On Sunday, March 6, Facebook flung the official page of the Tehran-sponsored Al-Alam TV channel off its platform. The official Arabic-language arm of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) had retained a presence on the site since 2010. The permanent ban came without warning, but at a time when tech giants including Google, Facebook and Twitter have purged a welter of official accounts for spreading disinformation about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Al-Alam is the first known Iranian outlet to be taken off Facebook since the invasion began on February 24.
Tellingly, the only international media to pick up on the news straight away were other foreign-facing arms of the IRIB. This included PressTV, the IRIB’s flagship TV news channel in English and French. “The new attack against freedom of expression,” PressTV fumed on Monday, “comes as al-Alam TV Facebook page… had attracted some 6,000,000 followers over the past years.” Actually the taken-down page, Al-Alam News Network, only had 9,246 likes; a defunct, previous page last updated in 2013 had another 61,633 likes and 64,674 followers.
PressTV, meanwhile, has 3.8m likes on its English Facebook page alone, and tens of thousands of followers across its extant Twitter accounts. Unlike Al-Alam, and more like the English arm of its Russian counterpart Russia Today/RT, the newly-reborn presstv.ir – the former domain, presstv.com, was seized by the FBI last year – has been a little more circumspect than most other Islamic Republic-controlled outlets in its coverage of the war.
The 24-hour channel, first launched in 2007, seeks to build a broad base of (often unwitting) support for the Iranian government and the principles of the Islamic Revolution by presenting a softer, more palatable version of Iranian state media output. PressTV aims to appeal to English speakers across the globe: particularly those with a globalist mindset and/or anti-capitalist outlook, who may be sympathetic to causes like the Palestinian resistance movement, freeing Julian Assange, and others co-opted by the Iranian regime in its tedious tirades against Western “hegemony”.
PressTV lost its broadcasting licence from British regulator Ofcom in 2012, after it unproblematically aired a forced confession by Maziar Bahari. Despite being blocked from the airwaves, it has awkwardly retained a tangible presence in the United Kingdom since then, including – at least until last November – a limited company and a physical studio in Chiswick, west London, with several UK-based, English-speaking journalists on the payroll (together with a cluster of colleagues directly employed by the IRIB). From this bastion of free speech and others outside Iran, PressTV has promoted Holocaust denial, conspiracy theories and Covid-19 disinformation, even hosting ex-KKK leader David Duke. But to be sanctioned outright in the UK or EU now would pose extreme difficulties for the broadcaster.
For these reasons, and perhaps also with half an eye to the looming prospect of an imminent revival of the JCPOA, since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine PressTV has mostly avoided republishing the crassest and most obviously fake stories emerging from the bowels of Sputnik HQ. Instead, and still very much in line with Ayatollah Khomeini’s and the IRIB’s objectives, the channel has relied on subtler means to distort, detract from and cast doubt on the so-far known realities of the war.
Positing a Proxy War, One Headline at a Time
Since February 24, Iranian officials – from Khamenei himself to the Foreign Minister to hardline and IRGC-linked media outlets – have sung from a near-identical hymn sheet on the invasion. While not realistically able to repeat Putin’s fallacy about “Nazis” inside the country due to Iran’s own record of state-sponsored antisemitism, the Islamic Republic has seized on the idea that the conflict is the fault of NATO, the US and “the West”.
In recent days, PressTV has enjoyed use of a slightly wider vocabulary to describe what is happening in Eastern Europe. Where other Iranian state-controlled outlets are seemingly briefed to refer to it as a “crisis”, PressTV’s headlines were describing the invasion as a “broad offensive” by Russia at least as far back as seven days ago.
However, in its headlines – the most impactful part of an article in the social media age, where news items are often widely shared without being fully read – PressTV has also paid disproportionate attention to US interventions in the conflict. The titles have tended to sidelin public denunciations of Russia, sanctions and weapons shipments to Ukraine from member states of the European Union. Instead, an item on Sunday declared: “Risk of close encounter between US, Russian forces”: framing the invasion as an indirect stand-off between Washington and Moscow. The copy placed emphasis on quotes from US military officials only, and described the undeniable, broad global coalition of support for Kyiv – perhaps best displayed in Wednedsay’s UN resolution condemning the war, backed by 141 countries and opposed only by Russia North Korea, Syria, Eritrea and Belarus – as “US and its allies”. It then stated: “US-led efforts to support a Ukrainian military confrontation with Russia mean that more American and allied aircraft will be operating near Ukraine.”
