Iran: Not the most reliable source
It's pretty obvious the Iranian government is tuning in to the country's just-launched 24-hour news channel
MICHAEL PETROU | July 30, 2007 |
Facing growing international isolation and discontent among its own citizens, the Iranian government has begun a media campaign to bolster its image abroad -- and stifle dissent at home. The pro-reform Ham Mihan newspaper was shut on July 3, and the Iranian Labour News Agency, which has been critical of the government, was closed on July 11. The two banned outlets lengthen the list of more than 100 news organizations that have been silenced since 2000.(Some have relaunched, often under different names.)Iran's culture minister, Hossein Saffar Harandi, justified the clampdown by claiming, "There are some signs of a creeping coup in the press." And Ali Akbar Javanfekr, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's press officer, said, "As long as some publications serve the agendas of parties and power-seeking groups, authorities should intervene."
But even as Iranian authorities extinguish independent or critical domestic media, they have created an international English-language news network that broadcasts 24 hours a day. Press TV, launched last week, is based in Tehran but has journalists around the world. Its London correspondent is Yvonne Ridley, who converted to Islam after being captured by the Taliban in 2001. She now praises the late Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord responsible for the Beslan school massacre, as a martyr.
Press TV's self-described goal is to break the "stranglehold" of Western media. At a ceremony to mark the network's launch, Ahmadinejad said the channel should stand "beside the oppressed nations of the world but not make up news in their favour." Staff at Press TV say they have editorial independence and that no government officials tell them what to put on the air. However, Gholam-Hossein Elham, a government spokesman, said the news channel is necessary to confront the psychological war waged by the Western media. Press TV's website closely follows the government line and criticism of the regime is largely absent.
Recent government-imposed fuel rationing has led to rioting and attacks on gas stations, for example, but coverage on the website doesn't mention this. It does report Ahmadinejad's claim that fuel rationing will make Iran "invulnerable," and repeats the assurances of a tourism official who said that recreational trips won't be significantly affected. The network's analysis is also marred by conspiracy theories and anti-Western paranoia. An article about this month's failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow suggests they were part of an elaborate British plot to frame the "Muslim nation."
"In the first act of this play, they enrage Muslims by knighting Rushdie and then they orchestrate a terrorist attack on an airport, which has nothing to do with Rushdie or the ongoing war, claiming Muslims are out to avenge Salman Rushdie's knighthood and the Iraq war," writes Hedieh Ghavidel on Press TV's website.
Most of Press TV's news reports are factually accurate. Even the appointment of William Elliott as the new RCMP commissioner is covered. But errors, presumably intentional, are also published. One story on the website, for example, claims that the Lebanese government is trying to convert the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp into an American military base, but provides no evidence to back up this allegation.
Only five days after launching, Press TV invited me to take part in a televised panel discussion about journalism in the Middle East. I argued that the biggest challenge facing journalists in the region is a lack of freedom and cited, among other examples, the case of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian photojournalist who was raped, tortured and murdered by Iranian officials after she was arrested for taking photographs outside the Evin prison in Tehran.
To his credit, the host and chief press officer, Shahab Mossavat, did not interrupt or silence me. He called my comments "offensive" to Iran but pointed out that I was given free rein to say what I wished by Press TV. He then steered the conversation toward obstacles confronted by journalists in Israel.
Press TV may find a receptive audience among those ready to believe the worst about the West. But Iranians, especially the young and the educated, must rank among the hungriest and most sophisticated consumers and analysts of news in the world. Satellite dishes, officially banned, flourish in the backyards of those who can afford them, and Persian-language blogs -- many explicitly critical of the government -- number in the tens of thousands. Most Iranians will watch and read news organizations that earn their trust. It is difficult to believe Press TV will do so.