Soon after the 1979 revolution in Iran and the establishment of the Islamic Republic it became clear that media would play a central role both domestically and in exporting ideas of the revolution abroad.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) whose head is appointed directly by the Supreme Leader was established right after the revolution and now it has television networks for eight language-group audiences around the world. It also broadcasts radio programs in many more languages.
In 2012, IRIB launched a project for Spanish speaking countries and communities by launching HispanTV in Spanish which serves as a platform for anti-American and anti-Western views of world events as well as boosting Iranian influence in Latin America.
Iran has always seen the continent as a ground for potential expansion of its soft power. According to Emanuele Ottolenghi, an expert on Iran in Latin America from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, there are two reasons why Iran has strategic interest in this part of the world. “The first reason is that Latin America is in the backyard of the United States and is strategically important for Washington, so it is a territory where Iran can continue its ideological confrontation and be a nuisance to the U.S. The second reason is that Iran has always seen a very strong anti-American sentiment within local political movements and ideologies, so they have always tried to seek alliances with “enemies of America”, Ottolenghi explains.
When former socialist president Hugo Chavez took power in 1999, Iran saw the opportunity for a new alliance against the U.S. and a willing partner they could cooperate with. This new friendship got even stronger when hardliner president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005. He visited Venezuela several times and started a close cooperation between the two countries to defeat “imperialism of North America” as Hugo Chavez noted during his official visit to the Islamic Republic.
Iran has developed good relations with other Latin-American left wing governments such as Evo Morales in Bolivia who was the first elected indigenous president on the continent. Cuba under the Castro brothers and Nicaragua under former guerilla fighter and current president Daniel Ortega were other suitable allies.
These alliances prepared a base for Iran to reinforce its influence on the continent vis-a-vis the United States. Launching a Spanish speaking TV proved to be a successful part of the plan.
“Islamic version of Che Guevara”
Even though Iran is geographically far away from Latin America and culturally and religiously very different, it found a common ground to shape HispanTV for the continent. “The Hispan TV hosts many programs which have very little or nothing at all to do with Iran or with Islam, but they have usually a common thread which is connected to the international western-made order, capitalism, American government, American culture. They have turned themselves into some sort of an Islamic version of Che Guevara,” said Ottolenghi.
The content is thus shaped to highlight this threat portraying the United States and its allies in a negative light. Clear example of how the values of anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism are projected in Hispan TV’s broadcasting is coverage of U.S. sanctions not only on Iran but also on states such as Venezuela or Cuba. Hispan TV often describes the sanctions as aggressive crimes or even terrorist acts without referring to why they were imposed.
This is even more visible in the current pandemic situation as all countries try to deal with the coronavirus crisis. According to Penny Watson, an expert from Sam Houston State University”, Iran would love to be free itself of U.S. sanctions and the pandemic presents an opportune time to argue for their removal or at least a temporary reprieve. “HispanTV makes this argument stating that in leaving these sanctions in place, the U.S. is guilty of economic terrorism and ‘war crimes’”, she added.
Unlike the United States and Canada, South American countries still grapple with the dichotomies of the pre-columbian peoples and South Americans with European ancestry. HispanTV has also focused on exploiting the controversies around this hot social topic.
According to Joseph Humire an expert on Latin America and Iran from Center for a Secure Free Society and co-author of a book titled Iran's Strategic Penetration of Latin America, HispanTV broadcasting also targets indigenous communities which, in countries like Peru and Ecuador, represent about 10 per cent of the population. In Bolivia the number is more than 40 per cent, according to national consensus from 2012. “HispanTV tries to attract indigenous communities. This is what I have seen while analyzing their coverage of Bolivia, Peru or Ecuador,” noted the Humire. The TV points at problems which trouble indigenous communities particularly poverty and racism. HispanTV emphasizes these issues in states that are not Iranian allies.
Moreover, while they generally produce positive content about friendly governments, when reporting on issues in Latin American states that are not aligned with Iran, they support opposition groups. This approach is visible while reporting on right-wing president in Colombia Ivan Duque, who is very often depicted in a negative way, especially due to his adverse relationship with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
However, ideology is not the most important thing for HispanTV to support someone. “They would ally themselves with left-wing governments or national, separatist movements without any moral considerations even if they contradict each other. As long as it fits into their anti-Americanism and promotion of Iran as an alternative superpower, they would work with anyone,” explained Emanuele Ottolenghi.
HispanTV as an alternative media
As Iran is a sworn enemy of Israel, HispanTV takes a very clear position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. On the official website, it is possible to find a section called Free Palestine. The news very often champions Palestinian rights and criticizes Israel. HispanTV doesn’t shy away from playing with anti-Semitic tropes.
