Irena Maryniak talks to Sadeq Saba, head of BBC Persian service, about the channel’s future, signal jamming and impartiality
Irena Maryniak: Is an organisation like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in any position to influence or prevent Iranian jamming of satellite broadcasts from the BBC and other international broadcasting services?
Sadeq Saba: The ITU is a gentleman’s club in a way. It’s a toothless organisation like many other UN organisations. Iran is a member. Of course it’s embarrassing for Iran if everybody tells them they are breaking regulations, but it’ s a very slow process. And Iran would deny this.
Irena: Why do you think Iran joined the ITU in the first place?
Sadeq: They need satellite for their own reasons. They need access. Iran’s Arabic channel Al- Alam is one of the most popular Arabic channels. Because of its anti-Israeli, anti-American stance it resonates with the aspirations of many people in the Arab and Islamic world. So Iran needs that channel and it also needs its English channel: Press TV. And there is another anomaly. Iran does not allow BBC Persian to have a bureau in Tehran, although we requested it before the launch of the channel in January 2009. They allowed BBC English language channels to have a correspondent in Tehran but he was also expelled at the height of the troubles in Iran last summer. Yet IRIB (Iranian State Broadcasting) has a huge bureau in London, Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, has a London bureau, and more importantly Press TV have a bureau in London with dozens of journalists and produce (some people say) up to 40 per cent of programmes here. And they use members of parliament as their commentators. Yet at the same time they deny the BBC a bureau in Tehran. The world cannot understand that. Iran must understand that if they want to have a bureau in London and broadcast in English, they should allow the BBC to have a bureau in Tehran. They should also let Iranian people have access to different sources of news and information, since they think they should have the right to give people in other countries a different perspective on international events.
Irena: If the BBC doesn’t have an office in Tehran, how do you gauge your audiences in Iran?
Sadeq: There are different ways of doing it. We have a daily one-hour interactivity programme in which people phone in from Iran and around the world. Over the last year maybe 5-6000 Persian speakers had a voice on this programme. We know we are being watched because thousands of people phone us from inside Iran.
Irena: Do they suffer any consequences?
Sadeq: We haven’t heard.
Irena: Official rhetoric has been severe, hasn’t it?
Sadeq: It is severe rhetoric, but I’m glad to say that it is only rhetoric because they know what they are attributing to the BBC is baseless. The BBC is not a tool of the British government to overthrow the Iranian regime. First of all, the British government does not, as far as I know, have a policy to overthrow the Iranian government, and more importantly the BBC is editorially independent. Even language services like us. We are governed by BBC editorial guidelines and its charter. We are no different from domestic BBC services; only we are broadcasting in Farsi. So if the BBC is impartial and objective, there’s no way we can be involved in any political activity or partial news broadcasting. That’s our charter, that’s how we are employed. If we do otherwise we’ll be sacked.
Irena: How is your impartiality monitored? After all your programmes are in Farsi…
Sadeq: I am head of the channel. I’ve been working for the BBC for more than 20 years and I myself watch all our programmes. If I see anything going wrong I always talk to the people. I’m glad to say that, despite the many difficulties of broadcasting to Iran (it has been a very difficult year for our journalists, because they were covering a story which is important to them), they mostly remained impartial. We – people like me who are senior managers here – make sure that we remain impartial.
Irena: Why do you think you’ve been accused of trying to foment a velvet revolution in Iran?
Sadeq: I think the main reason is the Iranian government. There are problems inside Iranian society: economic, social and political problems. The government wanted to deflect attention and blame somebody else for its troubles. Because of the history of Britain in Iran, because the BBC is a British organisation, it’s an easy target. They can always blame the BBC because there’s a history of British government intervention in Iran.
Regimes like the Iranian government need foreign enemies to blame for their problems, but any fair-minded Iranian politician will know that we are objective, and have no hidden agenda. We are not a tool of the British government, we can’t be. That’s why we are being watched. I’m even told that the supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei either listens or watches the BBC, or at least reads our broadcasts, in order to know what’s happening in his country. They may have doubts about our motivation but they are sure that what we broadcast is credible, factually based and fair.
Irena: Wasn’t there a controversial programme broadcast on BBC Persian, just before Iranian jamming began in December 2009?
