In January, the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty provided timely and comprehensive multi-platform coverage in Farsi of the historic nuclear pact between Iran and six world powers and the near-simultaneous news of the prisoner swap between the United States and Iran.
VOA’s Persian Service was the first international broadcaster with news in Farsi of Iran releasing four Iranian-American nationals, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati and pastor Saeed Abedini, in exchange for seven Iranian nationals.
As the freed Americans were flying home, VOA Persian broadcast exclusive interviews with Ali Rezaian, Jason Rezaian’s brother; Naghmeh Abedini, Saeed Abedini’s sister; and Sarah Hekmati, Amir Hekmati’s sister. VOA also aired statements from Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee and other U.S. lawmakers and carried a live interview with John Limbert, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran and a U.S. prisoner during the Iran Hostage Crisis nearly four decades ago.
After the former detainees had safely returned to the United States, VOA Persian aired an exclusive interview with Marty Baron, Executive Editor of the Washington Post, on the unjustified imprisonment of Jason Rezaian who spent 545 days in Evin Prison in Iran. As part of the prisoner swap coverage, VOA Persian also aired an exclusive interview with Dan Levinson, the son of the former FBI agent Robert Levinson, to inform and remind the audiences in Iran that Robert Levinson was still missing and is reportedly being held in an Iranian prison.
In addition to its extensive coverage of the developments, Radio Farda provided analysis and conducted interviews with Middle East experts, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and the founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. Radio Farda also made available on its website President Barack Obama’s message to the Iranian people and shared that piece together with the State Department’s video of the president’s statement on the Radio Farda Facebook page.
In 2016, VOA Persian implemented a digital-first strategy with particular focus on producing short digital videos for the web, as well as for Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Telegram. Through Facebook Live, VOA Persian became the only international digital broadcaster to offer Iranian audiences direct, unfiltered access to President-elect Donald Trump’s victory speech on Election Day and the concession speech by Hillary Clinton the day after. Live video coverage on Facebook included President Obama’s farewell address to the nation; acceptance speeches by Trump and Clinton at the Republican and Democratic Conventions; numerous speeches and press conferences by the U.S. President, the U.S. Secretary of State and more than a dozen live Congressional hearings on pressing foreign policy issues held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Having established a permanent content exchange mechanism with Radio Farda in Prague, VOA Persian has been sharing content with Radio Farda including a live broadcast of President Obama’s State of the Union address with simultaneous translation, a photo gallery of exclusive pictures by a VOA Persian Europe-based stringer after the Brussels airport bomb attack, as well as exclusive pictures for web and social media taken by VOA Persian reporting teams on the floor at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
In 2016, VOA Persian also continued to expose the persistent problem of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in Iran. When the Iranian government supported a “Holocaust Cartoon Contest,” VOA partnered with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to take the lead among the Persian-speaking international media in covering the international condemnation of the contest. VOA Persian aired strong statements made exclusively to VOA Persian by Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, Ranking Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Congressman Eliot Engel, Director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Initiative on Holocaust Denial Tad Stahnke and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign media spokesperson David Keyes, among others.
Radio Farda launched a new radio and digital program called Taboo, which discusses controversial subjects inside Iran. The program, which has generated a high level of engagement, provides a forum to discuss topics that would otherwise be considered taboo in Iran’s Islamic society, including issues related to Islam’s effect on people’s individual lifestyles.
In 2016, VOA updated its Persian prime-time television lineup with a fresh look and new Farsi-language programming targeting millennials. The new television program New Horizon with Payam Yazdian focuses on international issues and is the first of four new weekly programs under one umbrella—New Horizon—each focusing on the rapidly changing issues affecting Iran and the world, including women’s and minorities’ rights, and the fight against ISIS.
Each evening New Horizon is followed by a new Farsi-language documentary series produced by Bloomberg Television, topics of which include successful business practices and entrepreneurship, as well as science and technology.
Radio Farda also produced and aired a 45-minute video documentary about interrogation techniques in Iranian prisons, focusing on the experiences of political and civic activists. Radio Farda transformed its daily Breakfast With News radio show into a television program, which airs on VOA’s Persian satellite stream.
In October 2016, VOA Persian Service broke the story that Saeed Toosi, Iran’s most celebrated Quran reciter, had raped seven of his underage students, and that the regime had covered it up.
Based on verified documents and first-hand interviews with several victims, VOA Persian produced two exclusive investigative reports about Mr. Toosi, who had been considered Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s favorite Quran reader. The investigative reporting revealed that the attacks happened over the course of seven years.
Families of the victims, who were aged 12–14 years, alleged that the Revolutionary Guard’s judicial authorities covered up their complaints under direct orders from Khamenei’s office.
VOA’s reporting created a media storm inside and outside Iran, and several international media outlets including the BBC, The Independent, Al-Arabia TV and The Guardian acknowledged the impact of VOA’s reporting on Iranian internal politics.
Although YouTube and Facebook are regularly blocked in Iran, the digital video of the reports quickly reached 505,000 views. Social media quickly filled with news about the case, and Toosi complained that after the VOA reports, he lost all credibility and was afraid to leave home to buy groceries.
The Combatant Clergy Association, one of the biggest political factions of Iran, held an extraordinary session regarding Toosi’s case, and the central council of Hezbollah requested the disgraced cleric receive severe punishment.