Majalla Exclusive: Iran is Moving its Media City from Beirut to Damascus

Financial Constraints and Tough Decisions

It seems that in the near future, Tehran will abandon the Lebanese capital, Beirut, as its media echo chamber. According to reliable sources close to Majalla, the Islamic Republic of Iran is preparing to move its media center, which has its outreaches in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, to Damascus, Syria. These sources have also claimed that the main reason behind Tehran’s decision is the US government’s sanctions that took place on November 4 of this year. The source could not determine whether Tehran would move its entire media apparatus from Beirut to Damascus or if the Lebanese capital would still carry out some of the Iranian media operations.

RISING COSTS OF FUNDING BEIRUT’S MEDIA HEADQUARTERS

A prime factor contributing to Tehran’s decision is the financial crisis that it is currently going through. As Beirut is one of the more expensive cities in the Middle East, the cost of renting space to maintain the media center is a hefty one. The strain of running Iranian news channels and websites in the Bir Hassan area in Beirut became so exorbitant that Damascus, a much cheaper city in terms of renting costs, became much more favorable. Furthermore, Iran did not have a problem with just the manufactured capital of the media apparatus, but also the human capital; our source indicates that many of the journalists working in Bir Hassan have not been paid since May of this year.

A reconstruction of Iran’s media center is achievable in Damascus, as Tehran can purchase a multitude of business buildings at low prices there. The Iranian backed media offices in Bir Hassan were spread over an area as big as two football stadiums; this area was also a good one for Tehran since its home to many of Lebanon’s aristocratic Shias. However, as much as it was spacious and strategic, Bir Hassan proved to be too expensive as one office in the area could cost up $900 a month in rent.

According to one of Majalla’s correspondents on Iran, the primary reason for moving to Damascus is indeed a financial one, as the Syrian capital is cheaper both in terms of rent costs and employee wages. However, there is a latent reason for the decision: the evasion of sanctions and legal retributions, as many of the Iranian media outlets operating in Beirut did not have a license from the Lebanese Media Ministry. Moreover, after it ensured its ally’s maintenance of power in Syria, Iran now has to reinforce its hegemony in the country through civilian rather than military means, and the most powerful civilian tool for hegemony is the media.

Our correspondent has also compared the pro-Iranian media in both Lebanon and Syria to which she highlighted that the former had many media figureheads that worked to ensure 24 hour news coverage in favor of Iran, which the latter lacked. Therefore, it would not be farfetched to speculate that Iran would seek to secure a huge portion of Syria’s media sphere, just as it did with Lebanon. She has reiterated that the international sanctions on Lebanon will eventually expose the Lebanese Iran loyalists and funders of pro-Iranian media and as a result said loyalists will surely face backlash from the Lebanese public. Due to Iran’s current precarious situation in the international arena, they cannot risk any side battles with a regional state that leans towards it. By contrast, Syria is a weak state that has just gotten out of a civil war and unlike Beirut; Damascus has few figureheads and voices that would oppose the construction of a pro-Iranian media center.

WHY BEIRUT?

Unlike many Middle Eastern states, Lebanon has a policy of allowing free press, as a matter of fact during the breakout of revolutions within Arab states in 2011, many foreign journalists moved to Beirut so that they can freely report on the politically hot region. Additionally, many of the largest Middle Eastern media organizations have proactive Lebanese members of staff. As such, being connected to these staff members can give Iran the opportunity to gain first knowledge of any anti-Tehran press being presented so that it can effectively counter such negative press. Iran was also fond of Beirut more than other Arab capitals due to the Shia hegemony in the Lebanese government, which has been present ever since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

When Iran seeks to establish hegemony within a state, it establishes news channels, news websites and hires social media activists to spread pro-Iranian views within the public. These elements work to make the public doubt their local media sources and make them out to appear as “fake news”.  The social media activists in particular have had a huge impact on public opinion in recent years. Iran has a preference for Lebanese social media activists because most of them are Shia and because they are very effective at spreading Tehran’s propaganda, for they have artificially split Lebanon as several “cantons”, and each of said “canton” has an administrative leader that manages his or her activist underlings. Iran also prefers Lebanese activists due to fact that they tend to be more educated than their other Arab counterparts, these activists also have a tendency of attending media and journalism workshops organized by Europeans. As a matter of fact, these activists have learned so much from these workshops that they have started organizing their own ones teaching Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis and Bahrainis how to effectively use social media as an influencing tool.

