Iranian Dissident Banned from VOA for Criticizing Tehran

Accused of pro-Iran bias, VOA apologizes, reverses ban

Majid Mohammadi
Majid Mohammadi / Wikimedia Commons
September 11, 2014

An Iranian expert and regime opponent was temporarily banned from appearing on Voice of America’s Persian language news station after he compared the regime to a terror group during a recent appearance on the taxpayer-funded network, according to multiple officials at VOA, the nation’s leading pro-democracy broadcaster.

The incident is merely the latest in the long string of public controversies over the government-funded network’s pro-Iranian bent and is said to reflect a growing rift within the network between entrenched pro-Iran voices and those trying to repair this bias.

Congressional appropriators and former employees have long raised concerns about the network, which has been referred to by critics in the past as "the voice of the mullahs."

Majid Mohammadi, an Iranian-American academic and critic of Tehran’s hardline regime, was interviewed over the weekend on VOA’s Persian language station and compared the Islamic Republic to the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).

Mahammadi later claimed that following his appearance he was informed by network officials that the station’s editor, Mohammad Manzarpour, had put the longtime contributor on a "black list" and that he is no longer welcome to appear on any VOA Persian programs.

Following the incident, Mohammadi contacted by letter the VOA’s government overseer, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), to inform it of what had taken place, according to sources aware of the situation.

"After the program I was called and one of the staff members of PNN (Mr. Homan Bakhtiar) told me that Mr. Mohammad Manzarpour, the editor, has put me in the black list and PNN will no longer contact me for providing my expertise on Middle East issues in VOA Persian programs," he wrote in the letter to the BBG.

Mohammadi, who fled Iran over a decade ago, explained in the letter that his comments were meant to elucidate the relationship between Iran and ISIL and show that both employ a similar radical ideological and strategy to dominate the region.

Mohammadi asked BBG officials to explain why a pro-democracy station with a congressional mandate to spread America’s message would employ such heavy-handed tactics reminiscent of the Iranian regime’s despotic efforts to block negative publicity.

"As a citizen of the U.S. and a taxpayer who fled Iran 14 years ago due to being prosecuted by the Islamic Republic for my writings, deprived of teaching in universities, and being harassed by the Ministry of Intelligence, I want to know if Mr. Manzarpour is entitled to put me in the black list after 7 years of working with VOA Persian just for expressing my educated analysis," he wrote. "Do the editors of VOA have the right to make a black list of potential analysts? Do you think this is something that belongs to the authoritarian governments and brought as a baggage to the land of freedom?"

VOA confirmed that Mohammadi was initially banned by the station when contacted Wednesday by the Washington Free Beacon. The ban was reversed as soon as network heads learned of it, according to a VOA spokesman.

"A staffer without any authority did say he was banned," the VOA spokesman confirmed, adding that the ban was quickly overturned when higher-level officials were informed about the situation.

Setareh Derakhshesh, director of the Voice of America’s Persian Service, told the Free Beacon that there was "some kind of misunderstanding" between Mohammadi and the station.

VOA offered to have Mohammadi on the station again this Friday, but he declined the offer, saying that he would only appear if the network allows him to address what happened.

"I cannot participate in the program if I am not allowed to explain what has happened," Mohammadi wrote late Wedsnesday to Derakhshesh, according to a copy of the correspondence obtained by the Free Beacon. "This is not about me; it is about the principles and values of this beloved country. This is a crucial moment to explain to the PNN audience that this incidence happened and the people in charge were able to handle it in the right way."

Asked about the existence of a "black list" at the network, Derakhshesh denied one exists.

"There is no black list," she said. "I don’t even know where the word came from."

"There must have been a misunderstanding" between Mohammadi and the network officials, she said. "We have never banned anybody" in the history of the network.

Derakhshesh further maintained that the network does all it can to ensure objectivity and present all sides of the story when it comes to Iran.

"That’s how we do it, all opinions must be reflected and are reflected," she said.

Hassan Dai, an Iranian dissident who has appeared on VOA Persian in the past, said the network "has gradually become a mouthpiece for pro-Tehran appeasers."

Dai claimed that the network only features anti-regime voices a small percentage of the time.

"They have the policy of 10 percent and 90 percent-- mean[ing they] give 10 percent of air to the real opposition and 90 percent to appeasers. This way, no one can accuse VOA of excluding opposing views," Dai said.

VOA Persian, formerly called the Persian News Network (PNN), has long been engulfed in controversy and received criticism from Congress for toeing the Iranian government’s line.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) enumerated many of these concerns several years ago in a series of questions to BBG officials.

"Frequently, the Persian News Network has been accused of being soft on the Iranian government, including being labeled 'the voice of the mullahs,'" Coburn wrote in his list of questions.

Coburn also expressed concern that the network defers to pro-Iran voices and presents anti-American viewpoints, the Washington Times reported at the time.

Derakhshesh admitted that the network has struggled at times to escape its reputation as a pro-Iran mouthpiece and said it is working hard to rectify any appearance of bias.

"We are very well aware [of the issues] that VOA Persian had," she said. "We have actually rebranded" in recent years and are "aware of the bad press and infighting and the one sidedness."

However, VOA Persian has "turned a corner and made changes," she said. "We still have a long way to go but we know we are improving."

"It will take time, it has to be gradual," she added, "but VOA has turned the corner."

Mohammadi declined to comment on the incident and whether he will again appear on the network.

Published under: Iran