A mass of other recently-published PressTV headlines have tried to give credence to the idea that the US specifically will be spoiling for a fight with Russia, with Ukraine as its chief proxy and chosen stage. A “news” item dated February 27, entitled “US drones flew overhead as Ukraine attacked Russian ships”, intimated that the US was directing Ukrainian military operations (with the Russian Defense Minister as its sole source). “Blinken visits Poland”, stated one article on Sunday, omitting to mention that Ukraine’s Foreign Minister had also been in Poland that weekend, that Volodymyr Zelenskyy had spoken to the British Prime Minister on the phone, and Turkey had offered to host talks between Ukraine and Russia – not the US. Several articles have focused on US contributions of lethal weapons to Ukraine without mentioning other states; the latest on Sunday was headlined “50 US-led planes of weapons reaches [sic] Ukraine.” The accompanying copy acknowledged that weapons shipments had also come from Britain, Canada, Poland and Lithuania, but throughout persisted in qualifying military support to of Ukraine from third countries as “US-led”.
Tellingly, just one well-known piece of Russian-origin fake news was shared by PressTV this week: the insane claim attributed to SVR-RF that the US was transferring “Daesh [ISIS] terrorists” from Syria to Ukraine. Unlike other Iranian state-run outlets, PressTV sought to cover itself by prefacing the headline on Friday with “Russia says”, and further down by quoting the Russian intelligence service on the line: “Washington continues to form new Daesh units in the Middle East and Africa in order to deploy them to Ukraine via neighboring Poland.”
Elsewhere, an American anti-war activist interviewed by PressTV has claimed “corporate shills in Washington” engineered the invasion (headline: “Ukraine’s blood is on US and NATO hands”). Officials from regional paragons of peacekeeping Hezbollah and Hamas were each afforded a dedicated article in which to blame the US for the war. A regular RT “guest expert” named Daniel Patrick Welch – whose qualifications beyond soap-making and singing have been questioned by the EU East StratCom Task Force – has newly opined to PressTV that the World Wars taught Russia “unique lessons… about the cost of human life”, and that “billions and billions of people” mainly blame NATO and “its US trainers” for the war declared by Putin on Ukraine. Another March 7 article by a Tehran University student, featured on the PressTV homepage, begins: “West, the true beginner of war in Ukraine”.
Omissions Indicate Tehran’s Red Lines
As mentioned above, PressTV’s online coverage of Ukraine has been slightly more freewheeling than those of its sister platforms, at least in Iran and in the Spanish-speaking and Arabic-speaking worlds. However, many of the IRIB’s foreign satellite platforms dovetail on the parts of the story they have so far neglected to mention. Among the omissions in PressTV's online news reports, which might be indicative of overall IRIB policy, are:
- That Russia invaded Ukraine. No single instance of the word “invasion” to describe the events of February 24 and afterward could be found via a search of PressTV’s English website on March 7;
- That although part of Vladimir Putin’s justification of the assault was the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish;
- That the United Nations now ascertains there have been more than 1,100 civilian casualties and more than 360 civilian deaths in Ukraine since Putin’s invasion (on February 24, PressTV twice reported Moscow saying there was “no threat to civilians);
- That more than 10,000 Russian citizens have been arrested for attending anti-war protests since February 24, including more than 4,300 on Sunday alone, according to tracking organization OVD-Info;
- That the State Duma on Friday imposed a jail term of up to 15 years on those who publish non-Kremlin-approved information on the invasion;
- That both the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have, in separate missives, asked Russia specifically to halt the invasion “for the sake of humanity”;
- That despite the Islamic Republic’s avowed support for Putin, Iran abstained from voting against the condemnation of Putin’s actions at the UN General Assembly.
It goes without saying that there has also been nominal coverage by PressTV of the devastation to homes and businesses caused by days-long Russian shelling of Ukrainian cities like Kharkhiv and Mariupol, none at all of the ongoing, hundreds of thousands-strong pro-Ukraine rallies in Western, Central and Eastern European cities, and no mention of International Criminal Court prosecutors’ having been dispatched on Thursday to investigate possible war crimes.
