Press TV, the Iranian state-funded news channel, loses UK licence

The controversial broadcaster has been taken off the air after Ofcom ruled it was in breach of licen

Press TV, the Iranian state-funded news channel, is to be taken off the air in Britain after Ofcom ruled that it was breaching broadcasting rules.

The channel has responded with outrage, calling the decision "scandalous" and a "clear example of censorship". Its chief executive, Mohammad Sarafraz, said that it was "an act of aggression by the British monarchy" which "will prevent the British from learning the truth". (NB. Iranian TV has form on erroneously calling out the British monarchy)

Yet it is not entirely out of the blue: the controversial broadcaster was threatened with a ban last year, after it emerged that it had aired an interview with Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist, while he was imprisoned in Iran in 2009.

Rather than banning the channel outright, after hearing submissions Ofcom finally settled on a £100,000 fine in December 2011. However, Press TV failed to meet the early January deadline for paying the fine. Ofcom said that the broadcaster has been "unwilling and unable" to pay it.

This is not the only reason that Ofcom has given: it also ruled that Press TV is in breach of broadcasting licence rules in the UK because it runs its editorial insight from Iran's capital, Tehran. The regulator wrote to Press TV about this in November, offering a choice of either switching editorial control for programming to the UK, or to transfer the broadcasting licence to Iran. According to Ofcom, Press TV has not responded.

These technical explanations are all very well, but it is difficult not to view this in the context of escalating tension between Iran and Britain (my colleague Mehdi Hasan has blogged extensively on this). The country's nuclear programme has drawn ire from the west, and in November, Britain closed Iran's embassy in London and expelled all diplomats, after the British embassy in Tehran was attacked by a crowd angry at sanctions.

Certainly, the channel's fans will (rightly or wrongly) view it in this light. In October last year, Press TV ran a poll in which 52 per cent of respondents said that Ofcom's attempts to get the channel taken off air was "an instance of intellectual terrorism". The instant reaction on Twitter shows many concerned about free speech (although others are cheering the decision). Salma Yaqoob, the leader of the Respect Party, tweeted: "Reality is we r seeing increased hostility and preparation for attack on #Iran".

While this has been rumbling on for months, things are now moving fast. Ofcom has contacted BSkyB, which broadcasts Press TV, to tell them to take the channel off the air before the end of the day. It appears the plug has already been pulled, although it can still be viewed online.

Regardless of the technicality -- and certainly, Press TV played a significant part and displayed belligerence by failing to take action -- this move will be seen as highly symbolic. It is yet another area where tension with Iran is escalating.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue