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MEDIA-IRAN: New TV Channel to Focus on Iraq, Shia Issues

Kimia Sanati

TEHRAN, Jul 4 2007 (IPS) - Iran’s newly launched English language satellite television channel ‘Press TV’ will focus its coverage on difficult issues in the Middle East such as the United States’ occupation of neighbouring Iraq and the Shiite question.

"Iran and the Shiites are now in the centre of attention of the world media and Press TV intends to present an approach different from that of the western media to international developments. Issues such as (claims of) establishing security and democracy in Iraq and the U.S. military&#39s invasion of other countries will be among the issues analysed by Press TV network," Mohammad Sarafraz, who heads Press TV, said at a press conference on Monday.

Press TV was inaugurated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the same day, pledging to make a distinction between "truth and lies, selfishness and seeking god, love of mankind and those threatening and oppressing them and transparent in the eyes of the world,’’ the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The news network, Ahmadinejad said, must be on the side of the oppressed peoples of the world and be the standard bearer for peace, friendship and lasting security. The President had personally supported the idea of establishing the news network in spite of the government&#39s budgetary limitations, Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) quoted Ezzatollah Zarghami, head of Iran&#39s state-run broadcasting organisation IRIB, as saying at the opening ceremony.

Some saw irony in Ahmadinejad’s inaugural speech given a background where dissenting newspapers and media are under constant threat of ban and their journalists of imprisonment. On Tuesday, the newspaper ‘Ham Mihan’ run by Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, former mayor of Tehran and leader of the ‘Servants of Construction’ (Kargozaraan), a pro-reforms party, was banned. Karbaschi was himself acquitted by a court earlier.

Reporters Without Frontiers, the international media watchdog, in a new report, has declared Iran as the country with the highest number of journalists in jail in the Middle East. Currently at least six journalists are known to be languishing in various prisons – three of them sentenced in June for covering a peaceful demonstration.

‘’The Iranian regime is one of the most repressive in the world towards the media," the press freedom organisation said. "Independent journalists are closely watched and constantly harassed. Arrests are frequent, and months can go by before the place of detention and charges are discovered."

Press TV, broadcasting round the clock, will offer, besides news coverage, documentaries and analyses and double as a news agency. Its news site has been operative for four months now, attracting an average of 75,000 visitors everyday, ILNA said.

"Press TV has targeted international public opinion among English-speaking people of the world, particularly Muslims in Europe and the U.S., and wants to offer them the Islamic Republic&#39s version of official state propaganda in a nice wrapping against what is available through news outlets such as CNN, BBC and the English language Al Jazeera which was launched a few months ago. It is interesting that the name chosen has no direct link to the Islamic Republic," an analyst in Tehran requesting anonymity told IPS.

Iran launched Al Alam, its international Arabic news channel, in 2002 following the invasion of Iraq by the allied forces to outflank Qatar&#39s Arabic language Al Jazeera.

"The channel is not likely to become as popular as Al Alam which has found quite a receptive audience in the Middle East. The head of Press TV alleges that Al Jazeera reflects the point of view of al-Qaeda and the Taliban while CNN and the rest are advocates of the Western point of view. So through Press TV the Islamic Republic intends to put forth a third viewpoint of things – that of the Shiites&#39 and the Islamic Republic&#39s against what they call president Bush&#39s crusade against Muslims and the onslaughts of fundamentalist Sunnis," the analyst said.

According to the Iranian Constitution drawn in 1979 all broadcasting must exclusively be government operated. The country has no private TV or radio stations and Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) is the sole broadcaster.

The Islamic state banned the possession and use of satellite television in 1994 and has repeatedly cracked down on satellite television use in the past. Satellite dishes are, however, still seen throughout the country on the roofs of houses. The state also quite frequently jams the signals of many foreign-based Farsi language satellite channels that have political and social content.

"It is a very good idea to broadcast alternative news, but only if it is really impartial and unbiased. I really doubt the news network will fulfill that need. It is just part of the propaganda war that Iran and the West will be fighting," Arman (who gave only one name), a student of sociology and an activist, told IPS.

"Our freedom of speech is greatly suppressed here. We are only allowed to know what the establishment sees fit for us to know. Journalists are working here with a sword constantly hanging above their necks. The regime cannot honestly defend the rights of other people when it is suppressing the rights of its own citizens," Arman said.

Many news portals, like Persian BBC and domestic ones like the conservative Baztab and reformist Emrouz, are filtered in Iran. ILNA has recently come under threat of a ban for giving coverage to issues like rustication of university students and government pressure on the students’ movement. The agency&#39s chief editor resigned under government pressure, ‘Hambastegi’ newspaper reported.

"The free flow of information is a considered as a threat to the establishment. When the moderate reformist Mehdi Karrubi, Ahmadinejad&#39s rival in presidential elections, was refused a license to acquire an independent TV channel license and everything was done to stop him from establishing a foreign-based one. Others have tried the same but even hardliners like those who run the Hizbullah newspaper have been refused in order not to set a precedent," the student activist told IPS.

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