Q&A: Head of BBC Persian discusses reporting from Iran, the role of social media

Jan. 25, 2013, 11:37 p.m.

Sadeq Saba became the head of BBC Persian Services in 2010, just one year after the regime in Iran accused the BBC of helping to foment unrest through biased reporting in the aftermath of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection. Saba previously served as BBC Iranian affairs analyst for more than a decade and has reported on three Iranian presidential elections.

He spoke to The Daily on Friday shortly before a campus screening of the BBC Persian documentary “The Ayatollah’s Seal,” which shows Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader, as the individual truly ruling Iran. The screening intends to draw attention to the importance of free speech and the safety of journalists.


Please tell us about your background and your career. After obtaining your Ph.D., did you go straight into journalism?

No, I started as a lawyer, actually. I was a solicitor in my hometown in northern Iran, but then I found law a little bit, I would say, not attractive, so I wanted something more challenging. So I decided to become a journalist. I think doing journalism, there is a lot of excitement, and you travel around the world, and you report about important events. So I’m enjoying being a journalist.


So you started off in the BBC?

Yes, I joined the BBC in 1990 as a producer for radio, and then later I became BBC’s Iranian affairs analyst, and four years ago, when the BBC started a television service in Persian, I became head of the BBC Persian service.


The Iranian government not only prohibits the BBC from having an office in Tehran, but the regime has also tried to jam the station’s satellite signals. Is that the government’s stance toward all foreign channels that try to broadcast in the country? Could you tell me about the difficulties BBC faces broadcasting there, given these circumstances?

Well, the Iranian government usually doesn’t like people in Iran to have access to alternative sources of news, so they usually want to restrict freedom of expression in Iran, but they find BBC broadcasts especially disturbing for themselves. So they do whatever they can to stop the Iranian people from listening to BBC, or watching BBC television, or even having access to our internet. But we do our best to find ways of making it possible for people to have access to BBC content. So there is a war going on in a way: Iranians try to jam us; we find alternative satellites, for instance.


Why do you think the government is so hostile toward the BBC?

I think, basically, what the Iranian government wants is to have a monopoly on what Iranian people should know about Iran and the world. They don’t like people to have access to independent and alternative sources of news. And BBC is providing that alternative source of news, and I think the Iranian government doesn’t like it. The fact of the matter is, BBC has been broadcasting to Iran over 70 years. BBC radio was started 70 years ago, BBC online started more then 10 years ago and our television started four years ago, so despite pressures from the Iranian government, we have always been operating in Iran, from London.


In some ways, the “war” between Iran and the BBC really started in 2009, when the regime accused the BBC of helping to foment unrest following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection through biased reporting. In your view, what role did the BBC actually play in the unrest that followed that election?

I think that people know that after the disputed Iranian presidential in 2009, BBC played a major role in informing the people in Iran — and other Persian speakers around the world — about what was happening in the country. You know the main opposition candidates in that election disputed the result of the election, and they said that there was fraud, massive fraud, but the Iranian government obviously denied there was fraud, and millions of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran and in some other cities to protest against the result of the election. And we were able to broadcast the demonstrations, the alternative views, the views of opposition, and the Iranian government was not happy about what we were doing. So I think that is basically why they don’t like us. But just before the disputed presidential election, I’d been able to go to Iran; I’d been travelling to Iran for many, many years and reporting the events, but I think the demonstrations after that disputed election, in a way, sent a very strong message to the Iranian government, that there was massive discontent in the country, and they didn’t want news organizations like the BBC to broadcast what was happening in the country.


How do not only you, but also your journalists, maintain impartiality?

The BBC operates according to its editorial guideline, which has been there for decades, and BBC Persian is no different from BBC English or BBC’s other language services; we all have one editorial guideline, and according to that editorial guideline, you have to remain impartial, to remain accurate, to remain fair, objective, and report what is happening in the country. We do our best, despite the fact that we are not based in Iran, again to reflect the Iranian government’s views on our channel. We do our best. We monitor all Iranian TV channels, we monitor Iranian newspapers, and whatever they say, usually you can hear them or watch them on our television, on our radio, so we do our best, and as far as our viewers are concerned, we are probably the most important impartial news channel in Iran, and our audiences have been growing, all the time, over the last few years. Actually last year, there was a news survey done in Iran about BBC, how many people were watching BBC Persian, and that survey showed that now, within a couple of years, our viewers have actually doubled in Iran.


And with the Internet, do you think it will be increasingly harder for the government to reign in the media?

I think so. I mean, this day and age, when you have social media, when you have satellite television, where there are all sorts of alternative means available for people to circumvent those restrictions, I don’t think governments can succeed. Especially when you have social media; in the past, regimes could stop a newspaper from publishing an article or close down a radio station, but when you have millions of people using social media, it becomes very, very difficult for any regime to stop people from getting access to alternative sources of news. They are doing their best, but I don’t think they can succeed. I think social media are the worst enemies for regimes that want to restrict freedom of expression.


Please tell me about the documentary that’s being shown today [“The Ayatollah’s Seal”].

The documentary is about how Iran is ruled. A lot of people, in my opinion, have a wrong impression of the Iranian political system. A lot of people think it is the president, and parliamentary president, Ahmadinejad, who is the leader of the country. But that is not true. The true leader of Iran is Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader, and in this documentary, we are trying to show how he and his office are actually ruling in Iran. But I’m also talking about safety of journalists, which is a major issue, not only for BBC Persian, but for journalists around the world. Every year, hundreds of journalists, or at least dozens of journalists every year, are killed; in 2012, more than 100 journalists have been killed around the world. And we are also concerned about the issue of impunity — hardly anybody gets punished for killing journalists — so this is what I’m going to talk about this afternoon in Stanford University.


Do you have any personal experiences, from Iran, being the head of BBC Persian, with the government harassing either you or your family members?

Yeah, I mean, what the Iranian government has been doing over the last couple of years is to put pressure on the relatives of BBC Persian. Usually it is journalists, themselves, who are being put under pressure, but in the case of Iran, because a lot of Iranian journalists are now working outside the country, they put pressure on their families. So myself, and my colleagues in BBC Persian, have been all put in this very difficult situation, where our families have been put under pressure.


My last question is about the film itself. Did you face any technical difficulties when you were filming? Was the documentary filmed in Iran?

No, this movie was made outside of Iran. We used a lot of archived material from Iran, but the film was actually made in London, in our studios, and we also interviewed many people close to Ayatollah Khomeini who now live outside the country; we talked to many experts who could explain how the Ayatollah is ruling Iran. And this film has been received well by our audiences in Iran and around the world, and the Iranian government tried to jam satellite signals on the night we were showing this film in Iran, but people could find other ways of watching this film: on the internet, because our television service is also available on the internet, and also, a lot of people in the country made CDs of this film and distributed around the country, so millions of people have watched this film. And the Iranian government doesn’t like it, because they like to portray Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, as a spiritual leader, somebody who is sacrosanct, and nobody should question his authority, and so they basically didn’t like what we made about him.

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