A Guided Tour of Press TV
The running joke at Press TV is that the channel's logo, a rip-off of BBC-style block letters arranged after an oversized globe that looks like an 'o', reads "Opress TV." Every day, when a fleet of shuttle cabs drops employees off at the Tehran headquarters – located on a quiet residential street in the northwest district of Saadat Abad, just blocks from Evin prison – they pass under the huge neon sign looming over the building's entrance. The irony is not lost on anyone, for Press TV claims to serve the worlds oppressed peoples, by “giving a voice to the voiceless” – presumably those ignored by news titans CNN and BBC, and by other English-language news channels such as Euronews, France 24, and even regional rival Al Jazeera.
Its other stated mission: “to address a global audience exposed to misinformation and mudslinging as regards the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The channel director, Mohammad Sarafraz, is the number-two man at IRIB, Iran's state broadcaster (termed ‘Voice and Vision’ in Persian). As such, he has been hand-picked by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose office funds and controls IRIB directly. As deputy head of IRIB, Sarafraz directs the network's international division, which includes television stations Sahar (broadcasting in Kurdish, Urdu, Bosnian, Azerbaijani) and Al-Alam (Arabic), and a few radio stations. Press TV was launched in 2007 after a six-month trial period is his youngest, most ambitious, and reportedly best-loved commission. Even so, multiple obligations at the main IRIB complex means he can only spend a few hours a day running his pet channel.
This brief window of time, however, suffices for Sarafraz to fulfill the duties of the office bestowed upon him by the Supreme Leader. He meets with his departmental managers, gets briefed by his informers, arbitrates disputes, and makes executive decisions.
One decision concerned a female anchor who had added a male colleague as a "friend" on Facebook. He then proceeded to print and circulate photos of her in a string bikini on an Anatolian beach. Sarafraz summoned them for a telling-off and issued a memo forbidding staff to befriend staff on social networks. Another time, the IRIB Vice President (whose diminutive stature is reminiscent of Ahmadinejad) ordered an internet blackout for 48 hours. Personnel, who enjoyed the unique privilege of unfiltered broadband access in Iran, had no clue why the internet was suddenly unavailable. It turned out that Sarafraz had the system shut down to install a special censor – from then on, a white screen warned: Adult content. You are not permitted to view this page. Quite simply, too much porn was being watched in Press TV's offices.
Yet Press TV is startlingly lax for an Iranian governmental workplace. Although the front-desk receptionist and a legion of secretaries sit behind their desks in black chadors (some spend downtime reading the Quran), other female staffers can wear casually draped shawls instead of the face-framing maqna’e required in all state-affiliated offices. These women, who test the limits of this luxury with scarves of bright fuchsia and slinky silk, can often be found gazing at Vogue and Vanity Fair on their monitors.
(Note: Downtime is an integral part of the day at Press TV, whether spent in chats over the ‘tea-cooler’ or napping in the prayer room. The only period that saw frenzied activity was in January 2009, and for that, paychecks were awarded a “Gaza bonus.”)
Who makes up the staff? The bulk are native Iranians who majored in English, the top-tier are Iranian-hyphenates raised abroad and foreign nationals. Many are under 30 and few had prior experience in TV or journalism before signing on. Management typically consists of veteran IRIB producers, while some owe their senior positions to family ties (e.g. the three Mr. Tahami’s).
Interestingly, after the June 2009 presidential election, a handful of anchors and photographers quit their jobs, but the staff largely stayed put. They did not have any problem churning out reports that labeled protesters as “terrorist groups” or purported that Neda Agha Soltan was shot by an MKO assassin instead of being shot by the Basij. Indeed, the majority of the American-Iranian and British-Iranian staffers championed Press TV’s coverage as a counterbalance to what they considered biased warping of the story by Western media. The Khamenei credo, as well as Iranian knee-jerk conspiracy thinking, was embossed in their minds after two years of being immersed in it professionally.
Since before the revolution, the public has reserved a special name for those in the employ of the state’s ideological apparatus: mozdoor, or mercenary. But graduates of UPenn, SOAS, and other top schools – usually the children of affluent families – cannot be written off as just money-hungry. It must be something about walking under that sign day after day, something in the air inside … and in rare cases, the prospect of graduating to the Ministry of Intelligence.
Khosro Ekhtiari worked for Press TV.