Amid media crackdowns in Iran, we hear from a broadcaster channelling its efforts into making the voice of a nation heard.
Last autumn, Iranian news presenter Niusha Saremi’s telephone lit up with a message that contained a photograph. The picture, sent from Iran, was of a billboard stationed along a highway – one of several that were being erected around the country. It read, “Wanted – Dead or Alive” and featured mocked-up mug-shots of five famous television journalists who work for Iran International, the 24-hour news broadcaster launched in London in 2017. Saremi’s portrait was among them.
“They are trying to brainwash people,” says Saremi, speaking from Iran International’s newsroom in Washington, the network’s temporary broadcast hub since February. Her magazine programme Titr-e Avval (The Lead) is about to begin, starting at 12.30 Eastern time, 20.00 in Iran. Among the stories on the line-up today are an investigation into how the cultural wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been copying popular international television formats – such as talent contest America’s Got Talent – and turning them into pro-government propaganda tools. “They want to make us look like the aggressors,” says Saremi. “We are trying to be a voice for people who have been silenced – the government does not see the media as its friend.”
The billboards began appearing shortly after Tehran named Iran International and other free-to-air outlets, such as bbc Persian and Manoto TV, as terrorist organisations in November 2022. “I try not to think about it; it is a stress and it makes me feel sad,” says Saremi. “Everyone wants to be on a billboard but not like this.”
In February, British counterterrorist officers advised the network that the risk to the channel’s journalists in the UK had become so acute – despite a ramped-up police presence and security fence around the complex – that broadcasts should stop immediately.
“There was no notice at all,” says Mehdi Parpanchi, Iran International’s executive director of operations in the US. The network faced two choices. “Either we had to stop broadcasting entirely or bring everything abroad. The first one was not an option: we couldn’t allow the terrorists to stop us because we knew that their main goal was to shut down the channel.”
Moving an entire news network from one country to another in the space of a weekend – while keeping it on air – was a herculean endeavour. “It was a huge logistical project,” says Aliasghar Ramezanpoor, an Iranian former deputy culture minister and the channel’s executive editor, who is based in London. Ramezanpoor was among the first to be warned by police of an imminent threat to his safety and was advised to relocate to a safe house. He declined to do so. “We were lucky because of the level of courage that our colleagues had.”
Several journalists were eventually flown from London to Washington and the studio’s capability was expanded to allow it to broadcast 24 hours a day. “It happened on a Friday and I was here on Sunday,” says Saremi. “We moved quickly.”
Over the years, Iran International’s journalists have honed ways of reporting on the country that they are in exile from. “I miss a direct connection to my own people,” says Samira Gharaei, a senior correspondent who covers the White House and the US State Department. Some of her recent stories have examined Iran’s drone manufacturing sector, as well as Tehran’s military supply to Russia for its ongoing war in Ukraine.
Gharaei left Iran in her twenties, after her coverage of alleged vote-rigging in the 2008 presidential election made her a target. “My name was on a blacklist,” she says. “Then there were fewer jobs and payments. Life got really difficult. Every Wednesday I needed to go to an office to answer questions. I went in but I didn’t know if I would come out. All of this pressure accumulated and so I decided to leave and pursue another path.”
Reporting on home from abroad is an inherently challenging task. But when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in hospital after being held in police custody last September, being at a distance was an asset. “We were the only main channel to cover the story 24 hours a day,” says executive editor Ramezanpoor, noting the network’s decision to broadcast rolling coverage of the ensuing national demonstrations as women across the country removed and burned their headscarves in protest. “We are not activists, nor were we following a specific political agenda. We were just reporting on what citizens in Iran were saying.”
Members of the public sent the channel more than 1,000 videos, photographs, voice recordings and messages from Iran every day at the height of the demonstrations – material that would have been impossible to broadcast from inside Iran. It was all sifted through, examined and either corroborated or discarded by the news team overseas. “Everyone here is of different ethnicities; we are from different provinces,” says senior correspondent Gharaei. “We had a lot of people talking to friends and families inside Iran and saying, ‘OK, this video is coming from that square, let’s call my auntie and ask if something is really happening.’ But we needed to be extra cautious and careful because one of the Islamic Republic’s tricks is to send you disinformation and then undermine you.”
Being outside Iran also means that the network can report its stories with a depth, scope and perspective that would not otherwise be possible. “It allows us to tap into a more comprehensive network of sources and experts,” says Parpanchi. If a government report on the state of the economy is published in Tehran, the channel’s large roster of commentators fact-check the official version live on air. “Ultimately, our goal is to bridge the information gap for our viewers, to offer a more holistic view of the world around them.”
Examining events from abroad can also help temper the way the network approaches its coverage of events inside Iran. “You can never be numb to any story,” says presenter Fardad Farahzad, shortly after his eponymous weeknight interview show finishes for the evening. “Even though the government is hostile towards you, you still want to be impartial and fair.” Today’s programme includes coverage of the Nato summit in Lithuania as well as an in-depth discussion on the territorial dispute between Iran and the uae over a cluster of Gulf islands. “Our viewers are looking at us and other broadcasters from the outside to open a window onto what’s actually happening in their own country. But because of the relatively large number of reporters that we have worldwide, we can inform them of what’s happening outside of Iran as well.”
Still, Iran International isn’t immune from scrutiny from other quarters. As a registered company in the UK, it is privately funded and therefore does not generate revenue via commercials. Its primary shareholder is a joint Saudi-British national: this has spurred reporting in the international press that the network’s coverage harbours an agenda that indirectly furthers Saudi Arabia’s long-held hostility towards Tehran. Volant Media, Iran International’s parent company, refutes this. “There is nothing to hide,” says Parpanchi. “To me, what matters as a journalist is not who is funding this news organisation. What matters is whether I am making independent editorial decisions. We are only a stone’s throw from The Washington Post. Is Jeff Bezos interfering in the editorial decisions that it is making? Some of the most prestigious news organisations in the world have bowed to pressure from the Iranian government. The choices that we make here, however, are 100 per cent our decisions.”
White House correspondent Samira Gharaei believes that this editorial line explains the network’s extensive reach inside Iran. “People greatly appreciate how objective we are,” she says. But neutrality doesn’t always evoke praise: her recent coverage of the legal proceedings against Donald Trump spurred several viewers to get in touch. “We have audiences in Iran that like Trump so when we report on him, they don’t like it. But overall, I really think that we are having an effect on Iranian people, and how they think about the news.”
An increased reticence among many Iranian households to admitting to tuning in to the channel (for fear of being placed under surveillance) has made it difficult to ascertain precise viewing figures. But it is estimated that more than 90 per cent of Iranian homes have a satellite dish. Given that the network is broadcast 24 hours a day, on several channels, it makes it almost impossible for the Iranian authorities to jam its signals or to take it off the air for prolonged periods.
Later this year, Iran International is expected to resume its presence in the UK, at a new studio complex in London, which, the network says, will be larger than its previous ones. “Our ambition is to improve the quality of the work that we do with more investigations about what is happening in Iran,” says executive editor Ramezanpoor. “The threats mean that the job that we are doing as journalists is successful. That’s the positive side. It’s an encouraging message for us.”