A panel including visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe and the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, James Kirchik; journalist, former Executive Director of the Club Suisse de la Presse between 1998 and 2019, and former President of the Swiss Red Cross, Guy Mettan; and activist blogger resisting religious extremism and political intolerance in Iran, Potkin Azarmehr, address the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Guy Mettan (moderator): Azarmehr, I think you have painted a very complete picture of Press TV. You were extremely eloquent and I’d like to thank you. I saw the extracts; it was extremely interesting.
I have a few questions to our panel here. James, first of all, we saw your very provocative comments on Russia Today. I’d like to ask you also a provocative question: is it normal, is it a surprise, that official television, like Russia Today, would carry out propaganda? There are many other channels that do that, al-Jazeera, the Chinese channel as well. It’s rather heavy-handed all of that. Should we be surprised about this kind of practice? So that’s my question. And also about freedom of the press in Russia. There are a number of channels and blogs. You know this country very well. What is the trend in general in Russia? And the third question, Russia Today, what is the impact? Is it only being heard in Russia or are people from outside also watching and listening? Thank you.
James Kirchick: To the first question, I don’t think we should be surprised that dictatorships use propaganda, although I would draw a distinction between Russia Today, Press TV and al-Jazeera. I don’t think al-Jazeera is in the same league as the other two. It is state-funded, it’s sponsored by the government of Qatar and it does pretty much follow the foreign policy aims of Qatar. But it is not nearly as heavy-handed in its propaganda mission. It’s much more independent and objective than most other dictatorship and authoritarian media.
The second question was about, was it media freedom in Russia? Right, freedom of the press in Russia is practically non-existent. I believe all the television stations, with maybe the exception of one, are under state control, or perhaps all of them are under state control. There’s one independent radio station which is heard only in Moscow and there’s maybe one or two newspapers which are not under government control, that are read by small numbers of people. Of course you have the internet, but the vast majority of Russians – I believe seventy percent is the number – get their news from television. And one of the first things that Vladimir Putin did when he got into office was nationalise all the TV stations. They’ve been owned by various oligarchs and he was very smart in basically taking them over, because he knew that that was the main form of information for most Russian people. So really, the only independent media that Russian people have are those few who can get internet access on a regular basis and those who can listen to Radio Free Europe or the BBC Russian service.
The third question, what’s the impact of RT. Well I gave the numbers. I think it’s very disturbing the amount of people who watch RT, particularly in the West. Many of them who do not know what it is or frankly don’t care what it is. I think what RT, and to a lesser degree what Press TV have been smart and doing, is that they often use the language of the left in appealing to young people and appealing to progressive people in the left. So RT, for instance, will give an enormous amount of attention to any social problems in the United States to the Occupy Wall Street movement, to the problem of homelessness, to the problem of poverty in America. These are obviously very important issues that we should be talking about, but do we honestly think that the Kremlin really cares about the poor in the United States? Do you really think that they care about social injustice?
I just saw earlier today that RT has been devoting an enormous amount of attention to the Scottish Independence Movement in the UK because there is going to be a vote on Scottish independence coming up later this year. Why on earth do we think the Kremlin is giving so much attention on RT to Scottish independence? It’s because they know that if Scotland breaks from the UK it’ll weaken the UK and make it less of a force in international affairs and this is what is in the interest of the Russian Government. So I think we have to be aware of these things and we have to understand why they’re playing host to these issues.
Moderator: Thank you James. Perhaps another question for Potkin. This may be a question for you. So you’ve lived in the United Kingdom for many years now, you know the whole evolution of the Iranian regime. Do you think there is a chance for change with the new president or with the emergence of a new generation in Iran now, a younger generation, or is it always the same thing?
Potkin Azarmehr: Well I think there’s hope in Iran, in spite of the new president. I’m not under any illusion that the new president wants to change the Islamic Republic, but to prolong its life. I am the first one to admit that he is much cleverer than his predecessor, that he knows the art of PR. But what I want to tell people is that at the end, the demographic change in Iran will make sure that this regime is going to be replaced. It’s actually imploding from within at the moment. I predict a very similar situation, like the Soviet Union, for the Islamic Republic.
I mean, when I compare the state of Iran just after the Revolution, I always say – I mean during the Cultural Revolution, which is when I was last in Iran – the Revolution was very popular. The main arm of repression was actually the bulk of the population itself. Any clashes that I was involved in during the Cultural Revolution, I wasn’t facing uniform agents of the regime. They were ordinary people that really had hopes in the revolution, in the promises that the Ayatollah Khomeini had given them about free electricity and free water and all these other things that were supposed to happen.
When I left Iran, and, you know, after what has happened in the Cultural Revolution I thought everyone’s going to be brainwashed and the next generation of Iranian kids, there’s not going to be any chance. 35 years down the line, that’s not the situation. People have changed, people have seen through the lies,  through the empty promises, no one believes in the slogans anymore and the regime is surviving surely by force and by manipulation. So, [in] the end, I have no doubt that things will change in Iran. This is not a government, this is not a regime representative of the Iranian people. I can’t tell you exactly when that’s going to happen, but I have no doubts that it will happen.
