Thursday, January 26, 2012

Press TV ban "a prelude to war"?

Iran's Press TV has been forced off the air in Britain, and to anyone previously viewing the news channel from the Astra satellite, after Ofcom [Office of Communications] revoked its licence.

The channel has been strongly criticised for broadcasting blatant propaganda and being the mouthpiece of the dictatorial regime in Tehran. But banning the broadcaster may only serve to increase anti-western sentiment in Iran, as well as bolster Islamist feelings of being victimised.


Of course it has to be acknowledged that Iran imposes strict censorship on its own citizens with an official ban on satellite television, though it is widely flouted [Censorship in Iran]. The Internet too is restricted with methods similar to that of China's Great Firewall imposing blocks on sites deemed inappropriate [Internet censorship in Iran].

But there appears to be an issue of double standards as Britain talks about press freedom while banning foreign broadcasters. The reasons behind the ban also do not tally with the fact that channels coming from other totalitarian regimes remain on the air while Iran's Press TV is taken off the air.

China broadcasts to viewers across Europe on the Astra platform with two state run channels CNC and CCTV News. The English speaking news channels are not only funded by the one party state but also heavily censored. And although more subtle than the output seen on Press TV, both Chinese channels broadcast propaganda and skewed news reports.

Iran claims the ban "goes against Britain's claims that it allows free flow of information and supports freedom of the press" [Press TV], and while its website remains accessible through which the channel may be watched, it does have some supporters in some unlikely quarters.


Writing in the Guardian, who describes himself as a "proud Zionist", says the action by Ofcom is "thoroughly deplorable as well as palpably cynical."

He suggests that the blacking out of the Iranian propaganda channel might be a retaliatory move. Alderman points to a US Embassy cable which Wikileaks released in 2010. The cable appears to show that the Foreign Office had looked to use UN sanctions against Press TV after the BBC Persian service was blocked by Tehran [BBC].


But there maybe other reasons for taking Press TV off the air. The ban comes at a time of heightened tensions between the west and Iran. In recent weeks there has been a war of words with the west talking of increased sanctions against the country while Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz.

In response to the threat, which could severely impact the flow of oil from the region,  Britain, France and the US sent several warships into the Persian Gulf on Sunday [22/01/2012] [Telegraph].

A total of six ships led by the 100,000 tonne nuclear power American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln entered the gulf in what was described as a "clear signal" to Tehran. The move could not be clearer, coming only two days after screens went black on Iran's state broadcaster.

Targeting the media

Blacking out broadcasters of enemy states during a time of war is not unusual. During the Kosovo war in the 1990s NATO bombed the Serb Radio and Television headquarters in Belgrade killing 16 employees [BBC / Wikipedia], prompting a debate as to whether broadcasting stations, even if used as a conduit of propaganda, were a legitimate target [Consortium News / Guardian / BBC].

The television station went to air 24 hours later from a secret location, which some suspect might have been the Chinese Embassy which was itself bombed 14 days later. The story is confirmed in detail by three other NATO officers - a flight controller operating in Naples, an intelligence officer monitoring Yugoslav radio traffic from Macedonia and a senior headquarters officer in Brussels. They all confirm that they knew in April that the Chinese embassy was acting as a 'rebro' [rebroadcast] station for the Yugoslav army [VJ] after allied jets had successfully silenced Milosevic's own transmitters [Guardian / Wikipedia].

At the time Defence Secretary William Cohen said the attack was a mistake. "One of our planes attacked the wrong target because the bombing instructions were based on an outdated map." Cohen claimed. The excuse was widely ridiculed and later countered by a source in the US National Imagery and Mapping Agency who described the "wrong map" story as "a damned lie".

Television and radio broadcasters were also targeted during the Gulf War and in April 2003 US aircraft bombed the Baghdad bureau of Qatar satellite TV station Al Jazeera killing a journalist and wounding another despite the US being informed of the office's precise coordinates prior to the incident. Later a memo was leaked which appeared to show the bombing was deliberate, despite claims to the contrary [Wikipedia].

Libyan TV was also targeted by NATO jets during the 2011 air campaign. Striking at transmitters and the state broadcaster's headquarters in the capital Tripoli the bombing only had limited success [Telegraph / Guardian]. The station was ultimately shut down after rebels stormed the facility, though the wave of propaganda continued via radio broadcasts transmitted from Syria [Daily Mail].

