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Iran: State Media Control Extends To Provinces, Airwaves

  • Bill Samii

Despite periodic government crackdowns, satellite dishes are common in Iran (epa) WASHINGTON, October 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian government efforts to steer public perceptions through media restrictions are not limited to mainstream newspapers in the capital. Provincial publications and journalists face mounting official pressure -- especially among those dealing with minority affairs. Official provincial television broadcasts are changing, too, in a campaign that coincides with a national campaign to curb access to foreign satellite broadcasts.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration is hardly an innovator in trying to limit Iranians' access to information.

During predecessor Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's eight years in office, more than 100 press outlets were shut down; there were frequent complaints regarding the hard-line preferences of broadcast media; and, in 2003, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) used powerful transmitters in the capital to block shortwave signals. Events at that time were mostly connected with factional domestic disputes.

But these most recent developments could be part of an effort to direct reporting on the nuclear controversy and influence upcoming elections to the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils, scheduled for December 15.

The Periphery

Press closures and official persecution of journalists occurs in the outlying provinces as well as in the capital, Tehran.

Cases affecting minorities are a particular concern for the administration, which in the past year has seen increasing unrest in regions inhabited by ethnic Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds, and others. Tehran often blames such incidents on foreign agitators, rather than trying to determine whether protesters have genuine grievances.

A September 13 statement by Intelligence and Security Minister Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejei is typical, in which he refers to enemy plots in the provinces.

In the northwestern city of Sanandaj in October 2005, the cases of three Iranian-Kurdish journalists -- Ejlal Qavami, Said Saedi, and Roya Tolui -- were referred to the Revolutionary Court on the charges of acting against national security. The three were arrested after criticizing violent state suppression of unrest that summer. Tolui, who was released on bail in early 2006, said she was tortured into confessing while in jail. She escaped to the United States in early 2006.

More recently, Mohammad Sadeq Kabudvand, managing editor of the banned weekly "Payam-i Mardom," was summoned in mid-September to begin a jail term after being charged with "publishing lies and articles aimed at creating racial and tribal tension and discord." Published in Kurdish and Persian, "Payam-i Mardom" was distributed in the Kurdish regions of Ilam, Kermanshah, Kurdistan, and West Azerbaijan provinces.

In southwestern Khuzestan Province, which is home to many members of the ethnic Arab minority, the daily "Hamsayeha" was banned in February on the grounds that it contributed to ethnic discord and encouraged acts that were potentially harmful to the government.

A more recent incident occurred in the southwestern Bushehr Province. The weekly "Nasir-i Bushehr" reported on August 20 that the provincial governor-general had banned its correspondents from his office. The weekly accused political hard-liners of using any means at their disposable to criticize former President Khatami's pro-reform administration but being unable nowadays to "even tolerate a simple criticism made by their own party." The weekly accused the current administration of using "security, judicial, and media institutions" to block reforms.

Iranian men watching a soccer match in an electronics store (Fars)

Six journalists were arrested in northwestern Iran in late May following demonstrations by ethnic Azeris. The arrested individuals include "Ava-yi Ardabil" Editor Vahid Daragahi, and Ali Hamed Iman, who was writing for local publications and was managing editor of the now-banned "Shams-i Tabriz" newspaper. Also detained were Ali Nazari and Reza Kazemi, editor and managing editor, respectively, of the weekly "Araz."

Stoking A Fire?

In a recent report for The Century Foundation, a public-policy research group that focuses on challenges facing the United States, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner asserts that unrest involving Iranian minorities should be seen in the context of U.S. military plans. The author -- who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College and elsewhere -- writes that the United States is "trying to establish contacts with ethnic minorities" in Iran. He takes at face value an Iranian ambassador's claim that militants captured in the southeast confessed to working with the United States. The author also suggests that "the United States is...directly involved in supporting groups inside the Kurdish area of Iran," although he does not source that allegation, and he repeats Tehran's claim that the United States shot down Iranian military aircraft on two separate occasions in 2006.

Recent statements by Iranian Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Hussein Safar-Harandi suggested that the Iranian government harbors similar fears -- and could exploit them to justify repressive measures against minorities, according to "Kayhan" on September 4. Safar-Harandi claimed that Iran's enemies "have on their agenda the creation of tension and introduction of ethnic issues." He argued that "the ballyhoo on ethnic issues" was "partly supported by foreign intelligence service." Safar-Harandi concluded that the press "would follow the enemy's plans unwontedly" if it was "not alert."

Provincial Television

Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting has 27 provincial television networks. Minority groups occasionally decry both the quality of the programs, which sometimes use disparaging ethnic stereotypes, and their quantity, saying there is insufficient use of minority languages.

In an apparent effort to address such criticism, Khuzestan provincial television announced in mid-July that it would increase its Arabic-language programming. The station's managing director (identified as Mr. Assefi) said programs were under review and audience reaction would be gauged, provincial television reported on July 15.

In August, the director-general of state broadcasting's provincial news and information department (identified as Mr. Elmolhoda) vowed that reporting from the provinces would be improved, Khuzestan provincial television reported on August 24. He said there should be greater commentary and reporting from provincial news centers.

Limiting TV Access

Television has significant reach in Iran. In a recent poll, more than 90 percent of the population said it watched television the previous day -- that compared with just 30 percent who listened to radio and 31 percent who read a newspaper. More than 90 percent identified local television stations as one of their top three news sources.

Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Mohammad Hussein Safar-Harandi (Fars)

There is no private television in Iran. State television has seven channels that broadcast domestically, and Network 3 -- the Youth Network -- is believed to be the most popular because it provides sports and light entertainment.

To get more entertainment and access something other than the official news, many Iranians enjoy watching satellite broadcasts -- although possession of the equipment has been illegal since the mid-1990s.

Iran's legislature began consideration of a new bill on satellite-reception equipment in the spring. The draft would make producing, importing, or distributing such equipment illegal. It would also authorize the police and the IRGC's Basij to confiscate the equipment, and allow the creation of a domestic cable network that would rebroadcast satellite programs that do not contravene what authorities regard as "the values and principles of the Islamic and national culture."

Confiscation of dishes in Tehran got under way in August, and there were reports of confiscations in provincial cities -- including Isfahan, Rasht, Sanandaj, and Shiraz -- in July. On September 7 in the southern city of Abadan, police announced that they had confiscated more than 100 sets of satellite-receiving equipment, Fars News Agency reported.

In conjunction with these steps, the Iranian government has made it illegal to cooperate with any Persian-language satellite channel. The Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry announced that ban in late August -- proscribing interviews, advertisements, or any other form of participation and warning that violators will be prosecuted.
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