadcasters in Iran, with one in four adult Iranians tuning into a VOA show at least once a week. Programs are also streamed on our website, www.voapnn.com.
The first hour of Persian News Network’s daily six-hour Persian-television block opens with news headlines followed by various History Channel programs, translated and narrated into Farsi, that illustrate the cultural fabric and political landscape of the United States. News & Views, which debuted in 2003, is now a two hour-long program featuring correspondent reports, interviews and the top news stories from Washington and around the world. News & Views is followed by Roundtable with You, Late Edition and NewsTalk, all one-hour shows that together constitute a five-hour daily block of original Persian-language television broadcast by satellite to Iran.
Roundtable with You, which debuted on television in 1996, takes calls from viewers and features a wide variety of guests discussing issues ranging from popular culture to politics. Late Edition, a youth-oriented program which first aired in July 2006, looks at major world events and issues of interest to young people. NewsTalk, which went on the air in October 2006, opens with a brief recap of the day’s top headlines followed by a panel of experts discussing the day's top news stories. NewsTalk features in-depth discussions of the issues of greatest concern to Iranians and closes with a segment on worldwide media coverage of Iran.
Persian News Network’s six hours of television programming complements the network’s daily radio broadcasts and Radio Farda, a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, youth-oriented radio program that is a joint project of VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.