On Nov. 20, Manoto TV, a popular satellite network run by the Iranian diaspora in London and broadcast into Iran, announced that it would end its operations in January after its sponsor pulled support.
The cessation of Manoto’s operation is regrettable for those who wish to see a free Iran, but the network can take solace in that it has left a permanent and positive mark on the Iranian people. The U.S. government should be taking steps to fill the vacuum Manoto leaves behind by boosting the quality of Voice of America Persian (VOA). But some changes will be necessary if this is to happen.
In Iran, television remains the most popular medium. All television networks there are government-run, so, the vast majority of Iranians in cities and villages own satellite dishes at home to receive foreign broadcasting, even though it is illegal. The religious orthodoxy imposed on entertainment products on the public channels turned Iranians toward foreign broadcasting, despite the risks. This has helped Iranians receive news and commentary not censored through the Islamic Republic’s filter. It has also exposed them to alternative systems of government.
One of this article’s authors served as the director of the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, the agency that oversaw VOA operations, and helped set up its Persian television network. The other was living in Iran and a recipient of its product, witnessing how much VOA was changing Iranians’ understanding of politics and exposing them at that time to cultural changes outside Iran.
Senior diplomats and political figures from the former Warsaw Pact states have remarked, since the Cold War’s end, how important VOA and Radio Free Europe were to their nations’ hopes for an end to Communist rule and the elected governments that followed. For the first few years of its operation, VOA Persian had the same effect and goal.
But unlike during the Cold War, VOA Persian lacked consistency. In the 2010s, it lost its popularity in Iran. Its production quality failed to keep up with that of other networks, and it took a sharp turn away from criticizing the Islamic Republic and toward instead supporting reformists at a time when Iranians were giving up on reformism and instead seeking regime change.
Manoto TV, in contrast, began its operations in 2010 with an openly anti-Islamic-Republic stance. Its political programs would air videos filmed on phones by Iranians inside of Iran, documenting everyday atrocities of the regime, such as violent confrontations with young women over wearing the hijab. They would expose stories of massive corruption leaked by bureaucrats inside Iran.
Most recently, Iranians recorded videos of themselves expressing support for Israel against Hamas, which Manoto TV publicized. The story made its way to Israel’s Channel 14. Its programs also included culture. Iranians inside the country maintain a strong connection with their diaspora communities, and Manoto TV helped them maintain and strengthen this bond. Meanwhile, its programs went beyond contemporary issues and included documentaries on Iranian history, cultural and political, drawing a contrast between Iran’s flawed past, with its positive trajectory on the one hand and its extremely dark present on the other.
With the decline of VOA Persian, Manoto TV’s only competition was BBC Persian, whose pro-regime slant has earned it the nickname “Ayatollah BBC” among Iranians. Therefore, Manoto TV, with its mix of history, anti-regime politics, and culture, and its high production value, became indisputably the most popular network in Iran.
Read the rest at The Hill.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.
Shay Khatiri is a senior fellow and the VP of development at Yorktown Institute.