Blame Khamenei: Memoirs of a media executive
Veteran media executive and debutant memoirist Mohammad Sarafraz is a man with a mission: To subtly and indirectly but unmistakably blame Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for systemic corruption and decay at the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
Symbolising the gradual decline of the traditional media, the man who held executive positions in Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting for a quarter of a century, released his book on Google Drive and has since marketed it on Twitter.
Born into a clerical family in the North Tehran neighbourhood of Qolhak, Sarafraz was not predestined for a lifelong career in the government media.
His first engagement with the media was not exactly preceded by a job interview: In February 1979, the eve of the revolution, 17-year-old Sarafraz and his older brother Javad joined the mobs that stormed and seized the National Radio building. Terrified employees begged the young men to safeguard the archives, which they did. A year later, Sarafraz landed a job in the public relations department of the National Radio followed by other positions.
After Ali Larijani was appointed director-general of Iranian television in 1994, he immediately chose Sarafraz to be the director of the foreign broadcast service. The two men got to know each other through a prominent clerical neighbour in Qolhak in the early 1980s, and Larijani needed loyal supporters in the system.
Sarafraz recalls the depressing state of affairs at the Foreign Broadcast Department: “It had the reputation of being the ‘arena of the Arabs’ or ‘internal exile’.” The revolutionary Arabic language propaganda of the regime in the 1980s was no longer desired by then-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. “I discovered… [the department] is based on the old-fashioned external service model. Rather than addressing the needs of the viewers, it was a translation bureau [for official political positions], similar to the Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries.”
After the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and as a limited response to Al Jazeera TV, Sarafraz, encouraged and supported by Major-General Rahim Safavi, then Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, revitalised Sahar TV. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah feared losing his monopoly on communicating Arabic-language messaging of the Islamic Republic and energetically opposed the initiative.
On the eve of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sarafraz, once again aided by the IRGC and the extraterritorial operations al-Quds Force, started al-Alam TV Network and began transmitting live television from Iraq.
The main commentator was Jamal Jafaar Mohammed Ali Ebrahim, also known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who currently heads the Popular Mobilisation Forces Committee in Iraq.
By 2007, Sarafraz launched Press TV, which managed to hire British politicians George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn as presenters. Press TV crossed the line, however, when it broadcast post June 2009 election protests: “We wanted to win the trust of the viewers but the security services stopped our live transmissions,” he said.
In June 2010, Sarafraz and Press TV crossed a different ethical red line when the station broadcast forced confessions of Newsweek contributor Maziar Bahari, who was arrested while reporting on the 2009 protests. In May 2011, the regulatory authority for telecommunication industries revoked Press TV’s licence and on March 11, 2013, Sarafraz was sanctioned by the European Union.
Sarafraz said he did not mind and was promoted to Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting director-general but was constantly undercut by the Office of Supreme Leader, the Intelligence Ministry and the Intelligence Organisation of the IRGC, all of which had their own representatives and political commissars in the national broadcasting headquarters. They not only censured the programmes, they were also involved in economic corruption and obtaining revenue from TV advertisement.
In February 2016, Sarafraz, in a private conversation with Khamenei, complained of his lack of independence and threatened to resign. He wrote a letter to Khamenei to which he did not receive an answer. But when he met Hossein Taeb, IRGC Intelligence Organisation chief, he asked: “What do you want to do now [that you are out of TV]?”
Sarafraz’s book is a direct answer to that very question.