THE LEVANT – By Catherine Shakdam – While western media, or rather corporate media have faced harsh criticism over the past weeks on their bias coverage of Gaza in keeping with their network’s political discourse and affiliations, it so happens that Iran has conducted a comprehensive media repression campaign against Shia media outlets that are independent from the government.
Sources in Iran – which for obvious reasons were not able to come forward for fear of prosecution – have confirmed that the past few months have seen a sharp rise in arrests, attacks, prosecutions, intimidations and government-backed raids against media professional and media organizations under the supervision of a popular Shia scholar, Ayatollah Sadiq Shirazi .
If Iran is no stranger to media control, this new wave of repression has had rights groups and activists both within and without Iran rather worried as it could signal a broader slip into authoritarianism at a time when Iranians are very much looking for political emancipation.
If Iranians held great many hopes of freedom and democratic advancement following the election of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, disenchantment has been thoroughly felt in the media industry as networks now fear to face the wrath of the authorities.
But if media workers have often complained of state officials’ harsh oversight, Shia Rights Watch, a prominent rights group based in Washington has raised the alarm over what it describes as Iran’s media witch-hunt against media outlets linked to Imam Shirazi. Over the past week Iran has targeted TV channels with carry connections to Imam Shirazi, A prominent Shi’a scholar, in what has been perceived a deliberate attempt to silence his message and stance on world affairs.
According to officials in Tehran the move aims not to silence the opposition but rather to streamline Iran’s media landscape and ensure that all companies abide by all state law and regulations. SRW said not to be satisfied with such generic answer as facts on the ground point to a sinister and reprehensible move to crackdown on all independent media, only to leave room for state-sponsored and state-controlled organizations.
As noted by the rights group, “Iran penchant for control and its zero tolerance approach for anything other than state-sanctioned narrative, ideas and reporting means that the Iran’s media industry has been in many ways criminalized.”
Regardless of mounting criticism amid intellectual circles in Iran, the authorities have carried on their crackdown completely undeterred.
SRW wrote a condemning statement on the matter which reads, “We condemn the unlawful and unethical act of the Iranian government by closing the offices of several Shi’a channel networks (Imam Hussein TV, Abu Alfazl TV, Al Qaem TV, Al Zahra TV, Al Mahdi TV) in Iran, and request that such cowardly acts to be stopped immediately and all properties seized from these offices unlawfully, to be returned to them. These actions, which are in direct violation of the freedom of expression and the most basic rights of a human being, are taking place at a time, when terrorist groups like ISIS and others are physically eliminating Shi’a Muslims, and the action of the Iranian government is a form of elimination as well, but ideologically.
An official apology from the Iranian government to these channels and their viewers is necessary, and assurances that such acts will not happen again should be presented.”
Imam Shirazi’s office chose not to comment on the matter at that moment in time.
That being said, it has become common knowledge that political and ideological differences have driven a wedge in between Imam Shirazi and officials in Tehran, as some of the cleric’s views have been ill-received by officials. News reports in the Middle East have also alleged that Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Hezbollah – Lebanon – personally called on Qom local governor to close down media outlets for their narratives stand on contradiction with his.
An increasing numbers of media workers – journalists, film-makers, TV presenters and personalities as well as foreign correspondents have been faced with a barrage of bans, media gags and targeted harassment in the past trimester.
As explained by SRW, “Many of those arrested are charged under provisions of the Islamic Penal Code which loosely define crimes such as spreading lies, propaganda against the system, and creating unease in the public mind, while the mission of all threatened stations are based on religious facts mentions in both Shia and Sunni references”. Iranian government portrays Shia representation while fights Shia informative media outlets and that is a worrisome.
Moreover by creating an atmosphere charged with fear, journalists have said to have been forced into self-censorship to avoid prosecution and/or intimidation.
As noted by Amnesty International in its report this August, “Iran’s Judiciary is toying with the law and using drawn-out trials and unserved prison sentences to coerce independent journalists into self-censorship.”
SRW said to be very concerned over recent developments as several media workers were taken into custody without their families being informed of their whereabouts, thus preventing adequate legal representation to be arranged. Moreover properties and funds were taken without due process and beyond all judicial control as no warrant or other court mandate were ever issued.