Press TV

A slick propaganda tool against the West

By Stephanie Coutrix

When the Iranian government launched Press TV in 2007, the global channel said its goal
was to “heed the often neglected voices and perspectives of a great portion of the world”
and to “embrace and build bridges of cultural understanding.”

“The priority was to look and sound like CNN and BBC,” said one former Press TV
journalist. This journalist, who left shortly after Iran’s controversial 2009 elections, said
editors initially sought a credible reputation for the state-funded channel, to make it a
player in the increasingly crowded market of global satellite news channels.

And on occasion, Press TV has operated with journalistic vigor. “I would often monitor
their website,” said Nazila Fathi, a New York Times reporter who was based in Tehran
for 15 years. “Sometimes Press TV had the information first, which wasn’t expected, but
they did.”

But even as the government said the channel was created to build bridges, Press TV’s
bosses gave its 400 staff members another task. “Exposing the plots of propaganda
networks of the enemy is among your duties,” CEO Mohammad Sarafraz told employees
at the channel’s opening ceremony.

It does not take much viewing time to see how that task is translated into Press TV’s
broadcasts. Though the channel offers plenty of timely visuals of breaking news in the
Middle East, much of its programming reflects the often aggressive, hard-line politics of
the Iranian leadership.

“Press TV was purely propaganda, and still is,” said Jamal Dajani, vice president for the
Middle East region at Internews, an international media development organization.

Dajani’s view is a common one among international journalists, as well as some
who have worked for Press TV, only to leave after concluding it was little more than
a “government mouthpiece.”

One high profile example of Press TV’s use by the government was its questioning of
the circumstances of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose murder in
post-election protests in 2009 became an icon for opposition to the Iranian regime.

The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran mandates that “all broadcasting
must exclusively be government-operated.” The channel is owned and funded by the
Iranian government, under the auspices of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
Headquartered in Tehran, with major offices in London and Beirut and freelance
correspondents in other capitals, many of Press TV’s first journalists were hired from
state newspapers, where they were accustomed to avoiding sensitive subjects or anything
critical of the government. Others brought in to the channel, who sought to write more
independently, usually left quickly or were fired.

Perhaps the biggest journalistic purge came after the disputed 2009 elections, when
thousands of Iranians took to the streets in protest. Initially, many people first found
out about the action through Press TV. But the government acted quickly to suppress
the coverage, arresting both local and international journalists. Within Press TV, those
considered sympathetic to the government’s opposition were fired and some of their
programming was removed from online archives. A handful who were not fired gave in
their resignation and used other media platforms to express their indignation.

Press TV presents hourly news updates and a variety of longer programs, including
documentaries and talk shows on global politics, African affairs, women’s issues and
Islamic life. The uprisings in the Arab world have dominated headlines in early 2011,
with plenty of footage of outraged populations voicing their protests.

These reports often ran with the logo Islamic Awakening, a term used by Iran’s Supreme
Leader Ali Khamenei during the Egyptian protests. Khamenei’s spin on events was
that the 1979 Iranian revolution had “inspired” the Egyptians and others in the Middle
East. Press TV repeated that theme often, even though there was no obvious connection
between the 2011 revolutions and the Iranian one 32 years earlier. Indeed, many analysts
have emphasized that this year’s protests were largely focused on issues such as jobs and
government corruption, with little connection to Islam.

During the Egyptian protests, Press TV took ample opportunities to criticize the United
States. The network consistently reminded viewers that the U.S. provided more aid to
the Egyptian autocratic leader than to any other in the Middle East. Criticism of other
western countries is also very straightforward. In the program “Why do they want to
silence us?” viewers are invited to share their opinions on western politics and the media.
In the April 14th program, the focus was on Press TV’s ability to give perspective on
world issues, as opposed to the “propaganda on BBC”.

Last December a controversy erupted when the channel aired a story about Sakineh
Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for
murdering her husband.

Press TV pulled Ashtiani and her son out of jail, took them to their home and filmed
her talking about the killing, then returned her to prison. Family members and human
rights activists protested that it was the second time Ashtiani was put in front of cameras
to make a false confession. The director of one human rights group in Iran called it
a “theatrical melodrama,” and “an attempt to try to convince the international public
opinion that she is guilty.”

The program likely had little impact on international public opinion. But it did serve
as a very public reminder that, despite the early suggestions of creating a new, Iranian
CNN or BBC, Press TV is on too tight a government leash to build credibility as an
independent purveyor of news.

Stephanie Coutrix, Farhod Family and Alex Luchsinger reported on Press TV.