· Newsmax.com writes “…a refusal to air video footage of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year old bystander whose murder during a post-election demonstration on June 20 catalyzed the protests…VOA relented several days later, once Neda’s murder became an international cause célèbre. (PNN Director Alex) Belida defended that decision, saying that there “was discussion on how much to show out of deference to the girl… and initially, we only played a portion but later we played it all ” Two issues here: 1) VOA was in fact the first to air the video of the young girl gunned down in the street. VOA worked to verify the authenticity of the video and once that was established, aired it before other broadcast outlets. 2) Newsmax.com distorts the facts when it takes an untruth, “VOA relented several days later…” and follows it with the words ”Belida defended that decision…” There was no decision to defend. Belida’s quote describes the decision-making process of whether to show the entire video, including blood spurting from her mouth and her eyes rolling back. Television journalism guidelines demand that organizations not be gratuitous in showing the moment of death. VOA takes its responsibilities seriously. After much discussion and after airing the video up to the moment of death, a decision was made at the highest levels of the organization to air the entire video because of its journalistic value.
· There are several references to the Inspector General’s March 2009 report about PNN, including the assertion by Newsmax.com that “The VOA management’s failure to rectify the problems prompted the broadcasters to seek the Jan. 21 audience with (VOA Director Dan) Austin.” Director Austin does not recall the IG report as the reason for during the two hour meeting with PNN personnel. The IG made 16 recommendations. Nine have been closed. Seven remain open as of today (2/15/10.) They include:
o Request for a PNN organization chart
o An assessment of how many people are needed to produce television programs
o Creation of a centralized news and production desk
o Integration of web operation with the centralized news and production desk
o An assessment of administrative workload
o An assessment of equipment tracking
o Training for management and staff to address “unacceptable professional behavior.”
VOA and the BBG have submitted responses for these recommendations and await the IG’s assessment of whether VOA’s actions are acceptable.
· Newsmax.com states “Belida also announced that he was promoting a 27-year-old novice producer with rudimentary Persian-language skills to be executive editor of the entire Persian language TV operation.” Factual errors: The person being referred to is 31, not 27. She has 10 years of professional journalism experience, including seven years as a producer at CNN, in which she covered international affairs. She is an American citizen and fluent in Farsi. She was interviewed for the position by a panel of three high-level VOA journalists and managers and was their recommended best choice.
· Newsmax.com asserts “Belida demoted VOA’s top Persian on-air personality, Ali Bijan Farhoodi, one of the self-avowed “ringleaders” of the meeting with Austin, and another top broadcaster, Setareh Derakhshesh.” There were no demotions. Setareh Derakhshesh was reassigned from anchoring a newscast (“News and Views”) to being Executive Producer and host of a talk show (“NewsTalk.”) Ms. Derakhshesh had voiced a desire for more management opportunity and editorial responsibility. As Executive Producer of NewsTalk, she will be able to exercise that responsibility and use her contacts, interviewing abilities and ability to connect with audiences to make that program better. For three of his five working days, Ali Farhoodi served as a Managing Editor. The other two days, he hosted a talk show program. His editorial acumen and talents as a Managing Editor are needed five days a week to make NewsTalk well run program.
· Newsmax.com states “Belida relies on the language expertise and cultural background of executive editor Ali Sajadi, whose views have been criticized by many Persian-language broadcasters and VOA guests as being too soft on the Iranian regime.” The PNN Director does not rely on just one person to make editorial and production decisions. He has a team of people, including a Farsi-speaking Executive Editor, a Farsi-speaking Senior Adviser, seven Farsi-speaking Managing Editors (including Ali Sajjadi) and four English-speaking Executive Producers among others. Ms. Derakhshesh’s appointment as Executive Producer for NewsTalk is a step toward putting Farsi-speaking journalists with television skills in positions of production authority. Recent job postings for Executive Producers and a Supervising Managing Editor all include a Farsi-language requirement.
In order to set the record straight from VOA’s perspective, I am providing you with PNN Director Alex Belida’s verbatim responses to Newsmax.com’s questions, emailed on February 5th:
Q:How do you respond to the accusation that PNN has been “soft” on the Iranian regime, and has shied away from reporting stories that would “rattle” the ruling clerics and Ahmadinejad? A: PNN does not shy away from any stories. It provides accurate, reliable and comprehensive news and information to the Iranian people in order for them to make educated and informed decisions about their lives. Q: The death of Neda Agha-soltan, a 26-year old bystander whose murder during a post election demonstration on June 20 woman was captured on cellphone cameras and went viral in just minutes over the Internet. My sources say that Ali Sajadi vetoed numerous urgent requests from reporters to air this footage, only acquiescing several days later after it had appeared on BBC, CNN and elsewhere. A: Not true. We aired it first. There was discussion on how much to show out of deference to the girl. And her family (like when her eyes rolled up into her head and she visibly expired) and initially, we only played a portion but later we played it all. Q: More generally, several VOA reporters say their requests to interview protesters in Tehran by telephone after the June 12 elections were repeatedly turned down by Ali Sajadi and Alex Belida. Why? Wasn’t this newsworthy, especially when Iranian state-run media was trying to portray the protesters as common criminals? A: Not true. One of the main reasons we pulled the History Channel and Today’s Woman show and ran a two-hour special for days following the election was to (A) show the latest citizen journalist video from inside Iran, and (B) to interview Iranians about what they saw and witnessed in the protests and to allow Iranians to express themselves on TV through call-ins and emails. Q: Britain’s Channel 4 aired an extensive interview with a defector from the Bassiji force, who made an emotional on-camera “confession” that he regretted following orders to murder peaceful demonstrators. PNN reporters proposed interviewing the Bassiji, but were turned down by PNN editors. Why? A: PNN editors had legitimate questions about the authenticity of an alleged defector who refused to identify himself or be shown on camera. Our suspicions grew after we asked him a simple question that someone in his purported position should have known the answer to and he said he didn’t know. (At the same time we were following a lead on getting an interview with a Basifi defector who was willing to be named and shown on camera.) Q. A former top aid to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Mohammad Reza Madhi-Takezand, gave several interviews to reporters in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had sought refuge. PNN reporters proposed interviewing Madhi – either by satellite, or live – but had their request turned down. Why? A: We’re aware of one interview only. No responsible news organization touched this guy. Once again PNN editors had legitimate concerns about the authenticity of this individual. See Laura Rozen’s article at: http://www.politico.com/blogs/laurarozen/0110/Beware_propaganda.html#
The Iranian government has taken extraordinary steps to block VOA’s satellite transmissions in an attempt to keep reliable, accurate and balanced news and information from reaching the Iranian people. It’s a privilege to serve as VOA’s Executive Editor and a responsibility I take seriously. If you have any questions about PNN’s coverage or any other VOA programming, please don’t hesitate to ask. When VOA makes mistakes, I’ll be the first to admit we were wrong and do everything I can to correct the situation. But I won’t allow others to take unfair and unfounded shots at what we do. VOA has just one agenda: upholding the VOA Charter by providing accurate, reliable and balanced news and information to audiences that are starved for it.
Thanks for your attention.
VOA Executive Editor