By Roxanne Emadi (Reprinted from "The Prague Wanderer")
Tehran native revamps Radio Farda ('Radio Tomorrow' in Persian) to include listeners, and even dogs
Esfandiari devours a dozen newspapers piled up on her desk each morning then
plows through more news online and a few hundred emails and text messages.
that's before 8 a.m.
becoming chief editor of Radio Farda a year ago, Esfandiari has had one mission:
to transform the 24-hour Persian-language news and music station into the best
source of information on Iran in the world.
have a long road ahead of us," Esfandiari said in her glass-encased office
headquarters of Radio Free Europe- to which Farda belongs- at the top of
Wenceslas Square in Prague. "I am doing my best so that we produce good,
interesting and radio-friendly reports that are objective and balanced."
Improvement means admitting that the station had its weaknesses. "Before I
joined Farda, I thought there was little story telling elements" in some
broadcasts and "very little or almost no interaction with listeners."
Farda's challenge, to report on a country where the government brutally silences
critics and censors both public and privately owned media, faces all of the
networks under the umbrella of Radio Free Europe, the U.S. government-supported
station's focus on human rights- a trademark of Radio Free Europe's broadcasts-
causes the Iranian government to regularly call Radio Farda a national security
threat, according to Esfandiari. The government jams Farda's radio waves and
blocks access to its website. Radio Farda journalists who have visited Iran have
had passports taken away and been prevented from leaving the country and
Farda (which means tomorrow in Persian) faces additional obstacles. Esfandiari
tires to combat skepticism that some Iranians might feel towards a U.S.-backed
enterprise by providing professional, objective reporting that represents
diverse perspectives left out of reports from inside Iran.
nobody, tells us, 'You have to report on this or do that,'" Esfandiari said to
critics who call the station "the CIA radio."
sticking to the principles of professional journalism, we are trying to be
objective," she said. Esfandiari, 38, stands around five-feet tall with a
delicate frame, dark bangs splitting the middle of her forehead and large,
glassy eyes. She has a steady inflection in her voice that reveals little except
a commitment to her job.
last year, Esfandiari has introduced new programs including a weekly "Special
interview" which mimics BBC's Hardtalk, analytical packages like "Post Mortem
Sessions," during which broadcasters discuss positive and negative points of
past reports and "Your Voice is the Voice of Farda," when the station airs
listener views on topics like Iran's nuclear program or elections.
added more cultural, health and economic coverage to attract listeners
uninterested in only human rights, like stories on Iran's performance in a Judo
championship and Japan's stake in the Persian Gulf pearl industry, in addition
to a report about how prisoners are treated in Iranian jails.
Zamanifar, a Radio Farda moderator who joined the team eight months ago,
considers Esfandiari one of his closest friends.
working, she knows nobody," according to Zamanifar. "Whenever I see her in the
newsroom, she's sitting at the computer, wearing headphones and staring at the
screen, listening to one report while editing the other. She is literally a
means driving her staff a little batty.
had a quarrel with her, but called her the next day tell her: Golnaz jaan,
I have been at home in peace since morning and there was nobody to nag me so I'm
calling you to ask for some insults, because I need a challenge," Zamanifar
remembered. Esfandiari didn't hesitate before rattling off a few insults between
fits of laughter.
work she is like an angel!" said Zamanifar in an email. "But in the office, when
she steps away from her computer, you see her nagging or quarreling with
Childhood disappeared overnight
Esfandiari's cool distance is that of someone who does not presume she can
predict the future, fitting after a turbulent childhood. She was a 9-year-old in
Tehran, with internationally educated parents, when mounting discontent with the
Shah's monarchy erupted into the Islamic Revolution that thrust Iran into a
fundamentalist republic in 1979.
overnight, the Iran of Esfandiari's childhood disappeared. Many Iranians left
the country. Esfandiari had to move from co-ed French school to an all-girls
religious school. She suddenly had to don a dark headscarf and could not listen
to Western music or socialize with boys.
not understand why this was all happening," said Esfandiari. "I remember one
cleric on TV said, 'something from women's hair goes into the eyes of men and
makes them excited.' It was like science fiction."
teenager, Esfandiari watched her peers around the world on satellite TV live
without the restrictions on what they could wear, the places they could go or
with whome they could be seen in public.
night I was detained because I was at a party and was dancing and listening to
music," she recalled. Although scared, Esfandiari and her friends spent their
night in jail laughing at the absurdity of their arrest. "God what did we do? We
didn't steal; we didn't kill anybody. I thought, 'why can't I do normal
the pressures of Iranian society tired Esfandiari, when she moved to Prague to
get a master's degree in clinical psychology from Charles University, she never
thought she would stay.
an opening at Radio Azadi, Farda's predecessor, sparked Esfandiari's interest.
