Profile: Golnaz Esfandiari of Radio Farda
How a pint-sized workaholic revamped RFE/RL's Prague-based Iranian service to include listeners and even dogs
Golnaz Esfandiari devours a dozen newspapers piled up on her desk each morning then plows through more news online and a few hundred emails and text messages.
And all that's before 8am.
Since becoming chief editor of Radio Farda a year ago, Esfandiari has had one mission: to transform the 24-hour Persian-language news and music station into the best source of information on Iran in the world.
"We still have a long road ahead of us," Esfandiari said in the glass-encased headquarters of Radio Free Europe -- to which Farda belongs -- at the top of Wenceslas Square in Prague. "I am doing my best so that we produce good, interesting and radio-friendly reports that are objective and balanced."
Improvement means admitting that the station had its weaknesses.
"Before I joined Farda, I thought there [were] little story telling elements" in some broadcasts and "very little or almost no interaction with listeners."
Radio Farda's challenge, to report on a country where the government brutally silences critics and censors both public and privately owned media, is one similar to that of each of the networks under the umbrella of Radio Free Europe, the US government-supported broadcaster.
The station’s focus on human rights -- a trademark of Radio Free Europe's broadcasts -- causes the Iranian government to regularly call Radio Farda a national security threat. The government jams Farda's radio waves and blocks access to its website. Radio Farda journalists who have visited Iran have had passports taken away and been prevented from leaving the country and detained.
But Radio Farda (which means tomorrow in Persian) faces additional obstacles. Esfandiari tries to combat skepticism that some Iranians might feel towards a US-backed enterprise by providing professional, objective reporting that represents diverse perspectives left out of reports from inside Iran.
She craves legitimacy.
"Nobody, nobody, tells us, 'You have to report on this or do that,'" Esfandiari said in response to critics who call the station "the CIA radio."
"We are sticking to the principles of professional journalism; we are trying to be objective," she said.
Esfandiari, 38, stands around five-feet tall with a delicate frame, dark bangs splitting the middle of her forehead and large, glassy eyes. She has a steady inflection in her voice that reveals little except a commitment to her job.
In the last year, Esfandiari has introduced new programs including a weekly "Special interview" which mimics the BBC's Hardtalk, analytical packages like "Post-Mortem Sessions," during which broadcasters discuss positive and negative points of past reports and "Your Voice is the Voice of Farda," when the station airs listener views on topics like Iran's nuclear program or elections.
She has also added more cultural, health and economic coverage to attract listeners uninterested in only human rights, like stories on Iran's performance in a judo championship and Japan's stake in the Persian Gulf pearl industry, in addition to a report about how prisoners are treated in Iranian jails.
Amir Zamanifar, a Radio Farda moderator who joined the team eight months ago, considers Esfandiari one of his closest friends.
"While working, she knows nobody," he said. "Whenever I see her in the newsroom, she's sitting at the computer, wearing headphones and staring at the screen, listening to one report while editing the other. She is literally a workaholic."
And that means driving her staff a little batty.
"Once I had a quarrel with her, but called her the next day to tell her: Golnaz jaan, I have been at home in peace since morning and there was nobody to nag me so I'm calling you to ask for some insults, because I need a challenge," Zamanifar remembered. Esfandiari didn't hesitate before rattling off a few insults between fits of laughter.
"After work she is like an angel!" said Zamanifar in an email. "But in the office, when she steps away from her computer, you see her nagging or quarreling with somebody."
Childhood disappeared overnight
Esfandiari's cool distance is that of someone who does not presume she can predict the future -- fitting after a turbulent childhood. She was a nine-year-old in Tehran, with internationally educated parents, when mounting discontent with the Shah's monarchy erupted into the Islamic Revolution that thrust Iran into a fundamentalist republic in 1979.
Seemingly overnight, the Iran of Esfandiari's childhood disappeared. Many Iranians left the country. Esfandiari had to move from a co-ed French school to an all-girls religious school. She suddenly had to don a dark headscarf and could not listen to Western music or socialize with boys.
"I did not understand why this was all happening," said Esfandiari. "I remember one cleric on TV said, 'Something from women's hair goes into the eyes of men and makes them excited.' It was like science fiction."
As a teenager, Esfandiari watched on satellite TV as her peers around the world lived without restrictions on what they could wear, the places they could go or with whom they could be seen in public.
"One night I was detained because I was at a party and was dancing and listening to music," she recalled. Although scared, Esfandiari and her friends spent their night in jail laughing at the absurdity of their arrest. "God, what did we do? We didn't steal; we didn't kill anybody. I thought, 'why can't I do normal things?'"
