Commentary: Broadcasting Tehran’s Repression
European satellite providers host state programming even as the regime censors foreign media.
Oped published in Wall Street Journal Europe
By Shirin Ebadi and Hadi Ghaemi
(9 December 2011) It may not come as a surprise to learn that the Iranian government invests heavily in internet filtering, mobile-communication restrictions and jamming of international satellite broadcasts to control and manipulate the Iranian people.
What may be surprising is that European companies, particularly satellite providers, continue to provide services to Tehran despite its comprehensive assault on free expression and free access to information.
Iran leads the world in illegal jamming of international satellite broadcasts, but it is a prolific user of international broadcasting platforms for its own programming. European satellite companies like Eutelsat, Intelsat and Arqiva provide extensive services to the Iranian state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), including for domestic Iranian radio and television broadcasts, and for Iran’s growing list of foreign-language channels, like the English-language PressTV and the Arabic Al-Alam.
But Eutelsat also hosts many of the stations whose programming Tehran jams. It has not stopped carrying IRIB channels on its satellites, which are facilitated through Arqiva, even though the Iranian government is effectively destroying the products of its other clients.
Over the past two years, during which Iran increased its jamming of Persian-language broadcasts from abroad, Eutelsat and Arqiva have done little to hold the Iranian government accountable. Either company could have contractually required Iran to stop its jamming, which is politically motivated censorship, or refused to carry IRIB. Instead Eutelsat’s response was to discontinue broadcasting BBC Persian and VOA Persian on the most accessible and popular satellite, Hotbird6, and to move them to less accessible satellites.
Providing continuous service to the IRIB as long as extensive jamming of Persian-language media is taking place is essentially a gift to the Iranian government from European satellite companies.
Worse, the IRIB is not a simple broadcasting service. It is an integral part of the Iranian intelligence and security services, engaged in unprecedented domestic repression. The IRIB’s camera crew and staff act as interrogators, going inside prisons to obtain coerced confessions from prisoners of conscience, hand in hand with interrogators and torturers from the Iranian intelligence services.
One of its most well-known victims is journalist Maziar Bahari, who has given extensive testimony on how the IRIB and its affiliates sent their staff to prison to prepare him for being paraded in front of television cameras after his arrest following the 2009 presidential election.
Mr. Bahari’s case is far from unique. The IRIB acts as the state’s broadcast producer and creative director for forced televised confessions and show trials. Numerous other Iranian prisoners of conscience have suffered at the hands of their interrogators, who, in collusion with IRIB, televised their coerced confessions. The IRIB broadcasts such confessions even before prisoners are brought in front of a judge for prosecution. More than 100 activists were prosecuted and sentenced following such televised “show trials” in August 2009.
The IRIB is also a hub for broadcasting a range of libelous programs and spreading hate speech against a wide spectrum of Iranians: civil-society activists, religious minorities such as Bahais and Shia Sufis, dissident clerics—basically anyone who does not toe the official government line.
European companies choose to look the other way while such coerced confessions and libelous programs flow freely from their satellites and access to alternative Persian-language channels is made difficult. It is time to stop this duplicitous practice. These companies are hiding behind their “contractual obligations,” but it is the very power of their contracts that allows them to sever their ties with the Iranian government, or to make their services contingent on Iran’s compliance with basic telecommunications and human-rights standards.
The European Union and U.S. should take immediate and decisive action requiring that these satellite companies end their cooperation with Iranian censors. Given the IRIB’s integral role in widespread human-rights crimes in Iran, European and American companies should not be allowed to provide it any services.
Last month, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for Eutelsat to cease service as long as illegal jamming is taking place. The European Council should follow with a binding decision banning all services by European companies to the IRIB. Without pressure on these companies from both sides of Atlantic, the people of Iran will remain cut off from the outside world.
—Ms. Ebadi is an Iranian human-rights lawyer and the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Ghaemi is director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
[This op-ed was originally published in Wall Street Europe on 9 December 2011.]