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US Persian news service provides critical link

US government-run broadcast enjoys new popularity as Iran blocks other media.

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The Voice of America beams a youth-oriented TV show into Iran each evening, usually a mix of Hollywood releases, music videos, and tips on high-tech gadgets. This week's show featured a weightier topic: how to evade a crackdown on free speech.

"What we're seeing is a new level of cyber warfare," said producer Gareth Conway, referring to the Iranian government's blocking of text-messaging services and Internet sites, and Iranians' attempts to fight back. "We're trying to give viewers updates on technology, how they can continue to communicate with each other."

As protests have erupted over Iran's presidential election, the VOA's Persian-language TV network and a similar BBC service have emerged as a critical new way for Iranians to share information. It is a moment of redemption for the VOA service to Iran, which grew rapidly under the Bush administration but has been dogged by problems.

Unlike some of the U.S. government's other Middle Eastern broadcasting efforts, VOA's Persian News Network is genuinely popular, according to analysts. Iranians have bombarded the satellite network this week with calls, e-mails, and amateur videos of demonstrations. In a sign of their concern, Iranian authorities have tried to jam the VOA and BBC services.

And yet, some analysts say the Persian service has been slow to capitalize on the moment. For example, hours after the presidential voting ended in Iran on Friday, the VOA reported the initial results, then ended its live programming. It did not broadcast fresh material until 16 hours later.

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