The Ideas War between the US and Iran

Maziar Bahari

In this Aug. 1, 2009 file photo released by the semiofficial Iranian Fars News Agency, Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari attends a news conference after his trial in Tehran, Iran. Photo by: AP Photo/Fars News Agency, Hossein Salehi Ara

When the U.S. Treasury Department announced in February that economic sanctions would be imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Iran’s state-owned broadcaster, it cited human rights violations as justification for the unusual move.

“We will also target those in Iran who are responsible for human right abuses, especially those who deny the Iranian people their basic freedoms of expression, assembly and speech,” Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said in unveiling the restrictions, which also applied to Iranian Cyber Police and other institutions involved in monitoring the Internet and producing equipment for jamming foreign broadcasts.

Treasury’s message was clear: IRIB, as the broadcaster is known, is more than a propaganda arm of the Iranian government. It is also, in Treasury’s view, actively complicit in Iranian government efforts to repress dissent.

Iran’s abysmal record on freedom of the press has been documented by advocacy groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, which last year put Iran fourth on its list of the  “10 Most Censored Countries.” Much of the advocacy focus has been on Iran’s jailing of journalists – 45 were in prison at the end of last year, and there are predictions of more repression as the country heads into presidential elections in June.

“This is a regime that has consolidated their power based on preventing information and cracking down on journalists,” said Sherif Mansour, expert on the Middle East region for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The arrests come in waves, especially during election season.”

While police may carry out the arrests, the Treasury Department said IRIB assists in repressing free speech by broadcasting “distorted or false” news reports, and by broadcasting “forced confessions of political detainees,” such as the false confession given by Iranian-Canadian Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari before state media in 2009.

“Iran’s media strategy is more complex than it appears,” wrote CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon in a recent blog. “[T]he Iranian government believes it is engaged in a war of ideas with the West and uses the media to make its case to the global public.”

IRIB, the broadcasting arm, has four international TV channels reaching over 45 countries, eight national channels, and 30 provincial channels in local dialects. It also publishes several magazines and owns a movie production company. Under the February sanctions. IRIB cannot conduct any financial business with a company or individual that has business in the United States. Treasury also said IRIB’s director is included in the sanctions for his “involvement in the Iranian government’s censorship activities.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the sanctions as “the latest series of hostile actions against Iran,” adding that Iran will make every effort to “neutralize the new pressure,” in different Iranian news reports.

Western experts say that international sanctions have had a significant impact on Iran, which is grappling with oil revenues that have fallen 45 percent and high inflation caused by the economic restrictions.

But sanctions so far have not succeeded in achieving their ultimate goal: to win concessions from Iran on its nuclear program. And targeting Iranian state media is not likely to change that, because media are “not linked to Iran’s nuclear enrichment,” said Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, president of the International American Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank on the Middle East.

Currently, there are no IRIB offices in the United States. PressTV, IRIB’s English-language news channel, was available in North America via Galaxy 19 satellite platform but it was dropped after the new sanctions were announced, according to reports from Al-Jazeera. Intelsat, which owns and operates Galaxy 19, said the satellite broadcasts over 250 channels in 40 languages, with content from 66 countries worldwide. A company brochure said that at least 79 percent of the Iranian-American population in the U.S. subscribes to Galaxy 19 channels.

PressTV has reported confirmation that its programming was dropped from North American service.