NASWA Journal Columns · 2020 · April

Kim’s Column, February 2020

International broadcasting and events in Iraq and Iran

The big international affairs event in January was the killing of Qasem Soleimani, Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and, commander of its Quds Force, in a targeted US drone strike in Iraq, January 3. That was followed by Iranian missile attacks on US bases in Iraq on January 7.

How did US international broadcasting under the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), formerly Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), respond to these events? Like US international broadcasting itself, it’s complicated. Besides the United States, two countries were primarily involved: Iran and Iraq. For Iran, broadcasts in Persian (Farsi) originate from two USAGM entities: VOA Persian (TV and online) and Radio Farda (radio, TV and online), part of Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inc. The extent to which these two Persian-language USAGM entities cooperate is a good question that I can’t answer.

For Iraq, all of USAGM’s Arabic-language efforts come under its Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) Inc, consisting of Alhurra television and Radio Sawa, plus their online presences.

On the day of Soleimani’s death, RFE/RL’s Radio Farda published an analysis in English (and presumably in Persian, as well) by Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech University. His frank assessment: “By reducing the complexity of Iraqi politics to Iranian manipulations, the Americans have surely made a grave analytical mistake. They may have physically eliminated a number of nemesis while handing Iran, on a silver platter, a major political victory in Iraq.” (bit.ly/2tpue8o)

The same day (January 3), RFE/RL issued an advisory press release (bit.ly/2TupGYT) with comments by Seyed Mehdi Parpanchi, Director of RFE/RL’s Iranian Service, Radio Farda, about the killing of Soleimani: “There is a small minority that is condemning this attack and saying that what the U.S. did is terrorism, but a majority of the people that we see on social media, especially on Twitter, on Instagram are kind of happy that this has happened.”

This contrasts with mainstream media reaction, which was that the drone attack against Qasem Soleimani and his confederates would unite Iranian and Iraqi public opinion against the United States. But the revisionist assessment popped up in other elements of US international broadcasting.

Baking cakes to thank @realDonaldTrump

Fox News, which would want to counter the conclusion that the drone attack on Solemani and company was a public diplomacy disaster, cited three tweets by Alhurra reporter Steven Nabil @thestevennabil, including “Some Iraqis are baking cakes thanking @realDonaldTrump Trump for taking out Qassim Suleimani.”

Meanwhile, Masih Alinejad, a contractor who hosts the hosts the Tablet talk show on VOA Persian, wrote a commentary (wapo.st/2NyokIW) in the Washington Post website.  She maintained that the Iranian protests of Soleimani’s death were largely orchestrated.  “I have more than 4 million followers on various social media networks, and I have received thousands of messages, voice mails and videos from Iranians in cities such as Shiraz, Isfahan, Tehran and even Ahvaz, who are happy about Soleimani’s death. Some complain of the pressure to attend services for him.” Alinejad also tweeted (bit.ly/2NzCERm) a video of a demonstrator in Iran calling for her execution.

Eli Clifton of the Quincy Institute took exception to the message conveyed by Alinejad. (bit.ly/2NyELEZ) “[O]ne frequently cited Iranian voice in the mainstream media, Masih Alinejad, has been repeatedly echoing the administration’s claims that Iranians, despite all visible evidence, were welcoming Trump’s potential act of war against Iran.

“Fox News for example presented Alinejad …as an ‘Iranian journalist’ or ‘Iranian journalist and activist,’ missing a key detail about her biography: she’s paid by the U.S. government. CNN, and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens also quoted her without acknowledging her government funding.

“Alinejad works as an ‘anchor, writer, reporter for [Voice of America] Persian Service,’ a U.S. government owned television network broadcasting to Iranians, according to a publicly available description of her federal contract reviewed by Responsible Statecraft.  She received more than $305,000 in contracts for her work at Voice of America (VOA) Persia between May, 2015 and September 10, 2019, the date of her most recent contract.

“That crucial context was missing in her television appearances and other media citations in which she appeared to closely echo the Trump administration’s line that the Soleimani assassination was welcomed in the region even when there is little evidence to support the assertion.”

Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) took up the Quincy Institute article, berating US media for not stating that Alinejad is a US government contractor. Alinejad answered Omar in a “10-tweet blast,” noting that Omar has not helped her in speaking out against Iranian human rights abuses. (bit.ly/2tgz7Ri)

VOA Editorial weighs in, none too soon

Back at the Voice of America, VOA has for several decades broadcast editorials “reflecting the views of the United States government.” These editorials are now relegated to slots on VOA’s television channel, which has very little distribution, and on the VOA Editorials web page editorials.voa.gov. Interestingly, unless I am missing it, I cannot find a link to Editorials anywhere at voanews.com.  You will have to find it by way of a Google or your favorite search.

When Soleimani was killed, I searched out VOA Editorials, wondering how they would explain the event on behalf of the US government. I was not surprised to see no comment, given that there can be lag time between events and VOA Editorials. But the VOA Editorial about the death of Qassem Soleimani on January 3 was not published until January 15 – twelve days after the event. “U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, declared that Soleimani was plotting further imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.” (bit.ly/2Rq5btW)

The process with VOA Editorials is like this: The policy office at VOA or one of its parent bureaucracies will draft an editorial that they believe reflects the views of the US government. That draft is sent to the State Department. It (not usually a high priority) is eventually sent back with suggested or required revisions. Those revisions are incorporated and returned to the State Department. The next revised draft is sent back, and so on, and so forth. The twelve-day delay is therefore not surprising. Meanwhile, the Policy staff, whiling away the days, is paid more than I ever was at VOA.

See other Kim’s Column columns.

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