An example of their anti-Israeli content, a now debunked article published in April 2019, HispanTV claimed that Israelis use Palestinian prisoners for medical trials. The article raised reactions in Jewish communities around the world and might have been one of the reasons why HispanTV got blocked by Google two weeks later.
It was, however, not the only time HispanTV got blocked. Since April 2019, HispanTV’s YouTube channel became inaccessible in December 2019 and February 2020.
These blocking measures gave HispanTV a chance to put itself into a position of an alternative media outlet that counters big local media houses controlled by big companies. “Since the HispanTV was blocked, it also gives them an opportunity to talk about this as censorship aimed at anti-free press,” explained Joseph Humire.
Alternative media are based on proving an alternative interpretation of world issues - this often includes conspiracy theories. HispanTV is not an exception and publishes conspiracy theories to support their main narratives.
“HispanTV does a very good job of intertwining truth with lies. They show pictures that add to the misinformation and show video clips out of context. They are following the KGB playbook of disinformation. The Chinese and Iranian governments disinformation campaign blaming the United States for the COVID-19 virus is similar to the KGB’s hugely successful disinformation campaign blaming the U.S. for the AIDS virus,” explains Penny Watson and adds that the manner in which they cover the pandemic is very politicized.
On its website it is possible to find articles titled “COVID-19, weapon of the USA or Israel to harm China and Iran,” “Noam Chomsky: COVID-19 crisis worsened by US treason,” “COVID-19: The immorality and crimes of the super tyrant Trump” or United States released its biological weapon to dominate the world.” The last one, for example, argues COVID 19 was created for destroying the Chinese economy and that if the U.S. had a vaccine, they would use it to put pressure on countries which are “not in its the sphere of its influence.”
Most of the news which include conspiracy theories or unproven allegations are based on opinions of “experts”. HispanTV uses these opinions not only in the news but also very frequently in programs and documentaries. Some of them, however, have no qualifications to competently discuss the issues. “To a large extent the ‘experts’ used are extremist marginal figures who they term experts. Sometimes they are experts who have extremist views, but many are non-experts, marginal figures who propagate conspiracy theories,” described Watson.
One such analyst that regularly appears on HispanTV is Chilean Nicola Hadwa. Hadwa appears regularly on Venezulan government controlled TeleSur, Russian government sponsored Sputnik Mondo and previous career highlights include coaching the Palestinian football team from 2002-2004.
Some program guests are controversial figures. An example is Argentinian Imam Abdul Karim Paz of the At-Tauhid Mosque who has been continuously appearing on Hispan TV shows such as Islam Responds, Open Dialogue or Islamdotcom talking about Shia Islam and its perspective on various issues.
Karim Paz succeeded an Iranian cleric Mohsen Rabbani who is considered to be mastermind of the attack on Israeli cultural building AMIA in 1994. “Abdul Karim Paz and Suheil Assad, an Argentinian Muslim who lived in Iran and also appeared on Hispan TV, were implicated in the AMIA attack in Argentina in 1994 because of their close connection to Rabbani. These two individuals are known to intelligence services, Suheil Assad was even denied entry into certain countries because of his terrorist ties,” explained Joseph Humire.
Promoting Iran and its regime
Hispan TV promotes the Islamic republic mainly by reporting on world events from the Iranian regime’s point of view. However, they also run shows which favor Iran directly. The channel hosts programs that specifically focus on the Islamic republic. A program called “Iran” introduces Iranian culture such as national food, festivals, music, architecture but also topics like anthropology or cartography.
Contemporary issues are discussed in a program called Iran Hoy, or Iran Today. The topics often cover current affairs which are very important for Iran. The most recent episodes were thus dedicated to Iranian handling of coronavirus pandemic.
They also want to improve the image of Islam among Christian audiences. They run programs such as Islam Responds and Open Dialog. Currently they host another program called Islamdotcom, in which they explain the basis of Islam. For example, in a recent episode a journalist and his hosts discuss differences between secular and religious states. “They also run series about Latin Americans who converted to Islam and in each episode, they travel across Latin America and interview people and ask them why,” added Emanuele Ottolenghi.
HispanTV also airs Iranian movies or series but also documentaries about specific themes which mirror the values of the TV. Examples of that might be documentary movies about revolution in Cuba or current political situation in Venezuela.
HispanTV is owned by a state, its one-sided content can be therefore considered as propaganda of the Iranian regime and its allies. It has proved to be a successful tool to increase Iranian influence on the continent and strengthen Islamic Republic’s footprint on the continent.