ir: Asking the Persians to roll out the red carpet

Nigel Chapman, director of the BBC World Service, travelled this month to the annual Asian Broadcasting Union Conference in Tehran. It was a rare chance to meet key advisers in the Iranian government and discuss the arrival in 2008 of the BBC’s Persian TV service In a small office in downtown Tehran we spot an interesting piece of paper on the desk of a member of the team that supports President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s advisers on media and the press. It is a print-out of the latest front page of the BBC Persian website; the news about Pakistan’s state of emergency takes centre stage. The team reads the site every day, says the official, and on occasion, copies of stories go directly to the President. Yet in a block of flats a stone’s throw away it would be impossible to access the site, just as it was in our hotel. That’s because the special committee that oversees access to electronic media in Iran ordered its blocking in January 2006.It is similar with access to internationally produced satellite television in Iran. Officially, it is illegal to own a dish, but a senior official from the state broadcaster tells us that he believes that about 20-30 per cent of weekly television viewing in Iran is of channels produced abroad, including the news programmes from VOA (Voice of America). This in a country that has had no formal diplomatic relations with the US for 25 years and where posters calling for the death of America adorn the sides of high-rise flats.It is clear that Iran is a country comfortable living with ambiguity. It is also a place where the levers of power are not transparent. Whole layers of government are unelected and support a very powerful theocratic tier that does not have to suffer the hurly-burly of public scrutiny and potential loss of office. From the perspective of a Western media company, it makes dealing with the Iranian authorities a fascinating challenge.

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