Nick Muzin, a controversial Republican lobbyist and loyalist to President Donald Trump, holds a contract to provide programming services for Voice of America Persian, the American government-backed media outlet set up to produce journalistic content for the Iranian community around the world.
The government contract, which was awarded last year, is the latest sign that VOA Persian has continued transform into what former employees of the nonprofit news outlet have called “blatant propaganda” designed to promote Trump and regime change in Iran.
Muzin’s lobbying firm, Stonington Global, which was retained by VOA Persian to provide talent booking under a public relations contract that began on May 22, 2019, does not appear to have any journalistic credentials. The firm lists a variety of lobbying and defense procurement services on its website and is run by a team made up largely of former Republican aides. The VOA Persian statement of work stipulates that the contract will include a range editorial development duties.
Muzin, a physician and former aide to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz who also served on the Trump campaign and the transition, was one of the many operatives to move swiftly into lobbying over the last three years, helping both domestic clients and foreign governments curry favor with the administration.
Neither Muzin’s lobbying firm, Stonington Global LLC, nor the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA Persian, responded to a request for comment.
Muzin made headlines early last year for a controversial contract on behalf of Qatar to mend relations with officials in Washington, D.C. Along with his business partner Joey Allaham, a proprietor of high-end kosher restaurants in New York, Muzin collected $3.9 million from the Qatari government to secure meetings and win favor with people known to have connections with Trump. The plan included charting out 250 “influencers,” with Muzin securing payments from his client to the Zionist Organization of America and Mike Huckabee (the former governor of Arkansas who now has ties to the Trump administration as well as Fox) as part of the lobbying effort.
Elliott Broidy, a prominent Republican fundraiser tapped by the United Arab Emirates to lobby the U.S. to sever ties with Qatar, accused Muzin of participating in an alleged Qatari plot to hack his emails. In August, a federal judge in California dismissed Broidy’s lawsuit against Muzin and his lobbying firm on jurisdictional grounds, without ruling on the merits of the case.
Muzin was paid $500,000 by a shell company linked to Russian individuals as part of a lobbying venture to boost an Albanian political party aligned with the Russian government.
Since 1940, the American government has funded media programs as part of a foreign affairs strategy, first as a counter to Nazi Germany during World War II, then through expanded efforts to counter the Soviet Union’s influence around the world, which led to the founding of Voice of America. VOA’s broadcasts into Iran began in the early 1940s, as part of a program known initially as the Farsi Service.
VOA and its affiliates have been governed by presidential appointees under close coordination with the State Department. As the Intercept previously reported, VOA Persian once provided a relatively balanced perspective, reporting stories with mainstream journalistic standards, often even airing segments critical of the U.S.
But the quality of VOA Persian, however, quickly degraded after Trump’s election. Congressional Republicans reshaped the organizational structure, handing enhanced authority to the chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors) that oversees the network.
Kenneth Weinstein, Trump’s pick to lead the agency, simultaneously serves as head of the Hudson Institute, a neoconservative think tank whose experts have repeatedly called for bombing Iran. One of the early appointees brought in to shape the agency’s overhaul, Vincent Trovato, previously worked for Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign.
VOA Persian now provides wall-to-wall positive coverage for hard-line regime change advocates. The network provides reliably favorable coverage of Mojahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, the militant opposition that has worked with Israeli intelligence to carry out assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, even providing a platform for Heshmat Alavi, a fake persona created by MEK. The network’s journalists have also expressed far-right sentiments that have unsettled longtime former VOA Persian reporters, including continued attacks at perceived critics of Trump. Saman Arbabi, one VOA Persian host, mockingly compared the hijab worn by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., to a Ku Klux Klan hood.
In recent days, one VOA Persian host, Masih Alinejad, has appeared on CNN and Fox News and been quoted by major U.S. newspapers to praise Trump’s decision assassinate of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. Many outlets depicted Alinejad as an independent journalist. Responsible Statecraft, a project of the Quincy Institute, noted that every outlet failed to disclose Alinejad’s work for VOA Persian. Alinejad has received payments from the government totaling at least $305,000 since 2015.
Update: January 7, 2020, 3:45 p.m.
After publication, The Intercept received the following statement from VOA spokesperson Bridget Ann Serchak: “The firm was contracted to assist VOA in booking guests in a process that was competitively bid and awarded. The firm is paid on an hourly basis. They are used occasionally (not within the past few months) when they have contacts that our journalists do not.”