Whataboutism Travels Two Ways
“Whataboutism” or “whataboutery” is the English portmanteau for a rhetorical strategy that was first popularized as a state propaganda tool, funnily enough, by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It involves deflecting attention from a given subject by drawing attention to supposedly comparable cases elsewhere, in a logical fallacy that seeks to water down, minimize, ridicule or detract from the subject at hand (rather than refute its validity as a subject outright).
In the past 12 days, ordinary people, observers and activists on social media have remarked at the scale of international support shown for Ukraine vis-à-vis previous conflicts. From the rapid imposition of wide-ranging sanctions on Russia, to mass media coverage and popular demonstrations of sympathy with Ukraine, to the opening-up of countries like Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Romania to more than 1.5m Ukrainian refugees, some assess that the net outpouring of support has dwarfed that shown, for example, to brutalized Syrians, Palestinians, and victims of the proxy war in Yemen.
This is, of course, a reasonable opinion for a private individual to hold and express. But seized on and weaponized by state-controlled media, it has a different function. Whataboutism has been a mainstay of Tehran’s outward-facing propaganda for decades, especially at times when the Islamic Republic is facing international flak for human rights abuses. Platforms like PressTV are not engaging with the zeitgeist by encouraging readers to follow this line of argument; based on guidelines set by a foreign government thousands of miles away, they are using guilt and gaslighting, tools that work just as well if not better on some audiences than basic disinformation, to excuse the actions of their bankroller’s perceived allies.
“West's double standards: War-torn Yemen demands 'a quarter' of UN attention to Ukraine”, announced the headline of one article on May 5, which was later amended to reflect the fact that save for one throwaway quip the story had nothing to do with Ukraine (the same article was carried by the IRIB’s English-language radio station, Pars Today). Elsewhere PressTV paraphrased an interview given to RT by Tehran University “Professor of English Literature and Orientalism” Mohammad Marandi: “If they are so upset about what’s going on in Ukraine, he stated, they should look at their own actions in Latin America, in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua”. On March 1, PressTV quoted Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah as having “criticized the international community’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis and lambasted its apathy towards wars on Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen”.
Then on Friday, an “in-depth news” item carried the headline: “Ukraine: Some refugees more equal than others”. The next day, PressTV’s correspondent in France wrote: “These rights [afforded to Ukrainian refugees] are not being extended to refugees from Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali the Central African Republic or any of the other countries in which Western armed interventions provoked refugee crises.” The article omitted to mention that many Syrian refugees were also fleeing barrel bombs dropped on them by the Assad regime, or that the vast majority of displaced Syrians – as is likely to be the case with Ukraine – applied for asylum and settled in neighbouring countries, rather than going to the EU.
Aware that race is an extremely sensitive issue in France, the UK and the US, and in line with a much longer-running policy of accusing critics of Tehran and its allies of “Islamophobia”, PressTV has this week amplified genuine, documented incidents of racism at the border and in scattered TV commentary in a bid to encourage readers to believe that widespread public concern for Ukrainians is race-based, and therefore suspect. The France correspondent wrote that Ukrainians were “getting treated totally differently from Black, Brown and Muslim asylum-seekers”. Guest author John Wight writes of a “disease of Eurocentrism” in Europe: “Given the hysteria that has gripped the West… –you would think that the prolonged suffering of the Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian and Yemeni people was neither here nor there; merely part of the natural order of things when it comes to people of a certain culture and skin color.” English PressTV correspondent Robert Carter, who has twice accused Iranians opposed to the regime in Tehran of being “not real Iranians” and “traitors”, wrote on Twitter: “People claiming #Ukraine war is worst we've seen in Europe since WW2… Er hello!? What about Yugoslavia and the genocide of Bosnian Muslims? Oh sorry, not blue eyed enough.”
Clearly, all's fair in love and war. If a “what-about” retort were to be levelled at PressTV’s coverage of Ukraine to date, it might be that every word of it has been paid for by a known state sponsor of actual – not imaginary or “economic” – terrorism, human rights violations, arming proxy wars, alienating ethnic and religious minorities, antisemitism and Holocaust denial, the murder, abuse and conscription of Afghan refugees – and, of course, back at home at least, for being among the world’s most extreme violators of journalists’ rights and of the right to free speech.