The BBC World Service is to press ahead with the launch of a Persian-language TV channel next week that has been described by Iranian authorities as ‘suspicious and illegal’.
The free-to-air satellite channel, which goes live at 1.30pm London time on Wednesday 14 January, will broadcast news, cultural and documentary programming for eight hours a day to about 100 million Farsi speakers in Iraq, Afghanistan and the surrounding region.
According to today’s Guardian, the Iranian authorities in Tehran are “deeply alarmed” about the £15m-a-year project, funded by the Foreign Office, describing the channel as a “suspicious and illegal channel working against the interests of the Islamic republic”.
But outgoing BBC World Service director Nigel Chapman said today that he did not sense any hostility towards the new channel when he last visited Iran – and stressed that the “door is open” to the Iranian government to appear on the channel.
“I think they are waiting to see what it is like,” he told journalists at a press conference in London today.
“When I was there a year and a half ago, we spent some time talking to officials there. There’s interest, curiosity and a holding of cards close to the chest which is quite understandable.
“I didn’t sense any hostility towards it. I sensed a wait-and-see attitude.”
‘You can’t block 20 million people’
BBC Persian will employ 100 journalists and hopes to reach an audience of 20 million within two years, despite satellite television being illegal in Iran, where most Persian speakers live.
Chapman said that despite the ban, satellite TV was widespread in the country, even in some of its poorest regions.
The World Service estimates that about 40 per cent of the population, some 20 million people, have access to satellite broadcasts.
“The proof of the pudding will be in the use and we’ll have to see in the end how many people watch it,” Chapman said.
“We don’t see any great impediment – we think a significant number of people will watch it.”
He added: “No one’s ever successfully managed to block access to 20 million people.
“There’s been attempts in the past and the authorities occasionally have crackdowns on the possession of a dish but the facts are that if you go to Tehran and you go to other cities in Iran they’re everywhere.”
Chapman said the channel would report a broad range of views from Iran – including that of government officials and dissident groups.
“In the end it’s up to them [the government] but the door is genuinely open to them,” Chapman said.
“It’s not in our interests for our journalism to be partial and selective. The audience is not stupid.”
He added: “If the president of Iran would like to do an interview with this channel we would be more than very pleased.
“I think it would be quite a scoop for the channel. But I think on balance it would be quite unlikely.”
Correspondent banned from Tehran
BBC Persian’s programmes will be broadcast from the BBC studios in Broadcasting House in London, with Farsi-speaking correspondents based around the world in locations including Beirut, Dushanbe, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Kabul and Washington.
The Iranian government has refused the BBC permission to have a Farsi-speaking journalist in Tehran.
Chapman said negotiations with the Iranian authorities to allow access had been “reasonably limited”.
“We’ve repeatedly asked for access for a Farsi-speaking journalist and the authorities have always declined,” he said.
“They’re not always incredibly clear about the reasons why – they just don’t want it.”
The BBC’s Farsi-language website, BBCPersian.com, is partially blocked in Iran but Chapman said the block varied from one internet service provider to another, and the site was available in cultural centres and universities.
The BBC World Service, which opened a 24-hour Arabic TV news channel last year, is looking to launch further foreign-language channels in the long term – but Chapman said a lot depended on funding.
The World Service receives a £270m-a-year grant-in-aid from the Foreign Office, which is renegotiated every three years.
“In the longer run, I believe that the World Service will need to have other language television channels but there’s no funding for that at the moment,” Chapman said.
“That will be part of a longer-term conversation with the Government. We don’t have any specific plans nor do we have the funding.”