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Annual Review 2003/04
A year in review
Iran and Afghanistan

Election posters, Iran
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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.'

Iran goes online

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,, 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 our coverage.'

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.

At the heart of life in Afghanistan

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.

Bam, Iran Many voices, one world Woman, Tehran, Iran
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A year in review
Iran and Afghanistan
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