Are Iranian satellite channels aiding regime change?

A BBC Persian service presenter gets ready to present the news at the corporation’s headquarters in London

The Iranian regime’s grip on power is facing a serious challenge from protests on the streets and the airwaves.
A perfect storm is brewing and a restless young Iranian population is demanding change. The growth of satellite television in Iran has changed the landscape, becoming the single most important medium of culture and information. The advent of social media platforms combined with satellite television is challenging Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s republic.
Iranian media said 70% of the population watches satellite television, much of which is run by Iranians in exile. State media channel IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) largely ignored the protests that took place in more than 100 cities over eight days, due to strict governmental regulation. Many learned what was happening in their country from satellite channels beaming in from London and the wider Western world.
A woman in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “They (the regime) are trying to disconnect us from the world but we find a way.”
Ofcom, a British regulatory board, received a complaint from the Iranian Embassy regarding BBC Persian and Manoto, which it accused of inciting “armed revolt” during the recent protests. Manoto CEO Kayvan Abbassi declined to comment on the complaint. His network, via telephoned comments, said it has been Abbassi’s policy not to conduct interviews over the past seven years.
Ofcom Senior Communications Manager Lizzi Regan confirmed the organisation received a complaint from the Iranian Embassy. The complaint is pending because the embassy failed to provide sufficient detail on the programmes that caused its concerns. This indicates Iran is concerned about a possible revolution through the airwaves due to significant audience traction of both channels.
Manoto said it has a loyal fanbase of more than 40 million viewers, which would make it one of the most watched channels by Iranians, but the statistics are hard to verify. A BBC monitoring report in 2010 stated that Manoto had outstripped its main rivals, BBC Persian and Voice of America. The network’s funding is hard to substantiate but Iran Human Rights Review alleged the venture capitalists have a connection to the British government.
Following the anti-establishment protests, Manoto journalist Pouria Zeraati posted on Twitter a photo of affluent Iranians enjoying themselves poolside pre-1979 next to a photo of a desolate pool today, alongside the viral hashtag “#What_we_gave_vs_what_we_got.”
Manoto is known for celebrating life in pre-revolutionary Iran. The channel is emphatic in televising this progressive chapter of Iran’s history and provides Western-style programming that connects with young audiences. With two-thirds of the country’s population born after 1979, many young viewers identify with shows in which men and women experience common freedoms.
The explicit messaging of the “good old days” is a sophisticated mechanism in hammocking audiences. Behnam Ben Taleblu, an analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, described Manoto as having “won the hearts and minds of Iranians.” He described Manoto’s achievements over the last five years as unprecedented, calling it a professional network with a developed narrative.
BBC Persian is also a household name in the Persian-speaking market. Amir Azimi, BBC Persian’s news, TV and radio editor, identified its significant reach “through decades of a professional approach to covering news and providing balanced analysis, context to the stories. We’ve built trust among the audience and they know whenever a major story breaks we are there.”
Professor Ali Ansari, of the University of St Andrews’ Institute for Iranian Studies, said via e-mail: “I think Manoto has a clear perspective. I think it would be too strong to suggest that any of them have an overt political agenda other than to provide an alternative perspective.”
The “alternative perspective” has stopped IRIB from galvanising audiences. On January 29, Iran blocked Manoto TV and its web content but audiences used a virtual private network (VPN) to gain access.
Manoto’s entertainment shows are critically assessed by the government for subliminal messages that could incite regime change. The cultural identity that has been formed by satellite channels is in touch with increasing popular consumerism. The more the state attempts to jam signals, the greater the challenge of delegitimising changing cultural orthodoxies. The crisis following anti-establishment protests casts a new light on the country’s hotly contested media space, representing a challenging dichotomy of internal perturbation.
The regime finds criticism extremely painful to manage. Azimi said: “Domestic papers and state TV & Radio are under a lot of restrictions and at times accused of taking sides with specific parties or giving misleading coverage to the demonstrations. International and regional news providers are also at times ignored or censored by them.”
There is a long-running deadlock between conservatives and political elites, as younger generations are desperate for an alternative. Taleblu said Khamenei was particularly concerned that Iranians in exile are creating “a soft war” against Iran.
“Khamenei has obsessed over the soft war argument. You can make a very coherent case that Iran is much more concerned with internal unrest. A possibility of another revolution is very real, perhaps more than any foreign military invasion,” he said.
Satellite channels have built a revolution of trust that has been welcomed by Iranians who are open to new ideas. The generational shift is significant, as was evidenced by recent protests but internal political dynamics are still regressive. Whether the regime can be a capable adversary in a technologically advanced landscape with a highly motivated young population remains to be seen.
Suddaf Chaudry
is a journalist based between London and Islamabad focusing on the Middle East and South Asia.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.