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March 6, 2008

Arresting the airwaves

The 13th revolutionary court of Iran has sentenced Parnaz Azima, an Iranian-American Radio Farda journalist based in Prague, Czech Republic to one year in prison for “spreading anti-state propaganda.” She was also charged with acting against Iran’s national interests, earning illegitimate income and owning a satellite receiver, charges that have since been dropped.

Azima, who traveled to Iran in March 2007, was visiting her 95 year old mother when she her passport was seized by airport officials. She remained in the country for over eight months, posting $550,000 bail and using her mother’s house as collateral. Azima is now faced with two choices: either returning to Iran to face her sentence, or forfeiting her mother’s house.

President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jeffrey Gedmin has accused Iran of purposefully targeting members of Radio Farda; and the U.S. State Department has condemned the “baseless conviction and sentencing in absentia of Radio Farda correspondent Parnaz Azima” and Iran’s continued crackdown on independent media a “gross miscarriage of justice.”

Radio Farda is a joint product of Voice of America, a program started in 1942 to spread pro-democratic information and news throughout the Eastern bloc and other “closed and war-torn societies.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is a private, international communications service. Both organizations are funded primarily by the U.S. Congress through the Democracy fund. Presented in both English and Persian, the service includes news, entertainment and Persian and American popular music.

Several Washington-based scholars, including Senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Suzanne Maloney, have called non-political, independent, and objective news sources as are the most effective means of reaching the Iranian people, adding that Radio Farda needs work to regain its impartiality.

The service has been criticized by the Iranian government, who has called it an interruption of Iranian domestic affairs. Other critics of Radio Farda include Stephen Fairbanks, former Director of Radio Farda who, in March of 2005, called the service, “Zippy news headlines with swooshy sounds.” Fairbanks also called for Radio Farda to reorient its focus on political issues, rather than entertainment news. Various other critics have called the service overly biased, running counter to the general desire among Iranian youth for objective news from the West.

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