New York Times: In little more than a year, the Persian-language satellite television channel beamed into Iran by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and a prominent Afghan family has rapidly become one of the most popular stations in the country.
The New York Times
By DEXTER FILKINS
KABUL, Afghanistan — In little more than a year, the Persian-language satellite television channel beamed into Iran by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and a prominent Afghan family has rapidly become one of the most popular stations in the country.
A little too popular, it appears.
This week, a long-running campaign led by the Iranian government to undermine the channel, Farsi1, took a menacing turn: A group calling itself the Iranian Cyber Army hacked into Farsi1’s Web site, as well as several sites owned by the Mohseni family, and posted a cryptic but sinister warning.
“The allies of Zionism should know this,” said the message, which stayed on the Web sites for about six hours on Thursday. “Dreams of destroying the foundation of the family will lead straight to the graveyard.”
The exact meaning of the message was unclear, but conservative Iranian leaders complain that the programming — a heavily censored variety of comedies, soap operas and dramas — is eroding traditional Iranian values.
The campaign against Farsi1 illustrates the growing fear among Iranian leaders over the intrusion of private broadcasters onto the country’s airwaves, which is challenging the state’s monopoly over the flow of information.
The cyberattack is the latest effort in a campaign to discredit the television station, which went on the air in August 2009. This year, Iranian authorities tried to jam a satellite used by the channel. Personal attacks on Mr. Murdoch, as well as on Saad Mohseni, the chairman of the Moby Group, have appeared on Iranian television and newspapers. News Corporation and the Moby Group each own half of the channel.
The Iranian authorities appear to be particularly unnerved by the entrance of Mr. Murdoch, who is not just an aggressive businessman but also a politically active one. In neighboring Afghanistan, the Mohseni family has built a successful string of television and radio stations and Web sites since the American-led invasion in 2001.
Both Mr. Murdoch and the Mohseni family were named in the renegade Web site posting that appeared Thursday.
According to American officials, as well as spokesmen for both the Moby Group and the News Corporation, Farsi1 receives no funds from any government.
Indeed, Farsi1 offers no political fare, neither news nor editorial commentary. Instead, it provides viewers with comedies and dramas, most of them from Latin America and Korea, and toned down for a more conservative Iranian audience.
Though the plots often involve romance and infidelity, anything resembling male-female contact is excised — even kissing. The menu even includes a few American standbys like “24,” which features an American federal agent who often battles terrorists from the Muslim world.
“If the script says anything that is not right or appropriate, we edit it,” said Zaid Mohseni, the chief executive officer of Farsi1 and Saad Mohseni’s brother. “Visually, if there is something not appropriate, we edit it out. We know that the majority of viewers are watching with their families. We are very sensitive to this.”
Still, Farsi1 has drawn the ire of Iranian leaders, who say that the Western-oriented programming represents an assault on traditional Iranian values and is even corrupting the Iranian people.
“Satellite TV programs such as those broadcast on Farsi1 destroy the chastity and honor of our families and encourage the young to take up lovemaking, wine drinking and Satan worship,” Mohammad-Taghi Rahbar, a member of Parliament, told the Iranian news agency IWNA this year.
“The channel is funded by ‘Zionist money’ and planned and managed by Iran’s enemies,” he said, without providing details. “What family that has any dignity would let is members watch Farsi1?”
Television audiences are difficult to measure in Iran, especially audiences for programs broadcast by satellite. Satellite dishes are prohibited, but as many as half the households in Tehran are thought to maintain them.
A station like Farsi1, which is based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, has no transmitter inside Iran. Many of the Persian-language channels that are broadcast into the country are news- and politics-oriented, like the BBC or the Voice of America.
Farsi1’s backers focus exclusively on entertainment and, by doing so, say they have been able to draw millions of viewers away from the drab programs offered by Iranian state television and the news-only offerings of the others.
Mr. Mohseni says that by his own tentative estimates, Farsi1 has been able to draw several million viewers a day. If that is true, then it has most likely peeled viewers away from some of the more mainstream Iranian stations — and possibly irritated some of the Iranian government’s establishment, who have a vested interest in the success of state television.
“We should not discount financial motivations in the negative statements about Farsi1,” Mr. Mohseni said.
In any case, anti-Western fears appear to be running at a high pitch in Iran these days, especially since the huge antigovernment protests last year that the government eventually crushed.
In a television interview earlier this year, Hassan Abassi, the head of the Center for Doctrinal and Strategic Studies, associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, warned against a “soft cultural war” being waged by the West. The Revolutionary Guards is an especially politicized wing of the Iranian military. Mr. Abassi said that the American show “24” was meant to encourage hatred of Muslims and fear of Islam by portraying Muslims as terrorists.
Mr. Mohseni said, “If people feel we are destroying the culture, they will not watch us.”
The Iranian Cyber Army appears to be a group affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards and dedicated to staging computer attacks against perceived enemies. A Web site, ircarmy.com, says the group was established “to protest U.S. and Israeli interference in our internal affairs” and “the distribution of false news.”
The group has a proven track record, experts say.
“The Iranian government has in the past claimed to attack Web sites on U.S. servers to collect the names of Iranian dissidents,” said Jeffrey Carr, an expert on computer hacking and the author of “Inside Cyber Warfare.”
“I suspect that this is a case of a patriotic, highly skilled Iranian hacker crew conducting an attack on behalf of their government, but not officially a part of the government,” Mr. Carr said.
He said the Iranian Cyber Army recently took credit for an attack on Baidu, the Chinese Internet search engine.
William Yong contributed reporting from Tehran, and John Markoff from San Francisco.