The Washington Post has run two light-hearted stories about U.S.-Iran relations over the holidays. There was the Dec. 20 piece on how an Iranian ice cream franchise is opening up in the Green Zone in Baghdad (followed by a hilarious letter to the editor).
Then, on New Year’s Eve Day, the Post came out with a long feature article on “Parazit,” the news satire show on Voice of America‘s Farsi-language network. “Parazit” is a comedy show like “The Daily Show,” where real news items are used to poke fun at Iranian politics. It’s beamed by satellite into Iran, where many Iranians watch it with illegal dishes affixed to their roofs. At the Post, Tara Bahrampour writes:
Operating out of Voice of America’s Persian News Network, Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi have started a weekly program, “Parazit,” that has drawn comparisons to Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” for its satiric take on Iran’s news of the day.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a favorite target.
The name of the show means “static,” which is what happens when the Iranian government tries to jam the VOA signal. The fact that the piece neglects to explore the impetus for this signal blocking is indicative of a minor shortcoming in the Post article.
VOA is not looked upon kindly by the Iranian government. That’s because the group is funded by the U.S. government. But the Post goes on for more than twenty paragraphs before mentioning this — and the phrasing is limited to merely that VOA “is funded by the U.S. government.”
This makes it sound a bit like the outlet is just like NPR or PBS. Really, VOA has a very different past, and a very different present. For one, it was formed by the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), a propaganda outfit run by the executive branch. According to a preserved website of the now-defunct agency, “USIA explains and supports American foreign policy and promotes U.S. national interests through a wide range of overseas information programs.”
When the USIA closed its doors in 1999, VOA moved under the control of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). VOA, so far as I can tell, is fully funded by the U.S. government. (I queried VOA, and will update if I hear anything.)
Though VOA seems to me to be a decent news source, one can’t deny that it carries a special bent not shared by more independent outlets. Although USIA’s mission statement stopped being relevant over a decade ago, VOA‘s charter from 1960 is still in place:
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio.
The Post article, though, acknowledges that “Parazit” is unlike anything else on VOA‘s Farsi service:
Most Persian News Network programming is made up of straight news and commentary. The hosts are older than Hosseini and Arbabi and generally don’t go on camera in Sex Pistols T-shirts, nose rings, and green-and-black-painted fingernails. “I don’t know if VOA has ever done anything like this,” said [VOA executive editor Steve] Redisch, who has been thrilled with the results.
I’m not sure why the Post overlooks the essential nature of VOA and its history. For example, the domestic distribution of VOA content is prohibited by anti-propaganda laws. In the kicker of the piece, an Iranian official says that the hosts are “spies.” Though it’s dismissed as a laughable quote (I assume rightfully), it would have been a good opportunity to better explain VOA to the Post audience. Let’s not pretend that there aren’t some issues with the outlet’s government funding in pursuit of its own interests, especially in a tense relationship like the one between the U.S. and Iran.
In a video that appears with the story on the Post‘s website, one of the show’s hosts comments that the show is non-partisan, and that if Mir Hossein Moussavi “was in charge, we’d go after him.” But he’s not, and I don’t know if they do.
While freedom of expression should by no means be stifled, a U.S. government-funded partisan political show being illegally broadcast into Iran raises some questions in my mind. In the U.S., even overt foreign campaign donations are frowned upon and frequently returned or rejected.
Seemingly, none of these concerns should overshadow the talent behind the show or, more importantly, the apparent popularity of the show in Iran: the Post reports that the hosts are overjoyed that “paraziti” has become something of a catchphrase in the Islamic Republic. If you say something stupid, your friends might comment that it’s “paraziti,” as in worthy of a mention on the satire show.
The questions raised by the involvement of VOA in “Parazit” might be cast aside in favor of pragmatism: How else would Iranians living in Iran get to see it? The Center for American Progress blogger and Middle East analyst Matt Duss put it concisely when I raised the issue in a conversation with him:
“Ideally, it would be independently supported,” he told me. “But if the choice is ‘Parazit’ on VOA or no Parazit, I’ll take the former.”