Although the pressures of Iranian society tired Esfandiari, when she moved to Prague to get a master's degree in clinical psychology from Charles University, she never thought she would stay.
However, an opening at Radio Azadi, Farda's predecessor, sparked Esfandiari's interest. She then worked as a broadcaster, news editor and head of the Asia desk at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty until she was asked to lead Farda's staff of over 40.
Though she struggled to learn Czech and missed family back in Iran, Esfandiari loved developing friendships with other foreign students from countries like Namibia, Nepal and India.
"It was a big adventure," she said of experiencing the Czech Republic's transition to a democratic market economy in the 1990s.
And while Esfandiari doesn't have much time to talk with friends in cafés like she used to, she walks -- for exercise, to clear her head, and to and from work. Esfandiari still marvels at Prague's narrow streets and Baroque buildings when the city is quiet early in the morning or late at night.
"Despite the tourists, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chickens and all new shopping centers, there is still something mysterious about Prague," she said.
New day, new proxy
Esfandiari smiles when describing the unpredictable nature of her work. Her team sets up a new proxy website daily, through which Iranians can bypass blocks and access the radio for a few hours until it is shut down. Farda then sets up a new site, announces it on the web and emails the address to Radio Farda subscribers. Listeners also get the station through satellite.
Esfandiari said the effort pays off and Radio Farda's stories do make a difference.
For example, a few months ago, animal rights activists emailed Radio Farda about the government imprisoning dogs because it claimed that according to Islam, dogs are unclean. Farda interviewed dog owners and animal rights activists and posted pictures of the dirty, small jail cells on its website. Just a few weeks later, the dogs were returned to their owners and the prison closed.
Esfandiari said this seemingly small example demonstrates the influence Radio Farda has on the Iranian government.
In addition, Radio Farda covers student protests -- which the Iranian media usually ignores or only briefly mentions as young people acting out -- and cases of people being unfairly detained. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch use Farda's information for their reports. Wanting to appear fair in front of the international community, with this attention, "the Iranian government cannot keep silent," said Esfandiari.
She often gets calls from people who were freed after Farda's reports, thanking her for the help. Positive feedback energizes the self-proclaimed "news junkie" who has no family in Prague, works even at home and said she has little time for a personal life or hobbies.
Negative feedback can also be emboldening.
In 1998, when Radio Free Europe launched Azadi, their first Persian station, out of Prague, Iran withdrew its ambassador from the Czech Republic. Jafar Hashemi, then the Iranian ambassador to the Czech Republic, accused the station of promoting US efforts to "destabilize the Islamic Republic," the BBC reported on November 3, 1998.
"It's having an impact. Otherwise, why would the Iranian government be so sensitive?" Esfandiari asked.
In Middle East Quarterly's Fall 2008 issue, Jeffery Gedmin, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty insisted that "Radio Farda is not anti-Iranian," even though it does promote democracy.
Because Radio Farda is banned in Iran, assessing its impact is difficult. Esfandiari estimated that 13 percent of Iran tunes into Radio Farda, based on telephone polling conducted by the station. A fear factor may lower the numbers, Esfandiari added.
"An inconsistent platform is one of Radio Farda's main problems in convincing people of its legitimacy," Tala Dowlatshahi, a spokesperson for the Paris-based media freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, explained over the phone.
In September 2007, Mohammed Alireza, a blogger on Iranian.com -- an English-language online magazine for the Iranian community worldwide -- argued that in addition to the challenges of a blocked signal, Farda's content was unimpressive. He said Farda's programming was only "silly irrelevant pop songs with the occasional filler of watered-down news that has little substance and reaches us here with a scratchy signal that makes it hard to listen to."
Dowlatshahi, however, said that now Radio Farda is "in the right place" and "has made several steps to work with [the] BBC and other groups to try to build an independent voice within Iran" despite setbacks.
Still, Farda is fighting for its angle within Iran. "We are criticized by some who think we're not harsh enough on the Iranian regime or sometimes they accuse us of being too critical of the Iranian establishment," said Esfandiari. "Some expect us to be an opposition radio, which we're not."
Esfandiari does not take free speech for granted. "I grew up in a country where I couldn't express what was on my mind. We are trying to give a platform to people who don't have one and access to uncensored news is so important.” she said. And she never tires of the exhaustive effort to keep Farda going. Esfandiari said, "I always want more."
Roxanne Emadi is a third-year student at New York University studying journalism and Middle Eastern studies. She is from Seattle, Washington.
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