Iran’s War over Airwaves: A Battlefield as Wide as the World
In a closed society like Iran, where the government sustains rigid control over the internal media and all forms of communication, transnational media carries significance for both the authorities and the citizens. It has been over 50 years since national media has been under the complete control of the government with the establishment of Iran National Television (INT) in 1966 and chiefly after the 1979 revolution with the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Ever since, despite the Iranian regime’s attempts to limit Iranians to its own state-run TV and radio channels, the people have been inclined to hundreds of alternative Persian foreign-based TV and radio channels which broadcast for Iranians inside and for those in diaspora. Foreign news channels, in particular, have been vitiating factors for Iran’s state broadcasting monopoly while circumventing the censorship of the government.
While during the Shah, political considerations were the only concern with imperial government, after the 1979 revolution and the Islamization of the media, opposing Western cultural invasion and political interference has been the regime’s priority. However, what has been in common with both the Pahlavi Dynasty and the Islamic leaders is their political “blame game” in all of Iran’s political and social problems. The Shah constantly addressed the BBC as his “number one enemy” in the years leading to the Islamic revolution. In another case, the BBC’s role in the 1953 Iran coup is mentioned every anniversary of the coup as an effective factor in the collapse of the incumbent Prime Minister Mosaddegh’s government.
With the advent of satellite TVs in the 1990s, a new challenge started to pose an immense problem for Iranian authorities and IRIB as well. Since then, Iran’s officials continuously regard Iran as being in a real “soft war.” The term “soft war” that is intertwined with “enemy,” “cultural invasion,” “soft topple” and “massive deception” are frequently heard terms by Iranians during these years. In fact, the satellite channels considered as a Western front by the Iranian regime, tend to undermine the country’s religious and political legitimacy. It was to such an extent that with Western efforts to soft topple the Islamic Republic, by means of their media, and above all Britain and the BBC Persian TV, following the 2009 presidential election, the existence of the Green Movement was introduced by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Islamic Republic of Iran justified and praised the jamming of Persian-language satellite channels as a representation of the power and capability of the Iranian State over hostile waves to maintain the country’s stability. Conversely, many Iranians perceive these channels as a means of entertainment, a place to acquire new information and how to keep up-to-date with the world. People want to hear world news, and to watch not only America’s latest hits and French classics but also uncensored Iranian films.
No doubt most of these channels are the propaganda machines of their owners with a specific media policy which tries to advance their national interests in targeted countries, and in contrary to what they always claim, their neutrality was always under question. For instance, in respect to Britain-Iran relations, the BBC’s policy has always been in line with Britain’s interests and foreign policy toward Iran, although, the BBC directors never admit it. If we accept the effects of satellite channels on Iranian public opinion, that, of course, needs another detailed discussion, we have to ask ourselves how the BBC, VOA or other transnational TVs are able to affect Iranian public opinion while Iran’s media is not able to influence their own citizens?
Considering all critical sections in Iran’s history that Iranian authorities blame the foreign media for pulling unrest, the most alleged impact is when “heighten media need” occurs, especially during a crisis or an important change like the election period. In fact, the role of satellite channels becomes prominent when the needs of society are answered with strict censorship of state-run media and prevention of free flow of information by Iranian authorities. In this situation, transnational media becomes the main source of news for society and plays the role of a “magic lamp” that could resolve all ambiguities created during conflicts or social change. Evidently, satellite channels come to the scene just to fill the vacuum of information and to fulfill their news-seeking goals.
Moreover, during periods of extreme social change, such as elections or social crisis, people are given an opportunity to reassess their values, beliefs, and practices and consider other new choices. That is exactly where Iran’s officials hand over the unique opportunity of establishing public opinion to satellite channels when the news is heavily censored by the government. In fact, satellite channels as purposive actors, are getting a chance to become a focal point for the establishment of social reality and knowledge to answer audiences’ needs for strong advice.
On the other hand, accuracy, reliability and unbiased news are the utmost priority of responsible media because it makes it live up to higher values. The general belief is that government-owned media outlets must distort and manipulate information to entrench the incumbent politicians, preclude voters and consumers from making informed decisions, and ultimately undermine the objectivity of the news. Furthermore, while state-run media like IRIB never let the opposites be heard, satellite channels give voice to the voiceless and most of the time the opposition. Thus, lack of private media and a forum dedicated only to proponents of the Islamic system causes an inclined tendency to foreign news agencies. The 2009 aftermath of the election is an excellent example that displays the popularity of satellite channels among Iranians and how the media formed a close relationship with their targeted audiences; hence they used their power to achieve their goals.
Due to lack of freedom of speech and thought in Iran, media fills the void of political communication and civic engagement that change the culture of participatory from activism to ‘slacktivism.’ Therefore, media plays a crucial role in Iran’s political arena. In fact, the media has been changed to a sphere of dissidence or a tool for virtually challenging the government. Whereas creating such an atmosphere by foreign media provided with multi-platform services like Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, etc. is easier than encouraging street riots or mobilization; it could place on long-term media policy of these channels and end with a soft topple of the system.
In spite of satellite jamming since 2003, depriving thousands of satellite dishes, and penalizing holders of satellite receivers, according to Iran’s Ministry of Culture report in 2013, 72% of people in Tehran and more than 60% in Iran have access to satellite channels in their home. These statistics confirm that the Islamic Republic of Iran has not been successful in its media policy and their hard and fast rules for preventing a free flow of information is going nowhere. They must pay special attention to the fact that “soft war” needs “soft power” not a hard and rough approach.
The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM's editorial policy.