Monday, June 12, 2017

In Iran, Radio Liberty Doesn’t Live Up to Its Name

The Persian-language service too often parrots state media and doesn’t give Israel a fair shake.

Nenad Pejic, then the interim head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in 2014.
Nenad Pejic, then the interim head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in 2014.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
President Trump is hiring a chief executive for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency that oversees Voice of America and other media outlets charged with beaming light and liberty into closed societies world-wide. Politico reports the leading contender is Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker and president of the Claremont Institute. Whoever gets the job faces an uphill battle to reform an agency that has lost its sense of mission.
To get a feel for the dysfunction, consider Radio Farda, the Persian-language component of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. With an annual budget of $117 million, RFE/RL is supposed to serve as a surrogate press in 23 countries across Europe and Asia that restrict media freedom. Farda is one of its most important broadcasters, intended to give Iranians a rigorous, fair and morally credible alternative to propaganda from Tehran.
But Farda too often fails to deliver. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its treatment of Israel. Here’s how it recounted a Palestinian attack that took place March 19, 2016, amid last year’s stabbing intifada: “Israeli media, quoting security officials, claimed that Abdullah Ajlouni, a 20-year-old youth, had, as Israeli media put it, approached several Israeli soldiers in a ‘suspicious manner,’ and ‘had tried to attack them.’ ”

In fact, Israeli forces didn’t open fire on Ajlouni merely because he had acted suspicious. Ajlouni had

pulled a knife and stabbed one of the soldiers before they opened fire.

The story went on to claim that Ahmad Dawabsheh, a 6-year-old Palestinian boy who eight months earlier survived an arson attack by hard-line Israeli settlers, had been “transferred to Spain for treatment of wounds sustained in the flames, and Israel still hasn’t arrested anyone on suspicion of carrying out the attack.”
Again, incorrect. Israel had two months earlier indicted two Jews, charging one with murder over the attack, which killed Ahmad’s parents and 18-month-old brother. Iranians relying on Farda to understand these events were given the false impression that Israel is a place where Jews kill Arabs with impunity. Nenad Pejic, a former Balkan correspondent who now serves as RFE/RL’s Prague-based editor-in-chief, conceded in an email that the stabbing story that also discussed the Dawabsheh case had been “inaccurate.”
Here’s a Farda headline, from a March 10, 2016, news brief: “Three Palestinians and One American Killed in Clashes in Israel.” The implication of saying that Palestinians were killed in impersonal “clashes” is that unmentioned Israelis hover in the background as potential culprits. It is only in the second paragraph that the story identifies the attacker as a “Palestinian man.” Omitted altogether is that the “clashes” started after he began stabbing mainly Jewish civilians.
Such obfuscation of assailants’ and victims’ identities reinforces the frame, familiar to Iranians from their own media, in which Israelis are always aggressors. Mr. Pejic acknowledged that this story was “incomplete.”
Still another article, published in February 2017, concerned Israel’s decision to deny a visa to a researcher with Human Rights Watch. The story failed to note that the researcher had participated in the movement to boycott the Jewish state—context Iranians deserved to know.
Mr. Pejic countered that a three-paragraph squib didn’t allow room for elaboration. Yet Farda published a second, much longer story on this incident that still didn’t divulge the researcher’s anti-Israel views.
Then there is Farda’s coverage of President Obama’s nuclear diplomacy. At least five stories, published between 2012 and 2017, described critics of Mr. Obama’s engagement with Tehran as “extremists” and their views of Iranian realities as “amateurish.”
The extremists in question included Sen. John McCain, congressional opponents of the deal generally, GOP aides on Capitol Hill, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Mr. Pejic said the label “extremist” was “misused” with respect to Mr. McCain in a 2012 article. But he said the other instances arose from quotes, or came from opinion pieces, or were otherwise “in line with the kind of political observation frequently found in news analysis.”
Yet RFE/RL couldn’t point to any instances in which Democrats or supporters of the deal were labeled “extremists”—or with other pejoratives like “peaceniks” or “hippies.” As a taxpayer-funded broadcaster, RFE/RL has a particular duty to refrain from partisanship when reporting on American politics.
Perhaps most dismaying are the stories that seem to be borrowed wholesale from state-run Iranian media.
An April 2016 Farda headline quoted President Hassan Rouhani to the effect that “If It Weren’t for Iran’s Assistance, ISIS would Have Captured Baghdad and Damascus.” Another, from November 2016, read: “Iran’s Deputy President Visits Shiite Festival in Iraq.” Like any item that might appear in Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, these U.S.-funded stories deferentially quoted one Iranian official after another without offering context or any alternative view. Mr. Pejic agreed that these stories were “incomplete.”
If any federal agency could use a Trumpian shake-up, the Broadcasting Board of Governors is it.

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