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Mon 19 Dec 2011 04:34 PM

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Satellite TV wars turn screws on Iran, Gulf rift

Gulf states say Iran airs calls for unrest, while Persian state blasts ‘immoral’ soaps

Satellite TV wars turn screws on Iran, Gulf rift
Iran believes Western-style news from outlets such as the BBC pose a threat to its regime

Satellite television channels are widening the divide
between Arabs and Iranians
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 this year as
contagion from popular protests that overthrew three North African leaders
reached Gulf Arab 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 that threatened the Sunni al-Khalifa
ruling family earlier this year before they were suppressed with the help of
Saudi and Emirati forces.

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," Bahraini King Hamad
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 air popular
soaps and romantic dramas deemed "immoral" by the Iranian 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 the
Shi'ite majority 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 said by telephone.

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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,
cited by Western media, 90 percent 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 in the United Arab Emirates - 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 United
States 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 CEO 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 week, five international broadcasters, including the
BBC and the Voice of America, issued a statement calling on regulatory
authorities to take action against "an increase in deliberate
interference" with their signals this year in countries such as Iran.

They said satellite operators believed that jamming of
programmes in Persian originated in Iran.