Potkin Azarmehr, Iranian activist and blogger who left Iran for the UK after the revolution of 1979, since becoming a key activist resisting religious extremism and political intolerance in Iran, addresses the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
To Be Confirmed
It’s very much a privilege to be here amongst such good people today, and I’m grateful to Hillel and his team and his sponsors for giving me this opportunity.
I’m going to be talking about what the objectives of authoritarian TV are, how they abuse the loopholes in democracy to spread their lies, how the official media monitoring watchdogs failed to do their job and make them play by the rules, and the power of ordinary activists in dealing with authoritarian TV. And I’m going to be focusing on Press TV, the English-speaking television funded by the Islamic Republic.
I want to start with a quote: “Propaganda can bring down a mountain,” and ask people in the audience — does anyone know who said that quote? “Propaganda can bring down a mountain.” Any guesses? It’s actually Ayatollah Khomeini who said that.
Now, Ayatollah Khomeini was someone who understood the power of propaganda and also understood the power of television as a propaganda tool. During his three and a half month exile in France, Ayatollah Khomeini conducted 115 television interviews. His enthusiasm for interviews demonstrated his profound understanding of the power and importance of disseminating information from television broadcasts.
The reason the control of state TV is such a high priority for authoritarian states is very simple: They want to control information. And the very first institution which was totally monopolized after the 1979 revolution in Iran was the state TV. It was placed under the strict control of religious followers of Ayatollah Khomeini. For the first year of the revolution, there was relative freedom in some other fields, like in newspapers and in gatherings, but state TV straight away monopolized by the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Now, Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers had boycotted television before 1979. You wouldn’t find a supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini who would have a television set under the Shah. But now that they had the control of state TV, they received their ideological instructions from the state TV under his control, and the mindset of Iranian children — the next generation of Iranians — was now formed and manipulated by the state TV under his control.
Of course there were other institutions that they went on to take afterwards, like the education — they had the culture of revolution where they basically closed down the Iranian universities for two years. Iran didn’t produce any graduates for two years; they sacked all the secular academics and students, then they tried to rewrite the syllabi in giving the Islamic interpretation that they had, so physics was too American and it had to become Islamicized after the cultural revolution, etc. etc.
At the time, it was hard to think how the future generation of Iranians could be spared this brainwashing, and I think two factors saved the day: One is the universal rule that if you force-feed people, some people will reject it. It’s the, you can’t fool all the people all the time. And second was technology. The advent of satellite TV and the internet changed all the parameters.
Now, the reaction by the Islamic Republic to satellite TV was on two prongs: crackdown and use of the new technology for their own propaganda purposes. The crackdown basically meant to ban the use of satellite equipment in Iran, and regular raids on people’s homes to look for satellite dishes and satellite receiving equipment, and confiscating them and finding them, and also jamming the signals from popular satellite TV stations, which were not part of the state TV approaches.
Let me just explain the jamming of the signals. The way they jammed the signals is in two ways. Either they jam at the source, which means that no one can watch that TV station, even if they were in Geneva or London, but that also means that all the other TV stations which are in that frequency also get jammed, and no one can see them. And then you have local jamming, which means basically: They will have transmitters in one district, and people living in one district can’t watch the satellite TV stations for a few days, and then they move on to other districts, and it’s also haphazard — you just don’t know whether you can watch your favorite program on a set or not, whether you’re part of the district jamming. So to make use of the new technology for their own propaganda purposes, which was the second reaction, the use of new technology for their own propaganda purposes on a global scale, the Islamic Republic set out a huge budget to set up numerous channels in 25 different languages.
Focusing on Press TV — Press TV started in 2007 with an annual budget of, I think the estimates are anything between 10 to 20 million dollars a year. And to begin with, it tried to have a progressive, diverse look and feel about it; many of the educated Iranians who wanted to have a career in TV would work for Press TV rather than the Persian-speaking state TV. And also, Press TV started recruiting respectable Western media presenters and journalists by offering them vast sums of money.
But the initial mask of fair play and unbiased reporting soon came off. Press TV was not reporting news, it was broadcasting Iranian state propaganda. It was inciting and instigating violence. In 2009, in the aftermath of the disputed elections in Iran, any shred of optimism that Press TV had an independent editorial policy was put aside. It became too clear that it is nothing other than the mouthpiece of the regime in Tehran, and at the same time that Press TV was blatantly condoning and justifying the brutal crackdown on protesters in Iran, London buses were carrying Press TV advertisements, saying “We give voice to the voiceless.” You can imagine how people like us, the Iranian activists were feeling, you know seeing these adverts on London buses, “We give voice to the voiceless.” And the leaders of Iran’s bus drivers unions were languishing in jail for wanting to form an independent trade union.
The real voiceless were the Iranian protesters. Foreign reporters had all been kicked out of Iran, and fallen heroes of the 2009 Green Movement only had citizen journalists to report the horrors of what was going on in Iran. Activists outside Iran like myself — we had to be their voice and try to put a stop to this outrageous propaganda machine of Press TV.
One of the first things which I personally did myself was to get a letter signed by trade union leaders in the UK. The letter asked the London mayor to put a stop to this advertising on London buses while Iran’s bus drivers were in jail. The advertising was not stopped, but it was not renewed again, so in a way a small victory.
