US seizes three dozen websites used for ‘Iranian disinformation’

Seized sites include Press TV and Houthi and Palestinian outlets. Move comes amid tense efforts to revive nuclear deal.

Press TV's website, which belongs to the Iranian government, is seen with a notice which appeared on a number of Iran-affiliated websites saying they had been seized by the US government as part of law enforcement action, on June 22, 2021 [Screengrab]

US Justice Department seized 33 Iranian government-affiliated media websites, as well as three of the Iraqi group Kataeb Hezbollah, which it said were hosted on US-owned domains in violation of sanctions.

The websites were held by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), which is reportedly run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force (IRGC).

“Components of the government of Iran … disguised as news organisations or media outlets targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

Iran’s foreign ministry on Wednesday called the seizure an example of a “systematic effort to distort freedom of speech on a global level and silence independent voices in media”.

Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh in a statement said the “shameful” move by Washington shows that the Biden administration is continuing former President Donald Trump’s path, and vowed Iran will pursue the issue through legal channels.

Both IRTVU and IRGC have been placed on the US sanctions blacklist, making it illegal for Americans, US companies, and foreign or non-American companies with US subsidiaries to have business with them or their subsidiaries.

Visitors to leading Iranian media sites such as Press TV and Al-Alam, the country’s main English language and Arabic language broadcasters, as well as the Al-Masirah TV channel of Yemen’s Houthis, were met with single-page statements on Wednesday, declaring the website “has been seized by the United States Government” accompanied by the seals of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Commerce Department.

Kataeb Hezbollah, the Iraqi group which owned three sites that were seized, is a military faction with close ties to Tehran that Washington has formally designated a terror group.

The US government also took over the domain name of the news website Palestine Today, which reflects the viewpoints of Gaza-based groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, redirecting the site to the same notice.

Bahrain’s LuaLua TV, a channel run by opposition groups with offices in London and Beirut, was also seized by the US.

State-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) accused the United States of repressing freedom of expression and joining forces with Israel and Saudi Arabia “to block pro-resistance media outlets exposing the crimes of US allies in the region”.

IRIB said it will not let the media of the so-called “resistance axis” be silenced.

On the website of their political wing, Yemen’s Houthi rebels branded the action “American piracy and copyright confiscation”.

“The government of the United States of America is banning the Al-Masirah website without any justification or even prior notice,” they said.

A-Masirah quickly established a new website, using its name but swapping the .net domain for .com.

Meanwhile LuaLua and Al-Masirah continued to broadcast new programmes.

‘Disinformation campaign’

Last October, the Department of Justice announced it had taken down nearly 100 websites linked to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard. The US said the sites, operating under the guise of genuine news outlets, were waging a “global disinformation campaign” to influence US policy and push Iranian propaganda around the world.

The move come just days after the election victory of Iran’s hardline judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, known for his hostility to western countries.

Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a news conference in Tehran, Iran June 21, 2021 [Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters]

Raisi’s election is seen as a blow to efforts to resurrect Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal, from which former US President Donald Trump withdrew in 2017.

Raisi took a hardline position in his first news conference. He ruled out the possibilities of meeting US President Joe Biden or negotiating over Tehran’s ballistic missile programme and support for regional militias – concerns the Biden administration wants to address in future talks.

Relations between Iran and the US have deteriorated for years following Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposition of devastating US sanctions.

That decision has seen Iran, over time, gradually abandon the agreed limit on uranium enrichment even as it continued negotiations with European nations attempting to salvage the deal.

The country is now enriching uranium to 60 percent, its highest level ever, although still short of weapons-grade levels.

The US and EU partners have attended six rounds of informal talks in Vienna in recent weeks. Iranian and US officials have not met face-to-face. Diplomats said on June 20 the talks had made progress and a decision was now up to the governments involved.

Press TV

Press TV, launched in June 2007, is perhaps the most well known of the seized sites. It is the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s (IRIB) English-language service.

There are no private television or radio stations in Iran. Satellite dishes, while widespread, also are illegal. That leaves IRIB with a monopoly on domestic airwaves.

Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in Vienna, Austria on May 24, 2021 [File: Lisi Niesner/Reuters]

Marzieh Hashemi, a prominent Press TV anchorwoman who, in 2019, was arrested as material witness in an unspecified criminal case and has appeared before a grand jury in Washington, told The Associated Press that the channel was struggling to “figure out the reasons” for the seizure.

While airing in Iran, Press TV focuses predominantly on international affairs through the lens of how leaders in the Iran see the world. Fierce criticism of British, US and Israeli foreign policy is common. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, IRIB has been in the hands of hardliners who back Iran’s government.

Supporters of Press TV view the site’s editorial line as anti-Zionist, but the outlet has previously run into trouble with Western authorities for its reporting. The Anti-Defamation League has criticised the channel as “one of the world’s leading dispensers of conspiratorial anti-Semitism in English”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies