Host Susan Modaress is trying to get London correspondent Roshan Mohammed Saleh on the satellite link to talk about the tasks ahead for Britain’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown.
“Hello, London?” says the host of the show “Four Corners” on Iran’s new English-language news channel, Press TV. “Can you hear me, London?”
Silence and darkness gape back.
She quickly moves on, trying to reach Tony Benn, a former member of Parliament with Brown’s Labor Party. He’s also not on the line. And neither is Robert Ayers, of the British think-tank Chatham House. But Modaress doesn’t lose her cool.
“OK,” she says in near flawless American-accented English. “We’re having some technical problems. Let’s take a break.”
In fits and starts, Iran this month entered the business of providing 24-hour English-language satellite television news programming, competing in a field that includes BBC World, CNN International, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Al Jazeera International and France 24.
The government aims to use Press TV to counter what it sees as a steady stream of Western propaganda against Iran as well as offer an alternative view of world news.
“We are the target of global media war, and there is hardly any media delivering on its commitment,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during a July 2 ceremony marking the station’s launch. “We cannot help but be attentive to the agony of our fellow human beings. Even if one day our country is not the target of a bullying power, we will not be indifferent to the world and to oppression.”
Iran has eagerly used satellite television to deliver its message, usually to reach out to people in times of crisis. It has launched stations aimed at Afghans, Bosnians and Arabs in their homelands.
But Press TV, housed in a modest and drab five-story apartment building on a quiet street of north Tehran, is said to be the most expensive project ever undertaken by Iranian broadcasting, which is wholly controlled by the state.
“Now the international circumstances are changing and we want to make an impact on the international developments,” said Mohammed Sarfaraz, director of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s foreign language department. “That is the reason we are launching Press TV.”
The station has a staff of more than 400, including more than two dozen reporters around the world, to produce a total of 48 news bulletins for each 24-hour cycle. It has correspondents in Moscow, Rome, Cairo, London, Brussels and Beijing. It has bureaus in Beirut, Gaza and the West Bank and is seeking a Baghdad correspondent.
The staff also includes correspondents in Washington and New York, said Shahab Mossavat, a spokesman for the channel.
“It was very difficult to get them accredited,” he said, citing a law passed during the Clinton administration.
The broadcast is available on numerous satellite frequencies but also through live streaming on its website, www.presstv.com. An Iranian television executive said half the 3 million hits on the Press TV site in the months before the station launched came from the United States. Videos also are posted on YouTube.
The newscast itself has surprised observers. Reporters refer to Israel by its name instead of calling it the “Zionist entity,” as it is on Persian-language channels. Reports include relatively neutral updates on violence in the Middle East and Iraq, as well as on noncontroversial subjects such as an art gallery in Tehran or living conditions for Muslims in Russia.
“Copies of the Koran are readily available and many mosques are being built in areas with large Muslim populations,” the broadcaster says of Russia.
During the launch ceremony, Mossavat said that the station would cover pressing domestic issues, such as human rights, “but not just from the negative side.”
“We try to explore all other under-reported aspects of these issues.... We also cover human rights violation in Europe and the U.S.”
William O. Beeman, an Iran expert at the University of Minnesota, appeared on a live talk show about the role of the media.
“I thought it was a fine discussion overall, involving a mix of international and very savvy Iranian commentators,” he said. “The latter were extremely clever in saying things that were non-objectionable to the Iranian government, but which could easily be read by a sophisticated audience as at least questioning of the current state of the Iranian press.”
But critics say that so far Press TV has provided little or no coverage of Iran’s domestic troubles, including economic hardship stemming from inflation and stagnant wages.
The news headlines at the bottom of the screen include messages that present a positive picture of Iran’s international relations and economy, such as “Iran, Belarus to talk expanded defense ties” or “Iran boosts oil production capacity.”
But the ads for upcoming documentaries show the channel’s slant. They include “Back From Iraq,” a series about Western correspondents who covered the war and are critical of the conflict; “America Countdown,” in which Americans speak out against the Bush administration; and “AMIA,” a documentary that purports to prove that Israel had a hand in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that has been blamed on Iranian operatives.
Another documentary, “Land of Religions,” is said to show how Iran’s Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians live peacefully side by side.
But observers have found themselves more frustrated by the station’s irksome programming missteps than its politics.
“First impression is that it is not as slanted as one might expect,” said Glenn Hauser, editor of Review of International Broadcasting, an online newsletter. However, “the news headline crawlers are too repetitive. The promos are too repetitive. The upcoming documentaries look interesting, if only we knew when to expect them.”
Overall, initial reviews for Press TV in Iran and abroad were positive, but perhaps not what its founders had in mind. Hauser said his favorite segments were the colorful animations of battle scenes, using famous medieval Persian miniatures from various Tehran museums, that fill the time between segments.
At a barbershop in north Tehran, Pooya Ardaroudi said he would use the channel to sharpen his English.
“I am preparing to emigrate to Australia and work as barber there,” the 25-year-old said. “I can watch the news and improve my English while I am cutting people’s hair.”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Daragahi from Cairo.