RADIO FARDA STARTS PROGRAMS AMIDST CRITICISM BY EXPERTS

PARIS 21 Dec. (IPS) The United States new radio for Iran started Saturday its 24 hours a day program with a message from President George W. Bush sending "warm greetings" to the Iranian people while urging the Iranian government to embrace freedom and democracy.

"We continue to stand with the people of Iran in your quest for freedom, prosperity, honest and effective government, judicial due process and the rule of law", Mr. Bush said in his inaugural message, assuring that Washington would "continue to call on the government of Iran to respect the will of its people and be accountable to them".

Radio Farda, or Radio Tomorrow, jointly produced by the Voice of America and the Prague-based Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, has drawn sharp criticism, both from dissidents in Iran and from some Voice of America staff members, who said it risked muting a vital outlet for people seeking political change in Iran.

Contrary to Radio Azadi, the Persian service of the RFE-RL, which, due to serious debates, round tables and analysis involving respected Iranian scholars and intellectuals from both inside and outside the country, had attracted a large audience among Iranian elite listening to serious foreign radio stations, Radio Farda tries to appeal to young people by playing more music, both Western and Persian, and less news.

Many Iranian and American experts have objected to the decision, taken by the Broadcasting Board of Governors that supervise all the US government-sponsored media networks, on the basis that a sister radio station aimed at young Arab audience and named Radio Sawa (Radio Together, in Arabic) had met with unexpected success.

"The Broadcasting Board of Governors said it made the decision in the name of ratings. It cited its Radio Sawa, another pop music station that replaced the Voice of America's Arabic service, as being listened to by 41 percent of a youth sample in Amman, Jordan, as opposed to 10 percent who listened to the British Broadcasting Corp. The board should ask itself which group is more important to the Arab future -- those who tune in to hear Eminem and Britney Spears or the smaller number who seek out the news and thoughtful commentaries of the BBC?, asked Mr. James Critchlow, a former collaborator with RFE-RL, the USIS and the Board for International Broadcasting.

The U.S. decision to kill Radio Freedom broadcasts to Iran in favour of pop music programs might seem merely silly were it not a slap in the face to the youths demonstrating for reform in the streets of Tehran, he observed, confirmed by Mr. Ali Akbar Mehdi, an Iranian analyst.

"I donít have a positive view concerning the new broadcast. Coming at a time that the Iranian regime deprives more and more the youngsters from access to free information, that independent publications are shut down by the authorities, that censorship is increasing more forcefully, I donít think it is wise to replace serious programs with music. Sincerely speaking, I think the ruling authorities in Iran would even welcome to see that 65 per cent of the American broadcasting to Iran be filled with music, which the youngsters can have access anyway, not forgetting that already 13 different Iranian radio and television stations outside Iran are broadcasting this kind of music".

The United States has grown increasingly concerned about Iran in recent weeks after intelligence reports suggested that it was pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

In his message, Mr. Bush did not directly address the Iranian nuclear program, nor expressed any support for the Iranian reformists. He instead stressed that Iran could still forge better ties with the United States.

"The people of Iran want to build a freer, more prosperous country for their children, and live in a country that is a full partner in the international community", Mr. Bush said. ENDS RADIO FARDA STARTS 211202