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Banning Press TV

When Censorship Goes System-Wide

by AFSHIN RATTANSI

The style in which journalists lie at say, the BBC or NBC needed the might of an Edward S. Herman or Noam Chomsky to decode. Their “Manufacturing Consent” exposed the complexity of how systematic and deliberate misinformation is carried on the airwaves. That changed in the run up to the wars on Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan – maybe because journalists read the book. Now, we need an update. Not content with super-structurally being averse to the truth, broadcast media on the entire continent of Europe is avowedly censoring television news networks.

The announcement first came from EUTELSAT, a French-based company that runs satellites which broadcast news over Europe as well as the Middle East, Africa, India and parts of Asia and the Americas. Without warning, the company informed Iran’s Press TV, the English-language 24-hour news channel, that it was not allowed to beam its TV shows to Europe. I should add that I once anchored for the channel and now make an independent production for them. (I’ll get to the ban being a precursor for media-management of another terrible war, later.)

Press TV rang a spokesperson at EUTELSAT who explained it wasn’t their fault: they said they had been told to ban the channel by the European Commission. And Press TV, wasn’t the only one – the continent that cradled the Enlightenment also thought eight more television channels were too dangerous for Descartes, Locke, and Voltaire to watch.

In the history of television news broadcasting, no news channel has ever been banned by a continent and yet viewers of mainstream media across Europe were not even notified that their liberty had vanished. The ban could be a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. But then, Article 10 states that “the exercise” of free speech “may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society…in the interests of national security…for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence.”

There’s no doubt that Press TV has been only too happy to disseminate news arising from Wikileaks’ whistle-blowers as well as pronouncements from governments in Kabul and Baghdad that could well be seen to be endangering occupying foreign forces. Its coverage of elections in the world’s number one oil superpower, Venezuela, was surely vindicated, though.

Over in the U.S., where whistle-blowers have never been under more threat, most Americans probably think they have First Amendment rights to free speech. But all one has to do is look at the Obama administration’s use of the 1917 Espionage Act – more times than by any other president – to see how those rights can be waived.

But, at least, President Obama is not banning radio and TV stations. If anything, the U.S. moved away from its policy of censorship, revoking the so-called “Red Lion Rule” which forced stations to abide by the statutory “fairness” that was enshrined in a 1969 Supreme Court case involving a journalist who wrote for The Nation. Later, thanks to the GOP presidential vetoes of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush against Democrats in Congress, the rule was thrown away. Now, Americans are free to hear broadcasts such as Democracy Now and Fox News – albeit creeping within the Herman/Chomsky superstructure of mainstream media. Mitt Romney, in his tirade against Sesame Street’s Big Bird, was obviously being the old Massachusetts maverick when he seemed to be opposing Reagan and Bush Sr. by proposing the effective silencing of Bert and Ernie.

The U.S. often seems to be the excuse that the EU gives when it continues its hyperactive attempts at destroying the lives of ordinary Iranians via sanctions, even as Obama increases exports to Iran (up by a third in the first eight months of 2012). I half thought the EU’s reason for silencing Press TV would be some kind of half-hearted “Washington told us” excuse. But when Press TV contacted an official at the European Council, she was quick to deny that the broadcast ban was engineered by the European Commission. She seemed to point to Eutelsat and the Canadian-Australian TV transmission company, Arquiva.

Back in Washington DC, Cliff Kincaid of the right-wing Accuracy in Media outfit, immediately defended it by saying that Press TV was still available on the internet. It is a kind of absurdist take on the revocation of the “Red Lion Rule” which abolished censorship of U.S. broadcast media on the basis of a rationed broadcasting spectrum, i.e. that broadcasters should not be strait-jacketed compared to their print-journalist brethren on the grounds that they had rare access to new technology.

The internet is, of course, a great boon to those seeking to counterpunch their message against prevailing mainstream illusions but those dangerous illusions are, as yet, much more readily available on platforms like radios and TVs. This may well change soon. But, even so, while it has the power, the continent of Europe is doing its best to silence any voice that does not subscribe to the views of its genocidal institutions. In January, a Kurdish TV station under fire from Ankara was kicked off EUTELSAT even while it waited for a judicial appeal in a Danish Court about its pro-PKK broadcasting. In a Wikileaks U.S. State Department cable dating from November, 2010, there was a reference to a “2009 POTUS-brokered deal that had overcome Turkish objections to the appointment of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO Secretary General.” “Denmark,” it said, “had promised to clarify its legal requirements prerequiste (sic) to acceding to Turkey’s request for the closure of Roj TV.” So that’s why NATO is run by that man!

In another Wikileaks cable from 2010,  a British diplomat begs forgiveness for denying a request from a U.S. official to ban Press TV in the UK, explaining that “UK law sets a very high standard for denying licenses to broadcasters. Licenses can only be denied in cases where national security is threatened, or if granting a license would be contrary to Britain.”

Throwing it back at the U.S. official, the UK diplomat goes on to say it’s France’s problem. “In the immediate term, Her Majesty’s Government plans to lobby the French government to approach EUTELSAT and press it to drop Press TV from the HOTBIRD satellite. It is an important source of income for EUTELSAT [so] while it would be unlikely for the company to agree to drop the…broadcasts spontaneously…it would be susceptible to an approach by the French government because of the cover it would gain from complying with an official government request. Her Majesty’s Government would appreciate U.S. Government engagement with the government of France on this issue.”

As it turned out, the British censorship agency, OFCOM, unilaterally banned the TV news channel from the UK at the beginning of the year.

It was, of course, Qatar’s Al Jazeera Arabic that pioneered Non-Aligned Nation, international TV news broadcasting. But there is a great irony about the “soft power” of TV channels: the power is lost if the channel is no longer authentic, no longer telling truth to power. As energy-rich Qatar is beginning to realise, the very moment a nation seeks to manipulate its own popular news channel to suit geostrategic aims, the audience moves away. All that work and all that money to create a trustworthy news source can vanish in a few months as Al Jazeera Arabic has found out after editorialising on Bahrain, Syria and Libya. And do people really take the BBC seriously after the run-up to the war in Iraq and the government-forced exits of its Chairman and Director-General?

As revolutions against U.S.-backed dictators in the Arab world have shown, it is now whistle-blowers and streaming internet video that is proving a more potent force than satellite TV broadcasting. Unfortunately, it is the same private networking companies that run satellite TV transmission as run the cables that are our advertising-sponsored internet. For the short to medium term, though, Europe’s attempts at banning Press TV will serve only to heighten its reputation and increase its hits on YouTube. The first casualty in the next imperial war will not be truth, but innocent, bloody, and in HD.

AFSHIN RATTANSI runs Alternate Reality Productions Ltd. He worked at the The Guardian, BBC Today Programme, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera Arabic and helped launch the Middle East’s first international English-language TV Channel. His book, “The Dream of the Decade” is available at Amazon.com. One of Alternate Reality’s first commissions was “Double Standards”, a political satire show for Press TV, broadcast every Saturday at 2230 GMT. First banned in Britain and now across Europe, the show can be accessed via www.doublestandardstv.com. He can be reached viaafshinrattansi@hotmail.com.