IRAN’S NEW CHANNEL - AL-ALAM SYRIA

In early 2018, Tehran launched the Damascus-based "Al-Alam Syria" channel, which is still under experimental broadcasting, and is subject to the orders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Many analysts thought that this launching was a sign of Iran’s desire to establish a media center in Syria, just as they did in Lebanon. As such, it would be a first step of swaying Syrian public opinion as they also did to Lebanese public opinion. This new “Al-Alam” channel is a Syrian equivalent to the Lebanese one that used to air until late 2017 when its Beirut headquarters permanently closed, the reason behind its closure was due to the financial problems that its owner, Falak Company, was facing which caused the layoffs of many of “Al-Alam’s” employees.

The new “Al-Alam” Channel’s news and programs focus mostly on the Syrian civil war and unlike the rest of Syria’s news channels it’s not subject to any scrutiny or control from the Syrian Media Ministry. Moreover, Iran has also assigned social media activists to spread pro-Tehran views among members of the Syrian public. Among Iran’s media tactics is applying pressure and attacking media figures that defend Syrian opposition and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, such tactics can extend to cursing and smearing such opposition figures. It should not come as a surprise that the establishment of “Al-Alam” is similar to that of Hezbollah tied “Al Manar”, which took to airwaves in Lebanon nearly three decades ago. Informed sources also revealed Iran’s aspiration to have more control over Syrian media, which is why it will successively launch channels in the war torn state. Despite increased presence in Syria, Lebanon still occupies an important media presence among the Arab countries, and Iran sees it as a breeding ground that can be used to secure a front against the Gulf media bloc in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon for Iran is a focal point for media expansion towards Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine.

 

ROLES OF THE PRO-IRANIAN CHANNELS

The role of television channels varies according to the agenda set by Iran. Some of the channels and websites are small in terms of their team and budget, and are intended to monitor and attract a certain group of viewers and followers. The main agenda of Iranian media is a sectarian one, particularly pitting Shias against their states.

ROLE IN YEMEN

There are two main pro-Iranian channels operating in Yemen, the first one is “Al-Massira” which is highly focused on its electronic and online presence. According to an “Al-Massira” employee, who refused to reveal his name, the channel has a huge social media following in Sana’a, Taiz and Sa’ada. Al-Massira’s social media platforms mostly report news on the Yemen civil war, but also focus heavily only posting videos showing Houthi military training and missile launch trials.

The second pro-Iranian channel is “Al Sahat”, which is much less radical than “Al-Massira” since it does not appeal to just one sect in Yemen, as a matter of fact there are no Houthis working for the channel.  Also unlike “Al-Massira”, “Al Sahat” allows female presenters on their airwaves.

ROLE IN IRAQ

“Aletejah” is a pro-Iranian channel in Iraq that also has another studio in Lebanon. The channel broadcasts itself via the conventional satellite TV, but it also has a YouTube channel. “Aletejah” presents itself as a liberal channel with no leanings toward any political or religious sects in Iraq. One of the ways it appears as having no biases is by allowing its presenters to wear neckties, which is something the Iranian regime forbids. Presenters in Iranian backed religious channels in Iraq do not wear any neckties, the same goes for pundits in pro-Iranian news channels that are broadcast in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

This channel appeals to both Shia and Sunni elements in Iraqi society and constantly attacks the Saudi regime. Furthermore, it has a comedy slot in which it parodies Gulf rulers and aims to create anti-government sentiment among the public living in these Gulf states. The channel also spreads false information accusing the US government of having secret ties with ISIS. “Aletejah” also voices support for the Iraqi military, while avoiding any support for the Popular Mobilization Forces, a military bloc composed of Shia militias. However, it should be noted that “Aletejah” latently and subtly backs the Popular Mobilization Forces and one of the ways it does this is by publishing pro-PMF articles on its Lebanese website rather than its Iraqi one.

