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.