How the BBC gave heart to the uprising

The new Persian TV channel was a vital – uncensored – source of information for six million Iranians, Jerome Taylor reports
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The Independent Online

Sleep is a luxury that few reporters from the BBC's new Persian language satellite channel have been able to afford over the past two weeks. With Iran engulfed in the worst civil unrest since its Islamic Revolution 30 years ago, the fledgling channel has swiftly become one of the most important conduits of uncensored information inside a country where the truth is now just as brutally patrolled as the streets.

Forbidden from operating inside Iran, the station began beaming into Iranian homes from a studio in central London six months ago and usually broadcasts eight hours a day. But over the past fortnight staff have worked double time to transform BBC Persian TV into virtually a 24-hour rolling news channel.

"It's been truly exhausting," admits Pooneh Ghoddoosi, the glamorous but visibly drained 37-year-old presenter of Nowbat-e Shoma (Your Turn), which encourages Farsi speakers to phone in and discuss the issues affecting them. "We've all been doing 18-hour days to keep up." Usually Nowbat-e Shoma broadcasts once a week but with so many Iranians desperate to tell the outside world what is happening, producers have been scrambling to make the show a daily occurrence. It is now the station's most popular programme by far.

Like any other news organisation, BBC Persian relies on the astonishing bravery of ordinary citizens inside Iran. With foreign reporters largely expelled or confined to their bureaus and many local journalists already languishing in jail, the task of reporting the news has fallen to the millions of young, tech-savvy Iranian protesters, armed with video phones.

When the protests and street killings were at their peak last weekend, BBC Persian was receiving 10,000 emails a day and 10 videos a minute from people inside Iran. The Iranian authorities have since employed their own technology to make mobile phone calls and text messages to Britain all but impossible, but the emails, photos and videos keep coming in.

Sina Motalebi, a bespectacled 36-year-old former newspaper journalist who left Iran in 2003 after he was jailed for blogging, is one of many tasked with sifting through the abundance of material sent from Iran, which the industry calls "user-generated content".

"When the station was launched we were keen to get Iranians to send in user-generated content but most of what came in was things like footage of their holidays abroad," he recalls. "But since the election we have been bombarded with genuine editorial content which has given the world a real sense of what is actually happening."

In other words rather than stifle the truth, Iran's clampdown on foreign reporters has actually turned ordinary Iranians into an enormous database of willing citizen journalists. And while websites like Twitter and YouTube are only really accessible to technology-literate urbanised Iranians, huge numbers of poorer Iranians have access to satellite.

The fact that uncensored and impartial Farsi language news is now clandestinely watched by an estimated six million Iranians inside Iran itself has clearly rattled the regime which has been trying (and largely failing) to block the BBC's satellite signal by firing white noise at their transponders in space. At evening prayers, imams have regularly denounced the corporation as a tool of Western imperialism and when Iranian state television paraded captured protesters earlier this week many of them "repented" by blaming the BBC and Voice of America for encouraging them to hit the streets.

Rob Beynon, the station's head of programming, insists coverage has remained scrupulously impartial. "Although much of the videos we receive are brilliant, vivid and raw images, we have to be careful how they are used. We're not YouTube. We are the BBC and have to remain entirely impartial and objective." Most videos and images are only broadcast if the network can corroborate them with separate footage or testimony and the channel's output is strictly governed by the BBC's standard editorial guidelines.

But for some of the young Iranian producers – many of whom have spent less than a year in Britain – remaining detached from the violence befalling their friends and family is a tall order. "The day the footage of Neda's death came through was awful," recalled one journalist, referring to video of a dying Neda Agha-Soltan, reportedly shot dead by Iranian security forces. "There were so many tears, people were so angry."

But Amir Azimi, a former newspaperman who now edits Page 2, a Newsnight-esque political discussion programme, says the network's journalists know they have to treat the protests in Iran like any other story. "I tell the younger journalists that we are like doctors. Imagine if you had to do an operation on your best friend. You must not let emotions get in the way or else you won't be able to do your job."