Iran has cut the expenses of its media offices in Palestine and has not paid debts of $3 million to local television production companies for the hire of equipment and satellite time; some of these companies have worked with the Iranians for up to 10 years, but that has made no difference; debts have not been paid. Nor has Iran paid its correspondents for many months, and there have been 20 per cent salary cuts, under the pretext of a financial crisis and its support for the wars in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. This has forced such companies to stop working with Iran, so it is time to ask if the media there has priorities other than Palestine.
Iran owns a media empire spread across most Arab countries, including Palestine, and it spends a huge amount of money on it, although the exact amount is unknown. It includes dozens of satellite channels, radio stations, newspapers and websites. The most prominent of these companies are the Lebanese television channels such as Al-Manar and Al-Mayadeen, and Iranian channels such as Al-Alam. Hundreds of correspondents, technicians and producers work in dozens of Iranian-funded offices in Palestine. The offices are bases for purely Iranian media outlets that broadcast live from Tehran and other, non-Iranian, channels broadcasting from other countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, which are fully funded by Iran.
However, since 2011 and the start of the Arab revolutions — with Iran becoming more involved in the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni wars — Tehran’s financial support for its media outlets, especially in Palestine, has declined. It seems to be suffering financially as a result of its involvement in regional wars, prompting a re-evaluation of its media spending.
I have spoken to a number of media colleagues in Palestine, Lebanon and Iran who gave me information about the crisis, which has been manifested in the closure of some offices in Palestine, such as Iran Radio and television channels Al-Kout, Al-Rafidain and Khabar. Employees have been dismissed; management changes have been made; and staff members have been moved elsewhere.
Some Iranian television stations with offices in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip have had their monthly budgets cut in half, while others have been cut to just $2,000, which has to cover the wages and production costs. Some outlets now have just a couple of news items a week about Palestine, instead of one a day.
The Islamic Radio and Television Union is an official Iranian organisation; it funds media in 34 countries, including 300 radio stations, television stations, news outlets and websites. All contribute to the promotion of Iranian policies in the Middle East. The main bureaus are in Palestine, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
The financial crisis began in early 2016 and escalated mid-year. This was noticed when TV offices in Palestine closed, such as Sahar and Khabar, as well as Yemen’s Al-Maseera and Iraq’s Al-Ghadeer and Al-Furat. Reports started to focus on Syria, Iraq and Yemen — where Iran has a strong presence — instead of Palestine, and staff in the occupied territories had their salaries cut. Palestine dropped to third or fourth place in Iranian news reports. While Iran is reducing its expenditure on its media in Palestine, though, on 16 February it announced the establishment of Nedaa Al-Bahrain radio, which is opposed to the regime in the country.
The problem faced by the Palestinian correspondents of Iranian and other media outlets is that they do not sign contracts. Instead, they work through local television production companies, the same companies which are owed millions by Iran. Media officials in Tehran send occasional payments to companies in Gaza to cover some of their debts, but not regularly.
Estimates of Iran’s expenditure on its external media outlets or affiliates overseas vary, but figures of $900 million to $1 billion per annum have been mentioned. Over the past three years, the Iranian government has assessed the moral and political gains of its expenditure in Palestine. It concluded that the outlets in question have not succeeded in promoting Iranian narratives of regional events amongst Palestinians despite the sums of money spent for that purpose. Poor management has seen the funding of too many satellite channels which have been unable to build a loyal customer base and so have little impact, other than being noted as outlets affiliated to Iran. The approach now is to keep Al-Alam TV as the official front for Iran and to shut down some channels and merge the others.
Of course, the uncomfortable economic conditions in Iran were always bound to have an impact on external media support, regardless of performance. Furthermore, the decline of the Iranian media’s interest in the Palestinian cause has coincided with the publication by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies of the 2016 Arab Opinion Index. This set out to explain how the Palestinians view the foreign policies of regional and international actors.
The report showed that 70 per cent of the Palestinians believe that Iran’s foreign policy in the Arab region is negative or “somewhat negative”, while just 6 per cent think it is positive and 15 per cent think it is “somewhat positive”. Just over 50 per cent of Palestinians believe that Iran’s policies towards Palestine are negative; indeed, 24 per cent said “very bad”. Thirty-six per cent, meanwhile, said that Iran’s policies towards Palestine are very positive or positive, while 9 per cent of Palestinians consider Iran’s policies towards Palestine to be very good and have a very positive view of Iran’s positions on Palestine.
All of this suggests that, generally speaking, Palestinians are convinced at one level that Iran’s discourse about Palestine is credible and is being translated on the ground. It is noticeable that the negative assessment by the Palestinians of Iran’s regional policies is linked mainly to their assessment of Tehran’s involvement in other Arab countries, especially Iraq and Syria.
In addition, the report suggested that the majority of Palestinians believe that Iran is exploiting the crises in the region in order to expand its influence; 72 per cent agree with this. Moreover, half of the respondents agreed strongly that Iran is actively investing in the crises in the region in order to gain a greater role, influence and power, while 17 per cent disagreed with this statement. However, 68 per cent of the Palestinians agreed that Iran is fuelling sectarian and ethnic conflicts in the Arab countries, while 18 per cent disagreed. More than two-thirds of Palestinians don’t believe that Iran is enhancing regional security and stability.
Overall, the 2016 Arab Opinion Index indicated that the general public in Palestine have a negative opinion of Iran’s role in the Arab region. Tehran, they believe, is hindering democratic transformation in the Arab countries which witnessed popular revolutions demanding freedom, justice and dignity.
Finally, while the funding cuts in the Iranian-run media outlets in Palestine may contradict with Tehran’s calls to support the Palestinians heard in recent conferences in Iran, they confirm the fact that Iran’s priorities have shifted towards support for its media in hot spots such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where it is establishing its political and military presence. Public slogans in support of the Palestinians continue to be heard, but Iran is definitely reducing its funding for media coverage of the issue.
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 23 March 2017