Needed: An alternative to the “Anna Chapman show.”
Posted by democratist on January 13, 2011
13th January 2011,
Tomorrow will mark an interesting, although generally overlooked anniversary; it has been two years since the BBC’s Farsi-language television news service took to the airwaves, on 14th January 2009.
The channel is run by the BBC World Service from London. It broadcasts for eight hours a day, seven days per week, and is aimed at the 100 million Farsi speakers in Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It costs about £15 million per year to run, which is paid for by the FCO, but the BBC retains editorial independence.
It is illegal to watch in Iran, so there are no official viewing figures, but when it was set up the BBC said it hoped that the television service would reach the same number of people as listened to its radio broadcasts per week (10 million) within three years. The service proved a useful source of information and news for demonstrators in Iran following the rigged elections there in 2009 (so much so that the authorities unsuccessfully attempted to jam it), and US President Barak Obama gave it a lengthy interview in September 2010, again suggesting that the US government considers the channel an effective tool for direct communication with the Iranian people.
The evident success, cheap running costs, and inability of hostile governments to interfere with the service suggest both a strong case for continuation of the channel, and (from Democratist’s own perspective) for creation of a new similar Russian-language TV service for broadcasts to the former Soviet space.
The last twelve months have been witness to a number of significant setbacks for democratic development and the rule of law in the CIS (not least in Ukraine and Belarus - right on the EU’s doorstep). Russia itself has undergone some mild liberalization of the print media over the past few years, but TV channels continue to function as conduits of state propaganda (for example, ex-spook and aspirant regime politician Anna Chapman is about to start hosting her own show on REN-TV).
The BBC’s Russian radio service does a good job, but recent history (e.g. the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004) suggests it is television which has the critical impact, especially during a crisis. Since many people possess satellite dishes in the region, and the BBC already has a good reputation theere, it seems that a significant audience already exists for such a channel, given the opportunity.
Compared with other forms of foreign aid, the creation of such a service would be very cheap, and provide reliable news in the face of state censorship to a region where democratic development is by no means assured.