Radio Zamaneh reaches young people in Iran, from Amsterdam and with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But what is the state of its promised independent journalism? Zamaneh’s self censorship. ‘The staff in Amsterdam is professional. But in Iran I work with many amateurs.’
By Janny Groen and Annieke Kranenberg
Volkskrant, 9 October 2007
Director Mehdi Jami of Radio Zamaneh- a digital radio station that makes Persian programs for urban youth in Iran- continuously emphasizes during our conversation in his office in the Amsterdam Linnaeus street that ‘we are an Iranian radio station for an Iranian public, not a Western station. We have to consider the sensitivity of our listeners. I don’t report news in an explosive way.’
He refers to the controversial visit of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University in New York. The Volkskrant published an article in which it quoted one of the people present at the university with the headline ‘Listening to ‘Iran’s Hitler.’ The director of Columbia had described the ‘chosen head of state’ as a ‘brutal dictator.’
‘Iran’s Hitler’, ‘dictator’, such terms are not used by Radio Zamaneh. Jami’s editors are supposed to present the Iranian leader neutrally. So Zamaneh uses terms as ‘Mr.Ahmadinejad’. Jami:’The Iranian opposition in the diasporas only wants to hear that only donkeys voted for Ahmadinejad. We would never say that, Zamaneh would never use such offensive language.’
Zamaneh does not report on certain salient parts of Ahmadinejad’s speech, such as his statement that ‘Iran does not have any homosexuals’. ‘Everyone knows that he meant to say that Iran does not have institutionalized homosexuality, no marriages between same sexes’, Jami interprets.
It is this prudent approach of Zamaneh that raises anger from critics. During the past weeks the Volkskrant spoke to fifteen Iranian sources from different countries who follow Zamaneh’s developments. They criticize the radio station severely. Most of the sources want to remain anonymous because of security reasons.
All of them were enthusiastic about the radio station, in the beginning, when the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs had subsidized the station with the intention to stimulate the democratization process and human rights by independent journalism. A year after its founding, they conclude that is has not realized any of those goals.
According to many, Zamaneh produces too many innocent cultural programs (about language, music, literature and cosmetics) and in reporting on news it considers the sensitivity and taboo’s of the Iranian regime too much. This way it has ‘absolutely no added value’. There are already ‘neutral’ radio stations: The BBC has a Persian section. Also Radio Farda- a part of Radio Free Europe in Prague- is considered by many as objective. (Iranian authorities consider Radio Farda as a radio station run by the opposition, but the station is subsidized by Americans who are proponents of a regime change).
Director Jami wards off all criticism. Zamaneh (new times) is ‘unique’ according to him, because it has an Iranian management, it offers various opinions and educates ‘civil journalists’ in Iran with independent journalism. He admits that Zamaneh spends attention to life style, art and literature. ‘The ordinary people have had enough of politics’.
They want to listen to subjects that are about themselves. Three decades of activism hasn’t brought Iran very far. We have to find new ways, start a dialogue.’ This editing line really doesn’t bring Iranians very far’, says Dariush Madjlesi. The Dutch- Iranian translator left the board of the station because of his discontent with the coarse of the radio station. ‘You can’t have independent radio with the silent consent of the regime. That way you’d leave too much out.’
He contradicts the remark of the director of Zamaneh, that Iranians in the diasporas only tolerate harsh anti-regime news reporting. ‘I am a member of the opposition. But there are enough opposition channels aimed at Iran. I am a proponent of a real independent radio station as a supplement to all that already exists on the media market.’
The one-sided reporting about the committee of Ex-Muslims of Ehsan Jami was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The spokesperson for the committee never got the chance to give an interview. ‘A real independent radio would have organized a round table meeting, so all different views regarding apostasy could be discussed,’ says Madjlessi.
The Dutch-Iranian journalist Manouchehr, who voluntarily worked as a PR officer, was enthusiastic in the beginning about the concept. But he soon enough noticed that Zamaneh submits itself to self censorship. ‘That is the worst kind of censorship’, he says.’ Why was there no news published about the leader of the bus driver’s labor union who is imprisoned? Why is there so little written about so many executions? These issues all are about human rights.’ Manouchehr has terminated his contribution.
There are Iranian exiles outside of The Netherlands as well who are annoyed by the ‘waste of tax money by The Netherlands’, says Ramin Parham, a dissident who lives in Paris. Parham, who is a member of the opposition platform Solidarity Iran and writes opinion articles for Le Figaro, studied the website of Zamaneh thoroughly. He concludes that the channel is ‘doing everything except practicing independent journalism’. According to Parham Zamaneh is propagating the ideology of the ‘religious reformists’ of Ahmadinejad’s predecessor Mohammad Khatami.
Hassan Daioleslam, an Iranian exile in the USA sends e-mails to the Volkskrant that a research regarding the political direction of Radio Zamaneh is ‘extremely necessary’. He discovered a ‘suspicious logo’ on the website of Radio Zamaneh. The logo belongs to NIAC. This is a lobby of the Iranian regime in the USA, according to Daioleslam. During the past two years he and two other independent journalists in Iran performed research about this lobby. The link of NIAC with Zamaneh would mean that the radio station leans too close to the regime.
