Iran's Oil Tanker Seizure Revs Up Fight For Global Public Opinion

Aug 21, 2019
Originally published on August 21, 2019 11:53 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

From two continents, we are tracking two radically different views of a global story. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at the U.N. yesterday. He offered an American view of Iran.

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MIKE POMPEO: The Ayatollah has gone all in on a campaign of extortion diplomacy.

GREENE: Among other things, Pompeo criticized Iran for seizing a British-flagged oil tanker.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, a news service from here in Iran offers the opposite narrative. Iran's Press TV has quoted an official accusing Britain of piracy because British authorities had previously stopped an Iranian tanker.

GREENE: Press TV broadcasts in English to an audience far outside Iran, which makes it a weapon in the fight for global public opinion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEBATE")

GREENE: So it's a TV news channel with a familiar format, with news reports and talk shows...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEBATE")

BEHROUZ NAJAFI: Good day, everyone, and a warm welcome to another edition of "The Debate" on Press TV.

GREENE: ...Except it offers an Iranian view. Western governments treat it as an instrument of Iran's power. They target it much like Russia's information operations. Britain knocked Press TV off cable years ago. The U.S. Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on its parent agency, and U.S. tech companies recently blocked some of its Internet platforms. So what is Press TV's editorial approach?

INSKEEP: You see it in stories where Iran takes an interest, like that tanker story, or stories of Iran's enemy, Israel, or the war in Yemen. The U.S. backs Saudi Arabia there. Iran backs a group on the other side, called the Houthis, and this week, Press TV showed an analyst from Yemen saying Houthis should attack Saudi oil fields more often.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I think the time has come to target the Saudi backbone. We know that the Saudi economy and Saudi role in Yemen depend 100% on their oil export to the United States and U.K. And for all the oil reserves that Saudi has, it gets all the support from the United States and U.K.

GREENE: The United States pays attention to Press TV. Aside from sanctions, the U.S. detained a Press TV host for 10 days this year, calling her a material witness in an unknown case. But, Steve, here's my question. I mean, we should note that the United States broadcasts beyond its borders. There's services like Voice of America, though they say they're offering neutral news. How does Press TV describe its goals?

INSKEEP: Well, we went to ask. We went to their building, which is on a quiet street in northern Tehran. They have a newsroom with TV's on the wall tuned to different channels, which we saw with Syed Vehid Tehami (ph), who's the top editor.

When you look at that wall of screens, how different is what's on the Press TV in the middle from what might be on some of the other screens?

SYED VEHID TEHAMI: Well, a lot of times, the stories might be the same. We might be covering the same stories. But when you listen, you might hear different content coming out.

INSKEEP: Tehami has been at Press TV since its start in 2007, and he describes his mission using the same phrase as some partisan media outlets in the U.S. He says he offers alternatives to the mainstream media.

TEHAMI: Our main objective when we started was to give out our perspective and give out the news on Iran because we felt it wasn't being done properly by the so-called mainstream media.

INSKEEP: And you do seem to be part of a global effort. We passed the offices of the Spanish-language television network on the way up here. So there's English, Spanish, Arabic. What makes it worth it to Iran to be broadcasting these messages to the world?

TEHAMI: We thought that there was a lack of information. There was a lack of our own perspective. So we wanted to put the word out and, so to speak, paint another picture of our country.

INSKEEP: Although, there was a fascinating moment a few months ago when the CEO of the World Service here - I guess your boss - went to Moscow and met with officials from the Russian English-language equivalent of Press TV...

TEHAMI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...RT.

TEHAMI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And a headline on Press TV was, "Iran-Russia Media Cooperation Can Dim Western Dominion."

TEHAMI: Well, in some way, they feel - I don't know. They feel that they've been done wrong regarding with the West. But what we're doing here, going to RT, going to other places, we have relations with many media outlets. We work with all of them.

INSKEEP: But it sounds like the thing with RT is something a little deeper. I mean, when I hear that headline in Press TV that sounds like there is an ideological agreement that...

TEHAMI: I wouldn't...

INSKEEP: ...Both networks have some shared common views of the world, and they want to get them out there in a coordinated way.

TEHAMI: I wouldn't call it an ideological, but I do say that we do have some common ground on some issues that we're covering.

INSKEEP: What are some of those issues?

TEHAMI: Like Syria. I mean, Russia is heavily involved in Syria. So naturally, there was a common point of view, and exchange of information and, you know, stuff like that going on.

INSKEEP: What did you think about when the U.S. Treasury Department targeted this organization last year?

TEHAMI: Well, as I said, we don't understand it very much because we don't think - we don't consider it to be fair because as I said, if we claim that free flow of information should exist, it should also be for us, too. So without any good reason, I would call it, why would they limit us? They're all limiting us on the Internet all the time and our broadcasts. But we're doing what we do, and we're trying to get around it.

INSKEEP: You are being limited on the Internet.

TEHAMI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: I think Google, which controls YouTube...

TEHAMI: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Blocked dozens of channels...

TEHAMI: Yes, yes.

INSKEEP: ...That you were showing things. The Treasury Department, though, did give some reasons. One of them was they said information is censored here. So they blamed you for that. Another was they seemed to dislike some of your coverage, like playing the statements that appeared to be coerced of prisoners. They cited specific reasons.

TEHAMI: Well, those prisoner interviews that you're talking about is not - we didn't do any of those. These are given out by the Ministry of Intelligence here in Iran. So this is how it works. I mean, they carry out the interview and they hand it out to the media. Yes, we do have connections with all the organizations that exist here in Iran - the intelligence ministry, the security agencies. But they hand out the information. So we give out the information.

INSKEEP: When you get that information, do you have an opportunity to question it, to be skeptical about it, to look for other sources of information, conflicting sources of information?

TEHAMI: Well, of course. As I said, we use analysis and those who come on air and talk about the issue. So that is what we do. Information is handed out, and we tell our viewers that this is the information that has been handed to us. So the viewer can decide and see what - if he chooses to believe it or not.

INSKEEP: Syed Vehid Tehami is the top editor in Iran's Press TV, and we heard him as we report from here in Tehran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.