She then worked as a broadcaster, news editor and head of the Asia desk at Radio
Free Europe/Radio Liberty until she was asked to lead Farda's staff of over 40.
struggling to learn Czech and missing family back in Iran, Esfandiari loved
developing friendship with other foreign students from countries like Congo,
Namibia, Nepal and India. "It was a big adventure," she said of experiencing the
Czech Republic's transition to a democratic market economy in the 1990s.
Esfandiari doesn't have much time to talk with friends in cafes like she used
to, she walks- for exercise, to clear her head and to and from work. Esfandiari
still marvels at Prague's narrow streets and Baroque buildings when the city is
quiet early in the morning or late at night.
the tourists, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chickens and all new shopping centers,
there is still something mysterious about Prague," she said.
New day, new proxy
Esfandiari smiles when describing the unpredictable nature of her work. Her team
sets up a new proxy website daily, through which Iranians can bypass blocks, and
access the radio for a few hours until it is shut down. Farda then sets up a new
site, announces it on the web and emails the address to Radio Farda subscribers.
Listeners also get the station through satellite.
Esfandiari said the effort pays off and Radio Farda's stories do make a
example, a few months ago, animal rights activists emailed Radio Farda about the
government imprisoning dogs because it claims that according to Islam, dogs are
unclean. Farda interviewd dog owners and animal rights activists and posted
pictures of the dirty, small jail cells on its website. Weeks later, the dogs
returned to their owners and the prison closed.
Esfandiari said this seemingly small example demonstrates the influence Radio
Farda has on the Iranian government. In addition, Radio Farda covers student
protests- which Iranian media usually ignores or only briefly mentions as young
people acting out- and cases of people being unfairly detained. Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch use Farda's information for their reports.
Wanting to appear fair in front of the international community, with this
attention, "the Iranian government cannot keep silent," said Esfandiari.
She often gets calls from people who were freed after Farda's reports, thanking her for the help. Positive feedback energizes the self-proclaimed "news junkie" who has no family in Prague, works even at home and said she has little time for a personal life or hobbies.
feedback can also be emboldening.
when Radio Free Europe launched Azadi, their first Persian station, out of
Prague, Iran pulled out its ambassador to the Czech Republic. Jafar Hashemi,
then the Iranian ambassador to the Czech Republic accused the station of
promoting US efforts to "destabilize the Islamic Republic," BBC reported on
November 3, 1998.
having an impact. Otherwise, why would the Iranian government be so sensitive?"
East Quarterly's Fall 2008 issue, Jeffery Gedmin, president of Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty insisted that "Radio Farda is not anti-Iranian," even
though it does promote democracy.
Radio Farda is banned in Iran, assessing its impact is difficult. Esfandiari
estimated that 13 percent of Iran tunes into Radio Farda, based on telephone
polling conducted by the station. A fear factor, denying listening out of fear
of consequences by the government may lower the numbers, Esfandiari added.
inconsistent platform is one of Radio Farda's main problems in convincing people
of its legitimacy," explained Tala Dowlatshahi, a spokesperson for the
Paris-based media freedom organization Reporters Without Borders over the phone
September 2007, Mohammed Alireza, a blogger on Iranian.com- an English-language
online magazine for Iranian community worldwide- argued that in addition to the
challenges of a blocked signal, Farda's content was unimpressive. He said
Farda's programming was only "silly irrelevant pop songs with the occasional
filler of watered down news that has little substance and reaches us here with a
scratchy signal that makes it hard to listen to."
Dowlatshahi, however, said that now Radio Farda is "in the right place" and "has
made several steps to work with BBC and other groups to try to build an
independent voice within Iran" despite setbacks.
Farda is fighting for its angle within Iran. "We are criticized by some who
think we're not harsh enough on the Iranian regime or sometimes they accuse us
of being too critical of the Iranian establishment," said Esfandiari. "Some
expect us to be an opposition radio, which we're not."
Esfandiari does not take free speech for granted. "I grew up in a country where I couldn't express what was on my mind. We are trying to give a platform to people who don't have one and access to uncensored news is so important." she said. And she never tires of the exhaustive effort to keep Farda going. Esfandiari said, "I always want more."
Roxanne Emadi is a third-year student at New York University studying journalism and Middle Eastern studies. She is from Seattle, Washington.
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