Moderator: Thank you. James, do you have anything to add to that or an opinion?
James Kirchick: I think he’s the Iranian expert.
Moderator: Thank you. Perhaps James, I could ask another question of you? You said before that Russia Today was very important in countries today in the United States and elsewhere outside of Russia. Now, I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years and there’s an issue that concerns me. Isn’t that due also to our own way of conducting our trade of journalism? The media, it is said, acts by deciding who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, that’s traditional. I don’t want to engage in a political debate but we decide who are the good guys. We say “the good Palestinians and the bad Israelis”, for example. So there is a mainstream that is dished out, and now we have channels like your Russia Today that manipulate information and are not at all objective.
James Kirchick: Yes, I do think that CNN and BBC perhaps in their coverage of Ukraine, they’re going to be somewhat more sympathetic to the people on the streets than they are to the government. But on the whole, I think you’re going to get pretty objective reporting for most of the Western media.
With RT, what you are getting is unfiltered Kremlin propaganda that portrays whoever is the ally of the Russian government, they are good and their opposition to be bad. And so you only need to look at RTs coverage of Syria to understand this. They have been the leading media purveyor of the notion that the Syrian opposition is entirely composed of jihadist fanatics who are beheading children and Christians, and are going to turn this country into a jihadist nightmare. Now, are there jihadists in the Syrian opposition, absolutely, of course there are. But to categorize the entire anti-Assad movement as being composed of Islamist radicals is completely a distortion of the truth. But this is what RT does, day-in and day-out.
Moderator: [Potkin], do you have an opinion about that?
Potkin Azarmehr: I’m not saying that you never get any missed reporting on the Western media or that there are things that have been said on Western media which are not true. I mean, the Western media reported that sanctions are causing a medicine shortage in Iran, which is completely obscene. I mean, even the Iranian Health Minister herself was saying that the medicine shortages are nothing to do with the sanctions; medicine wasn’t even part of the sanctions. Basically, the regime had allocated two billion dollars and given priority for importing commodities. That two billion dollars wasn’t paid to the health minister to import the drugs. Instead [it] was spent on importing luxury goods and Bugattis and things like that. So I’m not saying that the Western media never gets it wrong. But does Western media bring on a reporter who’s being forced by an intelligence ministry to say something with an intelligence agent standing behind the curtains, making sure that the person says something under duress? Do you know any Western media [outlets] that do that? If Ofcom, say, slapped a fine on some Western media outlets, do you know any of them that would just refuse to pay and not play by the rules? These are the differences. I’m not saying that you know everything is right in the Western media and it has completely objective reporting; of course it’s not.
Moderator: Thank you. Perhaps one more question to our two panel members. What can we do, as journalists, what can the media do here in the West, namely, to improve matters, so that information pervading on these channels will be more objective, perhaps to help Iran, the regime, to open up? How can we shoulder our responsibility as journalists better? And, I’m including myself in this question.
James Kirchick: There’s a temptation among some people in the West to kick out these stations, to break, to jam them, to block them and in cases, where they’re violating the laws, as they were in the case of Press TV and in the case you mentioned, then that may be an appropriate step.
But generally, I don’t think that we should as democracies be acting in the way that these governments do. The Iranians, they try to jam the BBC Persian service, they try to jam Radio Free Europe, the Soviet Union tried to jam Voice of America. I don’t think that we should be behaving that way. I think the way to do it is to be shaming the people who work for these networks, to be protesting, to do what I did.
I don’t think any Western journalists should appear on these networks and lend them a patent of respectability that they don’t deserve. And particularly RT and Press TV, they employ a lot of Western journalists. They have lots of money at their disposal and they can give very fat salaries to journalists to live in the West. I think it’s absolutely disgusting and reprehensible that anyone who lives in a free country would take the blood money from Vladimir Putin or the Ayatollahs. And those people who do should be named and they should be shamed repeatedly, and every day they go into work, they should be made to feel guilty by their colleagues in the journalistic community. Because they’re not journalists, they’re propagandists and they’re handmaidens to authoritarianism.
Potkin Azarmehr: Throughout the campaign against Press TV, our objective was never to shut down Press TV. And Press TV never got shut down. It’s still working in London with 40 employees from the same offices. Basically, all we wanted to do was for people not to be bought-in by their propaganda. If they made some outrageous remarks or comments that people knew that there was actually another side.
So if they were advertising on London buses saying that we give voice to the voiceless, we wanted the people to know – they had the budget, they had the money to pay for the advertising on the buses – but we wanted the people to know that actually, the leaders of Iran’s bus drivers are in jail because they want to form an independent union. We just wanted to reduce them into some sort of mediocre outlet and show them to the public for what they really are. Our objective was never to shut them down and they were never shut down.
Moderator: Thank you. I think we’ve winding [down] now. We’ve reached the end, we have no time left. I would like to thank James and Potkin for their presentations. They’ve been very courageous and they’ve been very determined in their struggle. They’ve been combative, they’ve tried to be objective and we wish them much success in their future endeavours. I would like to thank the organisers. Geneva continues to be enriched by all these fruitful exchanges. Thank you.