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Iran’s Propagandist Extraordinaire Given Top Media Job

November 19, 2014
Parvaneh Massoumi
9 min read
Iran’s Propagandist Extraordinaire Given Top Media Job

The man responsible for Iran’s global propaganda output has taken the helm at Iran’s flagship state media agency, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting company (IRIB), appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on November 8. For more than two decades, Mohammad Sarafraz commanded influence behind the scenes of some of Iran’s most prominent global broadcasting brands, including English-language Press TV, Arabic-language Al-Alam and the Spanish-language HispanTV, all of which he founded.

Press TV, IRIB’s English satellite channel, has repeatedly broadcast the forced confessions of jailed journalists, including that of IranWire’s Maziar Bahari. Bahari, who was accredited by Newsweek to cover the 2009 presidential election, was jailed after he reported on the widespread protests that followed the official election results.


A Channel with a Mission

Since its inception, the Press TV mission has been to confront  “the invasion of foreign media” and “the military presence of America in the region”. To achieve this goal, the station’s management has repeatedly disregarded journalistic scruples and impartiality, broadcasting unverified news and, sometimes, outright lies. In one “report” about the US military, Press TV featured clips from an US-produced pornographic film that included actors dressed in military uniforms. Without paying attention to the source of the images and despite warnings from his editors, Sarafraz ordered that the images appear on Press TV, presented as evidence that US soldiers had raped imprisoned Iraqi women. When it became evident that the photographs were fictitious, Sarafraz ordered them to be removed from the network’s portal, though the text claiming that US soldiers had committed sexual assault remained on its website. He never offered an apology to the network’s audience.

In another news piece, the station used a number of unconfirmed reports regarding the use of unmanned drones by American forces in Somalia. Press TV claimed that hundreds of civilians had been killed in the attacks, but representatives working for the UN and a Somalia-based charity, along with other NGO spokespeople and journalists, said the attacks could not be confirmed.

Sarafraz is known for his management style, which has favored absolute obedience in staff over demonstration of their religious beliefs. His appointment of Setareh Ghaneh and Hamid Reza Emadi, who he brought on as director of international affairs and newsroom director respectively at Press TV, are two cases in point. Neither middle managers are strict Muslims but they followed orders. In another controversial move, he hired an executive who had recently been fired on grounds of sexual harassment to take over the running of Press TV operations in Tehran.


Presidential Election of 2009 and Forced Confessions

In the run up to the 2009 presidential election, networks under the supervision of Sarafraz gave equal time to the four presidential candidates in an effort to demonstrate impartiality. But a day after the results were announced, Sarafraz mobilized Press TV, targeting then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s main competitors, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Initially, Press TV and other networks failed to cover the widespread protests that shook Tehran. But as they made headlines in the international media, Press TV covered them too, albeit in an extremely limited and controlled manner. In some cases, Sarafraz personally dictated text to news editors, instructing them to use images that showed the fewest number of demonstrators to accompany reports.

After the 2009 election, Sarafraz led the campaign to promote the Islamic Republic’s security services in an international context. He broadcast the forced confessions of detained protesters and journalists, and networks he controlled worked closely with security forces to ensure a number of forced confessions extracted from other prisoners of conscience were broadcast, in order to further support the credibility of the regime. Press TV’s interview with Yousef Nadarkhani, a Christian convert and  pastor who was sentenced to death in 2010, is one example. Nadarkhani was later acquitted; the Islamic Republic claimed that his sentence was unrelated to his conversion. “Nobody is executed in our country for choosing a religion,” a government official said. “He had committed crimes against national security”.

Press TV also broadcast an interview with Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was sentenced to death by stoning on charges of adultery in 2006. Earlier this year, Ashtiani was released from prison after 10 years’ imprisonment. Speaking about the case, officials from Iran’s judiciary and other authorities provided vague explanations for the miscarriage of justice and its repercussions.


Widespread Criticism and Half an “Arab Spring”

Following this string of miscalculations and exposes, Press TV received harsh criticism from both domestic and international media agencies, and from within the network itself. Sarafraz, who refused to tolerate criticism from within his own ranks, dismissed a number of Press TV employees; others left voluntarily. Finally, in March 2013, the European Union blacklisted him. “He has worked with the Iranian security services and prosecutors to broadcast forced confessions of detainees, including that of Iranian-Canadian journalist and film-maker Maziar Bahari,” the Official Journal of the European Union wrote. Director Hamid Reza Emadi, who had been appointed by Sarafraz, was also blacklisted.

The previous year, ahead of the 2013 presidential election, Press TV paid Britain’s Sky Net a considerable sum to ensure that audiences in Britain could access the channel without the need for a satellite receiver. In this way, Sarafraz and his band of executives were in a position to command substantial control over Iran’s image internationally, without the messy logistics of having to jam signals of Persian-language satellite channels and censor the news.

