Twenty-five years after the Islamic revolution that ousted
the Shah, it was the conservatives who swept back to power
in February's general election in Iran. But the turnout figures
were disputed. As Iranians went to the polls, the BBC Persian
Service received emails from television viewers who had
seen pictures of ballots (even pictures of themselves) from
the previous election. With national media controlled by
the hardliners, it was the BBC that brought news and analysis
to local people. Although the BBC Persian Service is not
allowed to have its own correspondents in Iran, it has built
a network of local journalists.
'On polling day we provided a comprehensive picture from
a dozen cities,' says Behrouz Afagh, Head of EurAsia Region.
'Our Talking Point programme Sedaye Shoma (Your Voice)
brought former foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi and a hardline
conservative in Tehran together with a well-known analyst
in London, answering emails and live telephone calls from
Iranians. It's the kind of programme we take for granted
in Europe but it broke new ground in Iran.'
During unrest six months earlier, it was not just the students
who started sending emails to the BBC but the vigilantes
who were attacking them. A rich debate within the country
is taking place on the BBC. 'We have become virtual space
for alternative intellectual thinking in Iran,' says Behrouz Afagh.
'Listeners and online users are not simply voting yes or no
but coming up with profound analysis and ideas.'
Among the biggest stories of the year in Iran was the
awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to an Iranian Muslim
lawyer, Shirin Ebadi. The Iranian human rights campaigner
was among the high-profile guests to appear on Talking Point.
Of the BBC, she had this to say: 'We hear from the
BBC news and views that we can't get from our own media.
The BBC is often the first in reporting the important news
in our country. Indeed I have often heard it first from the
BBC if a colleague has been arrested.'
The BBC is enabling Iranians to hear about the debate
taking place across the Islamic world about reform and
modernisation. With interactive sites in key languages such
as Arabic, Urdu and Indonesian in addition to Persian, and
with services in other regional languages, it offers a
perspective that no other broadcaster can match. 'The
biggest debate you can have in the Muslim world is not
between Islam and the West - it is the debate inside the
Islamic world itself,' explains Behrouz Afagh. 'It's ironic that
it should be the BBC that provides the forum to achieve
this. We can tell an Egyptian, for instance, about the ideas
that are being discussed in Iran or Turkey. That is simply
not available elsewhere.'
The scene in an internet café in Tehran illustrates how swiftly
contemporary life in Iran is being transformed by online
culture. A teenage boy absorbed in an online conversation
sits next to a woman making a cut-price internet telephone
call to a friend abroad. With similar cafés springing up in most
towns and cities, an estimated seven million Iranians now
have access to the internet - as many as one in ten people
in a country where the media remain tightly regulated.
The BBC's Persian website, bbcpersian.com, has grown
into a major service. There are now 600,000 users, of whom
nearly half live in Iran itself. Page impressions have tripled in
a year, to more than 10 million a month. Thousands of emails
were received for coverage of events such as the Bam
earthquake, the parliamentary elections and the deaths
of Laleh and Ladan Bijani, the Iranian conjoined twins.
By investing in new media, the BBC is reaching a younger
generation of Persian speakers who are unlikely to listen
to radio news coverage. The interactive page launched
in November proved an instant success, attracting 5,000
emails and phone messages a month. The HIV/Aids season
broke many taboos. Many emails came in from people
who were HIV positive, including a young couple who
were about to get married. Iranian officials spoke privately
of how effective the season had been and launched
their own campaign.
'We have been really successful in attracting young people,
who are much more familiar with using the internet than
listening to international radio,' says Persian Online Editor,
Lara Petrossians. 'Our site brings them news, analysis,
entertainment, arts and culture, with audio and pictures.
It provides a place for them to express their views. We are
getting a lot of feedback, which has helped us to improve
There is a large audience among expatriate Iranian
communities in the US, Canada and Europe, and a new
dialogue is taking place via the BBC. 'We launched an online
conversation between two young people - one who has
lived in the US since he was a small boy and the other in
Iran. Their dialogue was illuminating and it generated lots
of views from America and Iran,' says Petrossians.
The BBC's contribution to Afghanistan was acknowledged by
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special representative.
'The Pashto and Dari (Persian) Services of the BBC have
rendered an immense service to the people of Afghanistan,'
he said. He expressed the wish that the BBC's news and
education programmes will continue 'to animate debate
and discussion - crucial in the years ahead - as Afghans
try to rebuild their country and a vibrant civil society'.
President Karzai and the former king, Zahir Shah, were
among those who were interviewed during the year, and
special programmes were broadcast from the Loya Jirga,
or Grand National Council.
A more tailored schedule in Pashto and Persian was
introduced to take advantage of new high quality FM
frequencies in 14 cities. Programme makers responded
to the rapid changes taking place in Afghan society in order
to meet growing competition from new commercial stations.
Issues such as women's rights, the development of civil
society and business now take their place alongside news
and analysis. The Talking Point forum enables ordinary
listeners to question government officials, ministers and
even rival warlords.
In Kabul, the latest research shows that 60% of the
population are BBC listeners – 830,000 people in a city
whose population has been rising fast, swollen by returning
refugees. In Mazar-e-Sharif the initial findings suggest figures
are even higher, indicating the special place the BBC has in
the affections of audiences in Afghanistan.