The active weblogger Amir Farshad Ebrahimi from Berlin complains as well about the course of Zamaneh. Ebrahimi, who was imprisoned in Iran for four years because of unwelcome journalism, works for Amnesty International and for the Japanese research institute for the Middle East ‘MO Frontier 21’. Ebrahimi says that Zamaneh ‘only publishes what would have been possible to write in Iran as well. Zamaneh uses perhaps even more prudent journalism than in Iran’.He mentions radio Javan as an example, which is a radio station for the youth, that reports more about NGO’s and the Iranian women’s movement than Zamaneh.
In the past Ebrahimi was closely involved in the religious regime himself. As a 13- year old he fought in the Iran-Iraq war. He was active for the Hezbollah until he became aware of the ‘vile and violent practices’ of the party. He videotaped certain things and was arrested. He was later defended by the world famous human rights attorney and Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Amnesty International honored him with a reward because of his shown courage.
This political refugee follows the Iranian media daily and gives a series of examples of this ‘self censorship’ of Zamaneh. At Zamaneh they do not speak of ‘criminals’ who are executed or hung, as the Iranian regime does. But the radio uses the ‘indigestible neutral term’ of people who are killed. Zamaneh does not dig into the identities of the people, as to show how many of them were political prisoners.
Student’s at the Amir Kabir University in Tehran are uprising and on hunger strike for months because of their fellow student Meysan Lotfi, who was hung. ‘Zamaneh spends very little attention to this. Interviews with the mothers of the students, for example, are not being done.’ Are not such interviews too dangerous for journalists to do in Iran? ‘You could also call them from Amsterdam. Radio Farda did indeed interview the mothers.’
Ebrahimi’s weblog was rejected by Zamaneh. ‘He said that my blog was too political. Deh-Namaki, who still has close contacts with the Hezbollah, is political as well. His weblog on the other hand is accepted by Zamaneh.’ Jami denies to have rejected his weblog. He does admit that he once refused an interview of Ebrahimi with Zamaneh. That was because of two of Ebrahimi’s statements, that could not be verified’, he explains. Jami’s journalistic vision is that even in a closed country as in Iran editors should stick to the facts. ‘Everything should be able to be checked at known sources. I work according to an American system, as if the Iranian regime is able to take me to court.’
With this working method he reaches the core of the criticism on Zamaneh. Jami’s critics say that he fails to look behind the official facts, where exactly a great deal of the truth rests. According to Jami, young Iranians who contribute from their living rooms, should be protected. ‘The staff in Amsterdam is professional. But in Iran I work with amateurs. They don’t know how to go around dangerous situations.’
‘This way you don’t get anything above the surface’, says Ebrahimi.’In Iran independent news can never be performed without risks. As an independent journalist in Iran you work on a mine field.’ He paraphrases an Iranian poem about butterflies. The king of the butterflies gave his subjects the assignment to report on fire. The first butterfly reported that there was light., the second said that it was hot, the third burned his wings and the fourth never returned. According to the king the fourth butterfly had brought the best news. Ebrahimi: ‘Zamaneh is like a butterfly that only says that the fire is hot.’
Short before the Christmas break of 2004 the Dutch Parliament unanimously accepted an initiative of Groen Links (The Green Party) Parliament member of Iranian origin Farah Karimi and the VVD (Liberal Democrat Party) parliament member Hans van Baalen to invest 15 million euros in the launch of a television satellite channel aimed at Iran. The channel would work with Iranian refugee editors and would have to open an office in Tehran. The minister of foreign affairs of that moment Ben Bot crossed this plan in May 2005. Bot thought that the opening of an office in Tehran would be unrealistic and did not want to jeopardize relations with Iran. He proposed to share the amount of 15 million among several projects that would improve free press in Iran.
Eventually eleven projects, among which Zamaneh was one of them, received the funds. For the radio station that was launched in September 2006 there is an amount of 2,8 million euros invested until the end of 2007. Improving human rights and democratization remains one of the main objectives in the new financial year at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Stimulating media diversity in Iran is on the agenda again this year.
Zamaneh’s critics insist on an independent inspection on the content of the programs. They say that Zamaneh does not comply with its objectives and ignores the wishes of listeners in Iran. Director Jami on the other hand says that the amount of visitors are rising. In August 2007 the news section scored 120 thousand unique visitors (70% of which from Iran).
Zamaneh’s critics are not impressed. Iran has about 7.5 million surfers on the internet, after Israel the highest user density in the Middle East. The country is, except for China, the biggest censor on the world wide web. But Iranian bloggers are very crafted at breaking through filters and blocked websites. There is a vivid circuit of active bloggers. The weblogs on the Zamaneh website, they say, are mostly from members or proponents of the Mosharekat, Khatami’s party. Almost none of other political groups.
Press Now, an institute that supports free press around the world, inspects the content of Zamaneh. ‘A Dutch-Iranian woman follows the program incidentally’ says director Wilco de Jong. According to De Jong, Zamaneh does raise attention to democracy and human rights. He points out to the ‘politicized Iranian diasporas who are envious among each other.’
Translated by Tina Ehrami