The British Broadcasting Corp., which drew the ire of millions of people around the globe for refusing to broadcast an aid appeal for the victims of Gaza violence, seems to be a big hit in Iran. BBC Persian TV began broadcasting news and features in mid-January. Since then, to the chagrin of Iran's political and ecclesiastical leadership, lots of people are tuning in.
Authorities in Tehran have reacted shrilly to the appearance of a news source that can reach an Iranian audience, but which they themselves cannot directly control. Some Iranian officials have termed BBC Persian as an "illegal" channel, and have publicly stated that they will do their utmost to keep its programming from reaching an Iranian audience. Any Iranian inside Iran caught contributing to BBC Persian broadcasts will be punished, and the BBC journalists working for the English-language service in Tehran will be closely monitored, officials have cautioned.
"The BBC English channel will be confronted if it abuses its legal rights by producing reports for BBC Persian, and we are continually on watch for that," the ILNA news agency quoted Culture Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi as saying. "BBC and Britain have a clear record of inciting unrest and provoking different groups against each other in countries."
A survey of the Persian-language blogosphere shows that the BBC Persian channel is stoking a lock of chatter. A blogger posting on the Modakhele site commented that the BBC Persian service had aroused the ire of the Iranian leadership precisely because of its effectiveness in presenting a different point of view, other than the officially endorsed one. Another blogger, identified as Arash, predicted that BBC Persian would soon capture a commanding market share. "The quality of BBC Persian TV's programs was excellent and beyond my expectations. I am sure that soon it will gain a special standing in Iran," the blogger wrote. "It is run very professionally and proficiently. . . . It is much more proficient than the VOA."
Various statistics suggest that up to 60 percent of Iran's roughly 70 million population would have relatively easy access to BBC Persian's satellite broadcasts. At present, the leading foreign broadcaster in Farsi is Voice of America (VOA) TV. Iranian political experts say VOA TV's flaws are giving BBC Persian a chance to fast inroads. VOA programming appears to be too ideological, and therefore does not speak to the sentiments of most Iranians, who are young and now politically apathetic after three decades of economic and political upheaval. Omid Habibinia, an Iranian journalist, points out that "there appears to be a huge gap between the producers of VOA's Persian TV programs and the youth in Iran, who [comprises] the majority of the population. Furthermore, VOA is considered to be ? biased in its reporting and pursues an approach towards Iran that is old-fashioned."
BBC Persian is aimed at audiences in the three main Persian-speaking countries -- Iran, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There is also a sizable Tajik minority in Uzbekistan that can understand Persian. The BBC World Service has estimated its potential audience at around 100 million, but representatives say that they would be cheered if the channel attracted 10 million viewers, particularly in Iran, within three years. The medium's main target audience is clearly Iran. Meanwhile day-to-day news coming out of Tajikistan is mostly absent, a fact that has disappointed many Tajiks.
The channel also pays close attention to developments in Afghanistan. There are three BBC Persian correspondents based in Kabul and the trio plays a prominent role on the channel's current affairs programs. Sadeq Saba, one of the editors of BBC Persian TV, calls it a necessity of the time, since developments in Afghanistan are closely followed by media outlets around the world. The Kabul office of the BBC Persian TV service, shown on screens on a daily basis, seems better equipped than the Dushanbe bureau, which has not been depicted so far. The Dushanbe office has only one correspondent.
Tajik bloggers have lamented the BBC's inattention to Tajikistan, saying the lack of coverage of Dushanbe fosters the impression that Tajiks are second-class citizens. Broader coverage is easily justified because of the ongoing and severe social and economic crisis in Tajikistan, which has fostered an impression among experts that Tajikistan is currently the sick man of Central Asia. One blogger, dubbed Tojvar, noted: "Thousands of Tajiks watched [BBC Persian TV's] first programs joyfully, but the medium has [been a disappointment] and the content of its programs turned into an object of loathing."
BBC Persian executives have recently acknowledged the shortcomings in the broadcaster's coverage of Tajikistan, and they have promised to address the issue.
Kambiz Arman is the pseudonym of a Central Asian writer who specializes in regional affairs