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German paper describes Radio Farda operation

The prominent German daily newspaper Die Welt gave readers a behind-the-scenes look at Radio Farda's Prague-based operation in an exclusive article.

The Voice of the Free Iran
[Translated from German, "Hier spricht der freie Iran"]
Die Welt - June 23, 2009

From a heavily guarded building in Prague, broadcasting news to the homeland: A visit to the Iranian newsroom of Radio Liberty. The music computer plays a Persian pop song; then the female technician pushes the controller for the station's jingle, thereby announcing the news program. It is midday in the Prague quarter of Strasnice in what is probably the most secure building in Europe -- the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- specifically in the studio of Radio Farda, the program for Iran. There is only one top story: the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Kamenei will speak at the University of Teheran. His speech has been eagerly anticipated all over the world. For days, millions of Iranians have been in the streets in order to demonstrate against the dubious reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What will the strong man of Iran have to say about it?

The news program summarizes what Khamenei has previously said. Then two editors receive the signal to go live in the studio and comment on Khamenei's statements. In between, the speech is cut in live. The sound comes from the Iranian TV, which is recorded via satellite in the studio. The technician responds to hand signals from the editors in the studio -- real, hand made, live radio, and without any polished manuscripts. The program runs for about twenty minutes, then Javad Kooroshy walks out, takes a deep breath and jolts back into the nearby open-plan office of the newsroom. The 65-year-old editor is an old hand and has been part of Radio Farda from the start of the programs. "Since last week, I haven't gotten much sleep, we are broadcasting around the clock; when I'm off, I call Teheran. We haven't had as much hope in thirty years as we have now. Millions of young people in the streets, peacefully, but persistent. That is simply fascinating", the words pour out of him.

The elections in Iran and the days since then are the first major test for the approximately 40 editors of Radio Farda in the new broadcasting building. Since 1995, Radio Free Europe hasn't been located near the English Garden in Munich, but in Prague. Vaclav Havel brought the station here, out of thankfulness for what it did for the dissidents in Czechoslovakia prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain. He was their mouthpiece, the voice of freedom. Ironically, RFE was headquartered in the building of the former communist parliament, not far from Wenceslas Square. But after the attacks of September 11, 2001, this location was not safe anymore, although it had been spaciously cordoned off with a concrete wall and protected by armored vehicles. This spring brought the move to the new location. The new four-storied building in Strasnice is state-of-the-art, especially with regard to security. Access control is as good as in any major airport.

"The move took place over night -- without a single day of interruption of the broadcasts," says Julian Knapp, the communications director of the station. "After the end of the broadcast day, the entire equipment was loaded onto trucks and immediately reconnected in the new building. The editors took their computers with them and immediately went back to work the next morning." There is still a smell of fresh paint in the stairwells. The steps connect the newsrooms of the individual stations with the central newsroom in the atrium of the ground floor. All activities are coordinated in this heart of the operation -- news, reports, and features are produced here, available to all stations. Conversely, the stations send their top stories to the newsroom, where they are processed for the other areas of reporting. On top of that, several employees produce the English-language website of the station here. While Khamenei is speaking in Teheran, an up-to-date news video is being produced, which will also be posted on the website. The newsroom is also the destination for the many phone calls that reach the station from those countries into which it broadcasts. Oftentimes, they are inserted into the programs. That way, the listeners themselves are participating in approximately 30 to 40 percent of the spoken word programs.

Besides the BBC TV or the Voice of America, Radio Farda is of particular importance to the Iranians now. "The regime tries to interfere massively with the reception," explains Abbas Djavadi, the editor-in-chief, who is in charge of the programs for Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. "But we can be heard fairly well via medium wave and short wave. Still, censorship is everywhere. The first victims were the text messaging connections, which were completely suppressed. However, we have established phone lines via Skype, allowing our compatriots to call us anonymously and without charge. People report what is going on in their cities; this way, we receive the latest pieces of news, which we then put together to an overall picture in the radio program. And they prove that the protests cannot be reduced to Teheran or to intellectuals and students. The entire country is in revolt."

At the present time, more than a thousand calls from Iran are received every day. Almost equally important as the radio program is the regional website of the station. "Of course, it is blocked by the government. But young Iranians in particular are resourceful. It is possible to technically circumvent the blocking with relatively simple means. Every day, more than a million Iranians are visiting the website. We also utilize Facebook and other means of communication," explains Djavadi, who had already been an employee of Radio Free Europe when it was located in Munich.

Prior to 2003, Radio Farda was a classic short wave program, verbose and stodgy. "Since then, we have been producing a type of youth radio, we have become more popular without being frivolous," says the editor-in-chief. The editors of Radio Farda are currently bustling about in front of their office in the atrium. Javad Kooroshy has jotted down a few notes. Every now and then, his gaze wanders over to one of the large-format photos on the walls. There, you can see Ayatollah Ali Khamenei surrounded by his fellow countrymen. A photo radiating optimism. Khamenei's speech, though -- which Kooroshy follows -- is getting darker by the minute. The editor-in-chief shows up, talks briefly with his co-workers: "It doesn't bode well. The signal given by Khamenei calls for an offensive. He is not interested in any compromise, he is opting for confrontation. And he attacked us as a radio station again, called us an American propaganda machine." His large brown eyes have lost the brilliance they had when he talked about the demonstrators an hour earlier; about their wish simply to live normally and freely in a country coming out of isolation. "The people really don't ask for much. They simply want to live better lives. Of course, there are particularly enlightened people who want to abolish the Islamic Republic. But that is not on the agenda. It's also not about the nuclear program; the people don't care about that."

Editor Kooroshy doesn't view the situation as darkly as his boss. "Even if this movement of the young people should end in a blood bath, if they do not get what they want -- the things we experience right now are a milestone in the history of Iran. No regime can suppress this peaceful will of millions of people permanently. In the end, our country could become a model of democracy in the Islamic world. I was almost ready to leave and would have gone to Teheran immediately if a different person than Ahmadinejad had won the election. There is a lot of work to be done there for a journalist."

Now, Kooroshy will stay at the station for the time being. And, together with his co-workers, continue to inform and report, but primarily to follow the events anxiously, to hope and to worry. "You can be away for as long as you want," he says, "but your heart always beats for your homeland."

Hans-Jörg Schmidt