In a direct assault on press freedom, the US Justice Department has 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.
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.
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”.