Iran International: A press release from the United States Justice Department(link is external) has said the US seized the websites of 36 Iranian and Iraqi television channels, including Press TV and the Arabic-language Al-Alam, for operating “services, including website and domain services” in the US without a license from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Licenses were needed, the Justice Department said, because the websites owned by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union or Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia group, were violating US sanctions after OFAC had designated IRTVU in October 2020 “for being owned or controlled by the [Iranian] Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”

A US government notice slapped on the homepages of the closed domains said they were seized as part of law enforcement by the ‘Bureau of Industry and Security’. Both Press TV and Al-Alam were back online within hours, using Iranian domain addresses.

Among the US media, the New York Times noted that the clampdowns(link is external) came at a crucial point for nuclear talks in Vienna with world powers aimed at reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On Tuesday Mahmoud Vaezi, President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff, described the US action as an attack on freedom of speech and warned that it was “not constructive” for the Vienna talks.

Vaezi said Iran was using “every international and legal means” to condemn the seizure of the websites. What means might be open to Tehran are far from clear. US ‘terrorism’ designations cannot be challenged though usual judicial procedures. The US seized 92 websites in October it said were linked to the IRGC, and in March seized two linked to Kata’ib Hezbollah(link is external).

Press TV, which broadcasts in English and French, has attracted a variety of criticism since its launch in 2007. During the Vienna talks the Rouhani administration including chief negotiator Abbas Araghchi(link is external) have several times rapped the station for quoting “informed sources” stressing disagreements between negotiators and for its “negative coverage” of the talks in general.

Press TV is owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and its 24-hour channels broadcast in English and French. Programs based on conspiracy theories about Middle Eastern and international affairs and systematic broadcasting of anti-Semitic and anti-west programs form a major part of Press TV’s broadcast.

Human-rights groups have criticized the channel for airing coerced confessions of dissidents and journalists in Iran – going back at least to Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who was arrested and charged with espionage in 2009. Bahari’s complaint to Britain’s media watchdog Ofcom after leaving Iran led to a £100,000 ($140,000) fine that Press TV refused to pay and an order from Ofcom to Sky TV satellite to take the channel off the air.

London-based rights organization Justice for Iran says between 2009 and 2019 Iranian state media, including international channels, broadcast forced confessions(link is external) of at least 355 individuals and claimed they defamed at least 505 individuals including political and rights activists, journalists and dual citizens held in Iranian prisons.

Justice for Iran has documented 70 cases of forced confessions(link is external) and defamatory programs against individuals through interviews with victims most of whom lived abroad at the time of the interviews except for Zaniar and Loghman Moradi who were reached by phone(link is external) while in prison.