Sadeq: The jamming of the Persian Service started in June 2009 after the presidential elections. Severe jamming began on 21 December. The day before, the Persian Service gave coverage to the death of Ayatollah Montazeri, the most senior dissident cleric and a founder of the Islamic Republic. At one time he was the designated leader successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, but later he got disillusioned and started criticising human right abuses in Iran, so he was sidelined. He was the second most important leader in Iran after the revolution.
On 20 December, we stopped all normal broadcasting, started earlier, extended our programmes and devoted the day to his achievements, his ideas. There were demonstrations and we covered those. We had an exclusive interview with the Ayatollah recorded before his death, which we broadcast. There were, some people say, about half a million people taking part in his funeral and we broadcast all of that. So the regime suddenly, I think, got frightened, scared that if you broadcast all of that it might have a domino effect, other people may join in. That’s why they decided, enough is enough: Let’s jam this channel.
Irena: Was it interpreted as the BBC siding with the opposition?
Sadeq: That’s what they have accused us of. But the funny thing is that the opposition isn’t happy with us either. We probably get more criticism from the opposition than from the government. Their argument is how can you remain neutral, impartial while there’s a fight between good and evil in this country. You should side with the good.
Irena: If I put that question to you, how would you respond?
Sadeq: I’d say that it’s not our job to side with anybody in Iran. Our job is to broadcast what is happening with all the details, from all angles. I think once the Iranian audience knows the whole story it’s up to them to decide which side to take. We don’t tell them to side with the government or the opposition. We are not an anti-regime broadcaster. We are not a pro-opposition broadcasting organisation either. We are committed to freedom of expression and we don’t believe in broadcasting restrictions. If we do this, it may benefit the opposition, it will benefit them, but it’s not our job to side with them and say they are right and the government is wrong. We always tell both sides of the story. If the opposition says 10 people have been killed and the government says this is a lie, we tell both stories and it is up to people to decide who’s right and who’s wrong.
Irena: What about the harassment and imprisonment of journalists – is that affecting the response you’re getting from Iran?
Sadeq: Yes, of course. It’s reducing the number of people we can interview. Dozens of journalists are now in prison. To some extent it’s restricting our operations. But we always find new people ready to talk to us. We also monitor all Iranian state broadcasting. Iran has seven state-owned channels. We know what Iranian leaders are saying. That’s a way of making sure that we put their views on our radio and television programmes as well. So if Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, gives a speech in Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, we monitor it on Iranian TV and reflect it on our channel. There’s no shortage of Iranian views on the Persian service.
Irena: It sounds as though there’s a huge gap between the authorities and what listeners want.
Sadeq: In March I went to a pop concert in London for the Persian New Year. It was packed: up to 12,000 people, all enjoying themselves. An Iranian singer, Googoosh, had come from the US. That’s what Iranian people want. They want to enjoy themselves like any other nation, listen to music, dance, drink. Some people may want to pray – that’s their right. What the Iranian government is doing is imposing their own limited view of the world on one of the oldest nations on earth, with thousands of years of history, a great literary tradition and some of the most diverse music in the world. On the same night in Hamburg, Canada, Baku (in Azerbaijan) Iranian singers and artists were performing and ordinary Iranians were enjoying themselves. But they aren’t allowed to do that inside their own country. This cannot go on for long. That is why the Iranian government is in trouble. It’s imposing something that’s against human nature. On the other hand you have the economic problems. Iran is one of the richest countries in the world with oil and gas reserves and so on. But the vast majority of people are living in poverty and the economy is in shambles. There’s no investment, high unemployment and inflation. People are fed up. That is why you have demonstrations; that is why a dispute about an elections can turn into a huge anti-government uprising, not because the BBC or other radio organisations or TV stations outside Iran bring people into the streets. If a radio station like the BBC could create a revolution in Iran, everybody would establish a radio station to get rid of this regime. The problem for the Iranian regime is of their own making, not because of what we broadcast. We are broadcasting the realities that they don’t want the Iranian people to know.
For more on the topic read Irena Maryniak’s article This World Strikes Back, which appears in Radio Redux, the new issue of Index on Censorship, out now
Irena Maryniak is a writer specialising in eastern Europe and a translator. She is the author of Offence: The Christian Case (Seagull Books)