Satellite television channels are widening the cross-Gulf divide by airing alleged calls by Iran for revolt in Gulf states and what Tehran sees as western-driven cultural propaganda aimed at toppling its Islamic theocracy
Mistrust has long vexed relations between Shi’ite Muslim Iran and the US-backed, conservative Sunni Muslim Arab monarchies on the other side of the Gulf.
But the atmosphere worsened dramatically last year as contagion from popular protests that overthrew three North African leaders reached Gulf states with substantial but largely powerless Shi'ite communities.
Bahrain has accused Iran’s Arabic-language news channel Al Alam of inciting Shi’ite-led protests. Likewise, Saudi Arabia has indirectly blamed Iran for unrest in its oil-producing Eastern Province, home to many Shi'ites.
“Around-the-clock broadcasts in Arabic by Iran’s state-run radio and television stations incited our population to engage in acts of violence, sabotage, and insurrection,” Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa complained in November. “Iran's propaganda fuelled the flames of sectarian strife.” Tehran has denied egging on Shi’ite protesters abroad.
Iran's bete noires in the Arab world include Gulf-based television stations backed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which airs popular soaps and romantic dramas deemed ‘immoral’ by Iran’s clerical authorities.
The region has a long history of states beaming propaganda at each other’s populations. But the current informal “TV wars” have exacerbated tensions between the Western-aligned Gulf states and Iran, kindled by issues like Tehran’s shadowy nuclear power programme and reliance of Arab dynasties on US military aid.
“This (the “TV wars”) is at the level of people’s perceptions so it raises the level of anger and anxiety,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
Launched in 2003, Al Alam has become popular among Shia in Bahrain and their brethren in Saudi Arabia for its hard-hitting coverage of unrest in the two countries. Al Alam often airs amateur footage of alleged police brutality.
Many Shi’ites say they watch Al Alam because mainstream Arab channels such as Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera pay little attention to the protests. Gulf Arab monarchies fear such publicity could boost the influence of regional Shi'ite giant Iran.
The two satellite channels, owned by conservative Saudi and Qatari investors, have devoted elaborate coverage to uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, in contrast with demonstrations closer to home in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
“Because there’s no coverage from the international or free media, everybody is focusing on Al Alam and the (Lebanese Hezbollah's channel) Al Manar,’ said a Shi’ite activist in the Eastern Province who did not want to be named.
“They’re the only two that are covering the situation in Qatif,” he said, referring to a town which has seen frequent protests by Shi'ites who complain of systematic discrimination, a charge denied by the Saudi leadership.
But many who watch Al Alam are aware that the satellite channel may be carrying exaggerated reports.
“If one person dies, they will say four people died,” the activist told Reuters by telephone.
Al Alam has complained since late 2009 of being knocked off the air by the Saudi-based Arabsat network and Egypt’s Nilesat, but this did not appear to have hurt its audience share.
According to an internal Bahraini government survey in May last year, cited by Western media, 90 per cent of surveyed Shi'ites in the Gulf state obtained their news from Al Alam.
For Iran, steamy Hispanic tele-novellas and popular Korean and US shows – all dubbed into Persian and aired by Murdoch-backed channels out of Dubai – pose the biggest threat, along with western-style news from the BBC Persian and US-funded Radio Farda (Tomorrow) services.
Iran’s hardline Islamist rulers often accuse the US and other western countries of seeking to overthrow clerical rule through a ‘soft’ or ‘velvet’ revolution with the help of foreign satellite channels and Internet websites.
Launched in 2009, Farsi1 is popular among many Iranians, and its Murdoch-backed broadcaster this year launched Zemzemeh (Murmur), a channel targeting female viewers in Iran.
“Our content is non-political and is purely entertainment, so there is no reason for anyone to be concerned about our broadcasts,” said Zaid Mohseni, the chief executive of Broadcast Middle East, a Dubai-based joint venture of News Corp and Afghanistan’s Moby group that broadcasts Farsi1.
“We basically fill a demand that’s already there for good family entertainment programmes and we don’t see the need for anyone to censor or try to stop people from watching us.”
Since the 1979 revolution that implanted strict Islamic sharia law in Iran, Iranian TV shows and films have had to heed religious values by avoiding scenes that show intimate relations between men and women or flout dress codes for women.
Such restrictions have pushed many Iranians to discreetly watch illegal satellite channels for uncensored entertainment and international news.
Iran has piled pressure on the channels, arresting people accused of working for Farsi1 and BB Persian or having links to Radio Farda, and the Iranian police chief warned in November that companies advertising on satellite TV may face charges.
“As the level of rhetoric gets too (high), I assume there will be more moves towards blocking programmes,” Karasik said.
While Al Alam has been barred by some satellite operators, broadcasters say Iran has long used jamming stations to block the signals of Gulf-based and Western satellite stations.
Last month, five international broadcasters, including the BBC and Voice of America, issued a statement calling on regulatory authorities to take action against “an increase in deliberate interference” with their signals last year in countries such as Iran.
They said satellite operators believed that jamming of programmes in Persian originated in Iran.