Iran tightens screws on foreign media

Government blames outlets for causing unrest

Since the incendiary June 12 presidential election, Iranian officials have been railing against foreign media for fueling the protest movement. But last week they focused their ire on two primary targets: the U.S.-funded Voice of America and the U.K.-funded BBC Persia.Iranian officials publicly blasted the news orgs and accused them of inciting unrest, with Hassan Qashqavi, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, going so far as to warn Iranians that “any sort of contact with the said channels either through email or telephone runs against national Iranian sovereignty and is considered as an act of enmity toward the Iranian nation. The channels act as command posts engineering the ongoing post-election riots.”

The government expelled Jon Leyne, the BBC’s Tehran correspondent, and has repeatedly tried to jam the satellite signals of both the BBC and VOA.

Execs from both channels deny claims they are being sponsored by their respective governments to foment discord. “Our aim is to deliver accurate, independent news,” says Joan Mower, VOA’s director of development and public relations. “That’s not something the Iranian government is keen on their people getting.”

Ironically, the Iranian government’s heavy-handed media crackdown — the Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that more than 40 journos have been arrested in Iran since the election — has spurred Iranians to get even more of their news from foreign sources than usual.

U.S.-based Iranian satcasters — many of which beam from Hollywood — have long flooded Iranians with everything from anti-regime political diatribes to non-stop musicvids and sports, but the clampdown on the media operations of Iran’s opposition movement left Iranians little choice but to turn to the likes of the BBC for news of events.

“The illegal confrontation with the media opens the way for foreign interference,” said opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi of the government’s heavy-handed treatment of local reporters.

Even Dubai-based Arabic newscaster Al-Arabiya, owned by Sheik Waleed al-Ibrahim as part of his MBC media group, has had its Tehran bureau shuttered by Iranian authorities.

Saudi-Iranian political relations have long been fraught, in large part due to the schism between their respective Sunni and Shia ideologies, and while Al-Arabiya has been shut down a number of times in the past, it appears to have fallen victim this time to the current tensions.

And while few commentators believe the protestors will succeed in — or are even hoping to overthrow — the current regime, the situation reminds some of the 1979 revolution.

“It’s exactly the same kind of thing we saw 30 years ago,” says Behrouz Afagh, head of the BBC World Service’s Asia and Pacific Region. “Back then it was BBC Radio which was accused by the shah of being the enemy of the people for the same reason.”