The next step was to put pressure on the British presenters to leave Press TV. One of the presenters was Nick Ferrari. Now, Nick Ferrari is a British award-winning journalist, a newspaper columnist, and a radio presenter, and he had this live talk show on LBC (Leading Britain’s Conversation). Basically what I did was I made out that I wanted to speak about the topic that he was speaking about, so I got on the program, but then I started questioning him as to why he’s still working for Press TV. He accepted the power of my arguments, and he actually resigned on air, and then that made the news headlines and started a sort of a chain reaction, and other Western journalists who were working for Press TV resigned one by one. Martin Bright was the next one, and Andrew Gilligan was the last one, although much later. So that was the last serious British presenter to leave Press TV. So these resignations then further reduced the credibility of Press TV that it’s worked so hard to gain, and what remained was a fringe media outlet which included the likes of George Galloway, which James mentioned. We also, to encourage more resignations from Press TV, staged demonstrations outside the Press TV offices in London.
Now when Press TV made a grotesque so-called documentary about Neda, the young Iranian girl protester whose footage went viral on YouTube when she was shot dead during the peaceful protests, when Press TV claimed in this documentary that it was the BBC and the MI6 who had murdered her, and that she herself was part of the plot, we staged a demonstration outside Press TV offices in London on Neda’s birthday. Each one of us walked up to the Press TV steps, one by one placed the picture of Neda with a single red rose, and lit a candle while her favorite music was blaring out. People that took part in that demonstration said it was the most beautiful, the most moving demonstration that they had ever been to. And the purpose of that demonstration was to tickle the conscience of the Press TV employees, particularly the Iranian employees at Press TV. This yielded good results as well.
But the weakest link in all this was the actual watchdog and supervisory body, Ofcom. Ofcom in the UK is the media regulatory body. Its purpose is to make sure that the media outlets abide by the rules, rules which are there to protect fair reporting and also to protect individual rights there. For example, a television station, which is so powerful, can’t just say someone is a murderer without that person having been condemned by the courts, etc.
By broadcasting false, biased news; by instigating violence; and by defamation of people, Press TV was breaking every Ofcom rule there was. Yet Ofcom was totally non-responsive to legitimate complaints which have been made against Press TV.
I can honestly say that to get Ofcom to act against Press TV was the hardest part of the whole story. And I’ll give you some examples of what I mean: For example, Press TV claimed that Arash Hejazi — the doctor who went to save Neda in the well-known footage of Neda being shot — Press TV claimed that he was on the wanted list by Interpol. And Interpol straightaway denied it, said “We don’t have anyone like this on our list.” Press TV, instead of then saying that “Oh, we got it wrong and Interpol has denied it,” they repeated the accusation again after Interpol had denied it.
They were reporting the crackdown on protesters by government forces as being oppositional factional fighting. I mentioned the documentary that they made about Neda, saying that it was the BBC reporter John Lyon that killed Neda. They showed a documentary with Sakineh, the woman who received a lot of publicity in the West because she was sentenced to stoning. They brought her with her son in this documentary, obviously under duress, to make statements and accusations against a lawyer who was himself actually in jail. And then later on he smuggled a letter from prison describing the tortures he was facing. He was having his testicles burned with cigarettes, etc., and how he was put with criminal prisoners, with drug addicts and all that.
And they also kept showing graphic pictures before watershed, which is the 9:00 time to protect children so that they don’t see graphic images of the dead and the things that they shouldn’t see on television. Any of these complaints would have resulted in Ofcom coming down on the offending media like a ton of bricks, but it was as if Ofcom was scared of taking on Press TV.
But the most serious complaints to Ofcom came from Maziar Bahari. Now, Maziar Bahari was an Iranian journalist working for Newsweek covering the Iranian elections in 2009 when he was arrested. And during his incarceration, he was brought in front of the camera under duress, talking to a Press TV reporter with an intelligence ministry agent actually standing behind the curtain, making sure that Maziar Bahari will be saying what he’s been told to say. And the Press TV reporter who was supposedly interviewing knew full well what was happening, but the entire interview was broadcast on Press TV as if this was a genuine interview and Maziar Bahari was really willing, without being under any duress, to say these things. And when Maziar Bahari was released after 100 days as a result of massive international pressure, he found out that his interview had been broadcast on Press TV, and he made the complaint to Ofcom about what happened.
It took two years for Ofcom to finally react to Maziar Bahari’s complaints, and that was mainly as a result of Maziar Bahari taking on lawyers, and pressure by activists in creating publicity, and putting pressure on Ofcom, etc.
Finally, Press TV was fined 100,000 pounds for broadcasting the interview with Maziar Bahari, and Ofcom also asked Press TV to declare where the editorial was. Now, it didn’t matter if they said the editorial was in Tehran. I mean, there are many television outlets like CNN and Al Jazeera English whose editorial is not in London; Al Jazeera is in Doha, CNN is in America. It’s just a requirement. All they had to say was whether it was in Tehran or within London. But not only didn’t they pay the hundred thousand pound fine, they didn’t declare where the editorial was either. So Ofcom was just really forced to do something, and basically all they did was they struck off Press TV from Sky platform, which was only one of the platforms that they were broadcasting. I mean, you could still watch him on eleven other platforms, which included mobile phone and the internet.
Yet Press TV just focused on one thing — making yourself to be a victim of UK restriction on freedom of speech. It had nothing to do with the restriction of freedom of speech! It was just not playing by the rules that everyone else had to play by.
So, clearly the job of pro-democracy activists is important, but it’s not over yet, and we have to stand up against the lies of authoritarian states around the world. Authoritarian states may have the budgets and resources for their propaganda and control of information, but we have the truth on our side. Truth, at the end, is mightier than propaganda. Truth will prevail at the end, and it just needs support from good people.
Now, I started with a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini in the beginning, so allow me to finish with a quote by my hero, Vaclav Havel: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”