Sunday, February 12, 2006

US to increase its TV programming into Iran

Kash Kheirkhah

In the news:

AP: VOA Persian TV and Radio Farda were launched in late 2002 with a combined budget of $6.4 million. It is now up to $18.8 million, and the Bush administration is seeking $19.6 million for next year. A VOA television operation tailored for Iranian viewers started in July 2003 with a modest 30 minutes a day of programming. An upgrade to four hours a day is planned by September, and the budget is up by almost half to $11 million for this year. Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of a board that oversees US broadcasting abroad, says TV programming into Iran "is the most important thing the VOA has done in recent years anywhere." On the radio side, separate VOA operations for Iranian listeners broadcast four hours daily and round-the-clock. The administration is trying to cut budgets across the board, but by contrast to CPB, BBG's Middle East Broadcasting service and Voice of America are considered weapons in the war on terrorism. In fact, while non terror-related language services under BBG will get the knife, or even the outright axe, the Middle East services are getting a 13% increase and VOA a 5.3% increase, which more than offsets the cuts elsewhere.To make room for expanding Middle East TV channel Alhurra from 16 to 24 hours, adding customized local news content (as some legislators had suggested in a hearing on the service), stepping up broadcasts to Iran and other moves, the BBG will pull the plug on VOA News Now Radio, saying that the Internet makes more sense than shortwave transmission.

After the Islamic revolution in Iran, VOA (short for Voice of America) and BBC Persian services served as Iranians' only reliable sources of unfiltered news before internet and satellite dishes made their way to the Iranian households. With the advent of the new technology, the BBC put more stock in the internet whereas VOA launched its TV broadcast in late 1996.

In a country like Iran in which internet has a limited readership, TV is the most powerful medium. People may not have access to the internet or even don't know how to use it, they may not turn to jammed shortwave radio programs for news any more, but they will hit the TV for sure every night, whether there is anything worthy of watching or not.

On the one hand, I'm so glad that the United States Government is finally realizing the importance of communicating better with the Iranian people. On the other hand though, raising the budget by half and increasing the hours don't necessarily guarantee a PR success, unless the programs are sharp, smart and really geared to counteract the around-the-clock propaganda of the Iranian regime.

Unfortunately, VOA Persian service has been unable so far to take advantage of its satellite TV capabilities and turn into a must-see for the public in Iran. Programs such as the one that is now beamed to Iran for one hour every Tuesday (Next Chapter) really don't serve any purpose rather than blowing the Government's budget. The Iranian youths already know about the latest American movies and the top 100 singles on the Billboard charts. It's now time for the US to counter the Iranian regime's disinformation campaign by using all its Iranian resources on this side of the world. It's time to help Iranians get the real news and information through their own highly-qualified political analysts and activists vis-à-vis the Iranian regime's constant lies and distortion of facts.

There is a lot the US can do with four hours of daily TV programs for Iran. I just hope they won't let it go down the drain. Remember, time is short.