ROLE IN BAHRAIN

In 2013, Iran launched “Lualua TV” in Bahrain; this channel also has an office in Lebanon. This is a Shia channel which tries to appeal to everyday Bahraini Shias. One of its latest reports attempted to question the credibility of the Bahraini government after it launched an investigation against election candidates that are accused of receiving financial funding from Iran and Qatar. A similar incident occurred in Lebanon last June as some parliamentary candidates were revealed to have received funding from both state governments.

THE TWO FACES OF IRAN’S CHANNELS

Iran’s channels and websites have two sides to them. One side is aimed at Shia audiences, and employs Iranian and Iraqi clerics loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The other side appeals to Sunni audiences and attacks both the Saudi and Turkish regimes, respectively.

RADICAL SHIA PROPAGANDA

Iran does not conceal its radical Shia orientation from its channels and websites as a group of these channels are devoted to the transmission of radical Shia ideology and to the Arab public. Iran's internal and external rhetoric have historically been and still are sectarian. Furthermore, the names of the Iranian generals or the names of the Iranian missiles and their religious ceremonies are mentioned in pro-Iranian media outlets in Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen, fuelling radical Iranian sentiment among the people of these countries. Speaking of Yemen, it should be noted that the names of the Houthis, their rockets and wars contain radical Shia connotations. Analysts view this integrated bag of Iranian-Shia audio-visual propaganda as sufficient proof of the spread of radical Shia ideology among the Arab masses by soft means.

 

CYBER ARMIES

Iran has never hid its intent of forming cyber armies in Lebanon that are bent on spreading pro-Iranian views among the public. The presence of these armies on Facebook and Twitter has only reinforced the spread of Iranian propaganda. While the effectiveness of social media is evident, there are still some question marks over the usefulness of pro-Iranian channels.

These social media platforms are mostly used to counter news reports or articles that are anti-Iran. Moderators also proactively delete any comments that oppose what’s written in their articles and comments that have nothing to do with the news presented, thus creating a perfect echo chamber and safe space for Iranian propaganda.

Omar Coscos, Majalla’s social media expert, says that people who operate these social media platforms use WhatsApp groups to plan their propaganda operations. These groups also tend to have an admin, who most of the time is the manager of a certain pro-Iranian social media website or page. The admin is the one who plans virtual attacks on certain politicians, parties or political incidences. Most of the time the attacks start out as a hashtag on Twitter, then they spill over to newspapers, news channels and radio broadcasts. Coscos has told us that by far the most effective users of social media propaganda are the Lebanese, since they know the ins and outs of social media campaigning and are thus able to synchronize a potent virtual attack. Additionally, social media campaigns by Lebanese loyalists have a greater outreach than Arab channels funded and run by the Iranian regime or pro-Iranian elements. However, Coscos has pointed that Iran and its loyalists have failed to persuade their political and military opponents through social media.

AIDING PALESTINIAN CHANNELS

The Bir Hassan area is now home to the Palestine Channel’s headquarters. The news on this channel focuses on Islamist Jihadist groups in Palestine and regularly broadcasts their activities and political statements. Another Palestinian channel that broadcasts from Beirut is “Al-Quds TV” which centres on the events in the Gaza Strip. In the absence of religious broadcasting on Palestine Today, “Al-Quds TV” has been releasing religious fatwas and teachings for the Palestinian public.

CHEAP LABOR

Most of the journalists who work for these pro-Iranian channels in Beirut are no older than 22, many of them are either fresh university graduates needing a job or journalism students seeking an internship or part time work. Iran depends on Lebanese graduates for a number of reasons. First is that many of these graduates are desperate for work and do not mind working for reasonable wages. Additionally, using youth in their media platforms ensures that future generations will have a positive outlook on the Iranian regime and its activities in the region.


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