Ofcom claims

Press TV has been removed from the airwaves less violently but it is nonetheless a little concerning. Ofcom say that Press TV's practice of running its editorial oversight from Tehran, Iran's capital, is in breach of broadcasting licence rules in the UK. "Ofcom has decided to revoke the licence held by Press TV Limited with immediate effect," the media regulator said in a statement.

Ofcom offered a choice of two remedies saying that the broadcaster either switch editorial control to the UK transfer the broadcasting licence to Iran. "Broadcasting rules require that a licence is held by the person who is in general control of the TV service: that is, the person that chooses the programmes to be shown in the service and organises the programme schedule," Ofcom said. "Ofcom gave Press TV the opportunity to apply to have its operations in Tehran correctly licensed by Ofcom and Ofcom offered to assist it to do so," said the regulator [Guardian].

Nuclear threat

The shutting down of Iran's international television output, at least to much of Europe, comes on the back of a demand for increased sanctions to counter what many nations see as a growing nuclear threat. Iran is believed to be developing nuclear weapons, something it vehemently denies. But the attacks on Iran are coming not only with words and sanctions.

In 2010 the Stuxnet virus attack struck at the heart of Iran's nuclear industry and in the past few months unknown assassins have killed leading scientists. On January 11, a motorcyclist attached a magnetic bomb to the car of Iranian scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan near a college building of Allameh Tabatabaei University in Tehran. He was immediately killed and his driver, who sustained serious injuries, died a few hours later in a hospital [BBC]. Ahmadi Roshan was a chemical engineering graduate working at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility. 

In November 2010 another scientist, Majid Shahriari, was killed the current head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Dr. Fereydoun Abbasi was injured [BBC / Guardian]. Professor Masoud Ali-Mohammadi, a scholar at Tehran University was killed by a bomb in January 2010 [BBC].

Iran has accused the US and Israel of being behind these attacks, though neither nation has admitted responsibility. Nonetheless the pressure against Tehran is increasing and with the removal of a major propaganda tool. Iran also claim that Britain is behind the jamming of other transmissions [Press TV].

Conflicting opinions

In technical terms, as laid out in the broadcasting act. Ofcom was within its rights to pull the channel from the air. Under section 362(2) of the Act, the provider of the service for the purposes of holding a licence is the person with general control over which programmes are comprised in the service1. So by failing to declare that Tehran rather than London was its editorial base, Press TV gave Ofcom the ammunition to bring the channel down.

As Jody Sabril writes on the The Huffington Post website, Press TV has done itself no favours and failed its employees. But while Press TV has flouted the letter of the law, it seems suspicious that it has taken several years to act against the broadcaster. Furthermore for a regulator that has been criticised for failing to regulate other parts of British broadcasting, this decision creates more suspicion. In particular Ofcom has been pressured to investigate whether the parent company of News International, News Corporation, was still the "fit and proper" owner of a controlling stake in the satellite broadcasting company British Sky Broadcasting [BSkyB] following the News International phone hacking scandal.


Some suggest it is "payback" for the attack on the British Embassy last year [GlobaResearch]. Meanwhile others maintain that it was a decision over the views broadcast on the station [Forbes]. It may also have as much to do with Press TV failing to pay a £100,000 fine imposed by Ofcom over the broadcast of an interview with reporter Maziar Bahari, conducted while in custody and under duress [IBTimes].

On BBC's Today programme [audio] Yvonne Ridley, a former war correspondent who works for Press TV, insists the closure of the channel is essentially an act of censorship and denies that the channel is a mouthpiece for the Iranian government.

"Prelude to war"

Meanwhile Xinhua, China's state propaganda mouthpiece, asserts that the closure "could lead to further deterioration of diplomatic relations between the two countries".

This could certainly be the case. Whatever the reasons are behind Press TV's licence revocation, it will certainly raise concerns for other broadcasters of dubious output including China Central Television, Xinhua's CNC and Russia's state owned Russia Today channel. Iran has suggested ban is a "prelude to war", and while this may be a little exaggerated the pressure against Iran is certainly mounting.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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