Repressive regimes rely on a number of factors to stay in power, not the least of which is the ability to shape public opinion. They are, therefore, keen to block objective reporting on events in their countries. Yesterday, for example, Belgrade declared RFE/RL activities in that country illegal, and the Yugoslav information minister branded RFE/RL broadcasts as propaganda. Newsline's Bill Samii reports on the situation in Iran.
Prague, 21 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL's history as an objective source of news led to attacks against its broadcasts to Iran even before they started in late-1998. And now, as Iran faces increasing unrest in the capital, Tehran, and in other cities, RFE/RL's Persian Service has been subject to more criticism. Specifically, Iran's hardline elements are trying to discredit those who want to change the system, as well as reform-oriented publications, by linking them with RFE/RL.
Persian Service director Steve Fairbanks described how the hard-liners use RFE/RL against their political opponents. "We are painted falsely as anti-Islamic, but the real purpose of these charges is to show the reformists to be anti-Iran stooges of the foreign plotters. The reformists are accused of parroting many of the pro-democracy ideas that run through our programs, and so the ideas themselves are tarred as part of an evil Western plot to bring down the regime."
The accusations against RFE/RL were revived by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's 9 July speech to state officials, which was broadcast several times. "A comprehensive American plan was hatched in order to topple the Islamic Republic state. All aspects of this plan were evaluated in advance. The plan is the modified version of the plot which toppled the former Soviet Union. They intend to implement the same plot in Iran. This is the enemy's objective." It was not a military campaign that got the Soviets, Khamenei explained, "they launched a media campaign. In other words, they implemented their plan via propaganda posters, placards, newspapers, films and the radio waves in particular. If one were to calculate the role of each medium, one would realize that the news media and cultural apparatus played the greatest role."
Hardline Iranian sources subsequently attacked RFE/RL's Persian broadcasts and the reformist newspapers. "Kayhan" and "Resalat" claimed that RFE'RL's broadcasts were part of a plan to cause chaos in Iran, and the newspapers were part of it. "Was it merely an accident when there was suddenly a deluge of newspapers claiming to champion the cause of reforms - of course, of their American type - inundated the newsagents all over our towns and cities? Was it merely an accident when these newspapers began to relay the utterances of the so-called Radio Liberty, or the BBC and Israeli radio stations, who in turn, reciprocated the favor and gave extensive coverage to the articles and analyses publishes by these newspapers?"
"Resalat" claimed, "The so-called 'Radio Azadi,' which has been operating during the past few years on the approval of the American Congress, on the threshold of 18th Tir [8 July anniversary of last year's attack at Tehran University] called on domestic reformists under its protection to stage riots on that day. It is more than certain that if you ask the trouble makers who enticed them to create trouble on the anniversary of 18th Tir, they will reply that 'Radio Azadi' spurred them to stage those riots." The daily advocated jamming foreign broadcasts, something which Tehran did in the run-up to the February parliamentary elections.
Conspiratorial accusations about an RFE/RL role in Iranian unrest or about a grand plan to cause chaos across the country demonstrate the regime's inability to address its own shortcomings. But as Fairbanks points out, "these commentaries are dramatic evidence of RFE/RL's impact, and it is safe to say that the wilder the accusations by the conservatives get, the more our listenership increases."
Nor have the accusations hurt RFE/RL's popularity. The Persian Service's economic reports are frequently used as a source of information by the print media. The government's closure of most of the reformist publications in recent months, furthermore, has only increased public interest in the broadcasts by radio stations like RFE/RL, with shopkeepers telling "Kar va Kargar" in May that demand for short-wave receivers had increased sharply.