But their sense of achievement was short-lived, because the UK’s regulatory authority already had its eye on Press TV because of its decision to broadcast forced confessions in 2009 – brought to the regulator’s attention through both media outlets and an official complaint lodged by Bahari about his own case. It fined Press TV ₤100,000.

Press TV refused to pay the fine because, as it its media department stated publicly, the channel had done nothing wrong. Furthermore, it is likely executives were worried that, after settling the fine it would be barred from any future broadcast arrangements with Sky Net — which is exactly what happened.

After Press TV was expelled from Sky Net, its editorial policies embraced a more reckless and extremist stance. The network no longer had any qualms about covering up unsubstantiated reports or broadcasting violent, one-sided imagery or footage. Some IRIB directors blamed Sarafraz and his appointees of wasting huge amounts of money and mishandling the case of Maziar Bahari. From the regime’s perspective, this might well have been one black mark on Sarafraz’s otherwise gleaming record.

IRIB’s World Service was mobilized once again by the events of the so-called “Arab Spring” in late 2010 and early 2011. Press TV warmly welcomed the revolution in Tunisia, but when unrest began in Syria, it had a big media management problem on its hands — particularly when protests were so ruthlessly suppressed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic Republic’s old ally. Ties along political lines naturally extended to media relations, with Press TV reporters based in Damascus having good contacts with members of Syrian security forces; those working in Lebanon are in direct contact with members of Beirut-based Hezbollah. Sarafraz hired researchers to locate videos of popular protests in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen. Under no circumstances, however, were Press TV and his other outlets allowed to publish or broadcast videos of protests in Syria.

Sarafraz has close ties to Ayatollah Khamenei and his circle; part of his job has always been to pay close attention to news coverage about the Supreme Leader. As head of the IRIB, this will become central to his role. The network reports on and broadcasts all of Khamenei’s speeches, as does its website. In a directive to editors at Press TV and his other stations, Sarafraz had insisted that Khamenei should never be referenced with the pronoun “he;” he should always be referred to as the “the leader of the Islamic Revolution” and not “leader of the Islamic Republic”.


The Years Leading up to the Sarafraz Empire

Like many powerful media figures in Iran, Mohammad Sarafraz comes from a family steeped in the values of the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath. Immediately following the revolution, Sarafraz’s father was Ayatollah Khomeini’s representative at the University of Medical Sciences and the national airlines. Mohammad Sarafraz’s brothers, Javad and Ali, were both killed in the 1980s. Javad lost his life, along with more than 70 members of the Islamic Republic Party, in June 1981, when the opposition group People's Mujahedin of Iran planted a bomb at the party headquarters. Ali was killed in the Iran-Iraq war, in which Mohammad Sarafraz was also injured, according to his own accounts.

Sarafraz began his media career in the early 1990s, after receiving his Ph.D from a university in Beirut.  He first worked as an editor for the conservative newspaper Resalat, and later joined IRIB, where he was rapidly promoted. In August 1994 he was appointed vice-president of IRIB’s foreign service. Since then he has established himself firmly in the organization by unconditionally following the wishes of the Supreme Leader. The high point of his career came when he founded the Press TV, Al-Alam and HispanTV satellite channels. Though he is not fluent in either English or Arabic, he has been adept at hiring experts without loosening his grip the networks and overseeing their operations at every level.

IRIB networks have been accused of being one of the biggest violators of labor laws in Iran. Under Sarafraz’s supervision, employees are given no contracts and are forced to give up their year-end bonuses and seniority-related benefits, along with other benefits. If an employee refuses to sign these agreements, they are simply fired. Employees based outside Iran are paid at higher rates, something that the network can afford since it violates domestic labor laws and refuses to pay employees’ insurance and other costs.

Sarafraz controls every detail of operations, overseeing every aspect of his empire. He approves every program aired or feature presented, whatever the topic. Editors and directors have been stripped of any decision-making powers. As a result, if a news item is deemed to be controversial, it will not be broadcast if Sarafraz is not available to personally approve or reject it.

This management style will undeniably help him prosper in his new position — although it is unclear whether he will be have the same room to maneuver when working solely in the domestic arena. He will also have to deal with people who remain faithful to previous directors of IRIB. His first challenge will be building a relationship with Ali Darabi, the current deputy director. From an ideological point of view, the two men are not very different from each other — but Darabi has considerable weight and influence at IRIB, something with which Sarafraz might not be comfortable.

Whatever his personal relations strategy is, it is secondary to his chief aim: to keep on the right side of Ayatollah Khamenei. For this, he can apply his own management style. After all, he is a master. He hears and he obeys.