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'The Wall Street Journal' Examines Radio Farda

"The Wall Street Journal" writes about the challenges RFE/RL's Radio Farda faces from a repressive Iranian regime.

(Prague, Czech Republic -- June 16, 2008) On Friday, The Wall Street Journal published a feature story on the challenges Radio Farda faces from an increasingly repressive Iranian regime as well as those in Washington who seek a tougher line on Iran.

For Wall Street Journal Online subscribers, click here to read the full article.

For non-subscribers, the text is reproduced below:


U.S.-Aided Station Riles Its Benefactor -- and Iran
June 13, 2008; Page A10

PRAGUE -- In March, an Iranian revolutionary court sentenced Parnaz Azima to a one-year prison term in absentia for her "antirevolutionary" work. The ruling didn't come as a surprise. Before she fled Tehran a few months earlier, an Iranian intelligence official had issued the journalist a warning.'

"Why don't you just leave Radio Farda?" Ms. Azima says she was told during one round of questioning, "If you do, then everything will be OK."

Rising Cold-War-style tensions between Iran and the U.S. have ensnared the American-funded Radio Farda -- "Radio Tomorrow" in Farsi. It is a battlefield outside the public eye that's nonetheless generating civilian casualties.

But the challenge facing Radio Farda's journalists is that Iranians, stifled by years of government-controlled media, will tune out anything viewed as a form of state propaganda -- whether U.S. or Iranian. These broadcasters, subsequently, must navigate a difficult path between an increasingly repressive Iranian regime and some in Washington who seek a tougher rhetorical line on Tehran.

Iran spends millions of dollars annually to jam Radio Farda's signal and disable its Web site, the station's managers say. Intelligence agencies have stepped up an intimidation campaign against Radio Farda's Iranian employees and Iran-based sources, which has affected about a half-dozen of Farda's 40-person staff, the station says.

In Washington, meantime, lawmakers are pushing Radio Farda to be more hard-line on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Senators led by Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) want guarantees that Radio Farda doesn't host guests who promote pro-Tehran policies. They want broadcasters to use tougher language, including calling governments like Tehran "terrorist" states.

But veterans of Cold War-era programming say the influence of American-backed "surrogate" stations is diminished if they aren't viewed as independent players by local populations.

"Their jobs aren't to sell the U.S.," says Enders Wimbush, who served as director of Radio Liberty at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse. "They are to produce local-broadcast content for countries... that lack their own independent indigenous media."

Radio Farda broadcasters deny sympathies for Iran's government but also fear that U.S. pressure will undercut their mission. "The Iranian government killed my friends. But as a journalist I never mix these things" with my work, says Jamshid Barzegar, who oversees Radio Farda's online operations in its newsroom here. "I respect my job too much."

Mohammed Mir Ali Mohammadi, an Iranian diplomat at the United Nations in New York, dismisses Radio Farda and the Voice of America as "propaganda" outlets for the Bush administration. He denies his government has harassed Radio Farda or VOA and says Ms. Azima's case has been handled by competent Iranian authorities in accordance with the law.

Congress first provided funding for a Persian-language radio service in 1998, but in pursuit of a less-ambitious format. The station's original name was Radio Azadi, or "Radio Liberty," and broadcast for three hours daily. Its creators modeled the station on the U.S.'s National Public Radio, producing shows to influence Tehran's elite.

Azadi's launch coincided with the election of the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami as Iran's president, who promoted a more conciliatory policy toward the West. "It was a very optimistic time," says Stephen Fairbanks, a Farsi-speaking State Department veteran who was Radio Azadi's director from 1998 to 2002.

But the newly elected Bush administration wasn't satisfied with Azadi's market share. Some critics took derisively to calling Radio Azadi: "Radio Khatami."

In 2002, the administration's Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, initiated an overhaul of Azadi's format, changing its name to Farda and calling for a 24-hour programming cycle. For U.S. hardliners, the changes weren't enough. In 2006, the White House ordered a probe into Radio Farda and the VOA's Persian TV operations.

"Most of the time, Radio Farda rarely takes a stance that could risk antagonizing the Islamic Republic," the report says.

A noted translator, Ms. Azima, 59 years old, fled Iran in 1983, when she lost her job at a government-run research institute. Her family worried she might be imprisoned for her outspokenness on religious and gender issues. She left for France and the U.S. and became one of Radio Azadi's original broadcasters in Prague.

Ms. Azima returned to Tehran for the first time in 2005 at the invitation of a state-run library during President Khatami's tenure. "I was treated like a VIP," Ms. Azima says. Two years later, the welcome wasn't so warm when she arrived to visit her 94-year-old mother. Two intelligence agents greeted her at the airport and seized her passport, she says. Her luggage was searched for subversive materials.

Nine months of quasihouse arrest followed, during which Ms. Azima was freed on $600,000 bail. In April 2007, she was charged with undermining Iran's national security by working for Radio Farda and earning an illicit income. Ms. Azima says she wrote in her defense that a free flow of information "was in the interest of Iran's national security."

Under pressure from foreign governments and the U.N., Ms. Azima was released in September along with two other Iranian-Americans. Ms. Azima says she is appealing her conviction.

Mohammed Zarghami, 27, began contributing to Radio Farda in late 2004, filing stories on Iran's cultural and political situation under a pseudonym. In December 2006, intelligence agents barged into his home and pored over his computer and personal documents. Finding files related to his work at Farda, he was held in solitary confinement at Tehran's Evin prison for four days and subjected to months of intermittent interrogations.

"They were trying to learn everything about Farda," says Mr. Zarghami, particularly names of staff and the layout of the newsroom.

The reporter's parents raised over $50,000 to pay for his bail. Iranian intelligence agents told Mr. Zarghami in March 2007 he could leave for Prague provided he occasionally reported back on his activities, which he says he has never done. "I can never go home again," Mr. Zarghami says.

A 2008 report put out by the France-based human-rights group, Reporters Without Borders, says an Iranian-Kurdish freelance journalist, Adnan Hassanpour, was sentenced to death last year on espionage charges, most likely for interviews he conducted with Farda and VOA.

Meanwhile, the BBG in recent months dispatched new administrators and columnists to run Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which oversees Farda and 27 other foreign-language broadcasts, including John O'Sullivan, a former editor-at-large of National Review magazine and an adviser to Margaret Thatcher.

Farda's expansive newsroom is housed in a Cold War relic: the former Czechoslovak parliament building. There, Mr. Barzegar, the online editor, manages an Internet forum on topics including Iranian politics and culture.

Mr. Barzegar, 35, fled Iran in 2001 after writing critically of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He says his colleagues are in a bind. The Iranian government calls them CIA stooges, he says, while many Iranian exiles and American lawmakers say they're too sympathetic to Tehran.

"We must be seen as fair and impartial" if we are to have an impact, he says.