A UK-based Iranian TV station is being funded through a secretive offshore entity and a company whose director is a Saudi Arabian businessman with close links to the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Guardian can reveal.
The disclosures are likely to raise concerns about the editorial independence of Iran International, and comes at a time of growing fears about a number of Saudi-linked stations operating across London.
A source has told the Guardian that Prince Mohammed, who many believe is responsible for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is the force behind Iran International. The station, which is operating out of Chiswick, has not denied claims that it receives its funding from the Saudi royal court.
Iran International TV emerged abruptly on the London media scene last year; many of the 100-strong staff network were offered generous salaries, often double what rivals paid, but was elusive about its source of funding.
Millions of Iranians frustrated with a state broadcaster hobbled by censorship watch satellite channels via illegal rooftop dishes. London has become a hub of such exiled Iranian channels, which also include BBC’s Persian service and Manoto TV, which has broadcast Iranian versions of The X Factor and Come Dine With Me.
The source claimed Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s information tsar, who was among two senior officials removed in connection with the Khashoggi affair, was involved in the funding behind Iran International TV.
“You could have a larger picture about how those kids [Saudi media moguls] with that money being thrown around [by Prince Mohammed] trying to change the world by buying media … It is money coming from the royal court,” the source said, when speaking about the crown prince..
Iran International said any suggestions that the network was involved in some type of wrongdoing, or was subject to inappropriate influences or was not editorially independent were without foundation.
While Saudi Arabia shows zero tolerance for criticism of its absolute monarchy, as underlined by Khashoggi’s murder, it is setting up media organisations in other languages promoting free speech, particularly about Iran.
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, a postdoctoral research fellow in modern Iranian history at the University of Oxford, said: “While there is little doubt that the heavy hand of the Iranian state has its fair share of responsibility for this state of affairs and the lack of public trust in the state broadcaster, it appears that Iran International is part and parcel of the Saudi crown prince’s decision to take a more aggressive posture against Iran, emboldened, no doubt, by the Trump administration.”
Employing a wide range of people in the Iranian diaspora, including human rights activists, Iran International has not disclosed any Saudi Arabian funding links to its staff of many Iranian nationals, potentially putting their families in Iran at risk.
“I was told that not even one Saudi rial is in the funding. If I knew it came from Saudi, I would not have joined the station,” one insider said. “I can say that Iran International TV has turned into a platform … for ethnic partisanship and sectarianism.”
Earlier this summer, the station was criticised for airing extensive live coverage of a rally by the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a cult-like organisation that espouses regime change and has links to Saudi Arabia. Senior Trump administration officials, including John Bolton, are advocates of the group, which was listed as a terrorist group in the US until 2012.
The insider claimed the editorial content of the station had been influenced by its secret investors who were hidden behind an offshore Cayman Islands company. The MEK coverage, the insider said, was one such example.
Ofcom has recently scrutinised Iran International for giving airtime to the spokesperson of a group that praised a terrorist attack in Iran last month.
Volant Media, the company that runs Iran International, has a director named Adel Abdulkarim, who is a Saudi national. He has had a long working relationship with well-connected Saudi executives, some of who have links to the royal court, including Abdulrahman al-Rashed, who sits on the board of Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), the largest publishing company in the Middle East.
Multiple sources claim Rashed, who is the former general manager of the Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya, was also involved in the operations and funding behind Iran International.
Nabeel Al-Khatib, a consultant working with Iran International, has been described by its editors to staff as supervisor of the station or representative of the investors. It has been claimed Iran International editors have used Khatib’s Palestinian nationality to remain evasive about the channel’s Saudi funding. The Guardian has seen leaked documents that suggest he raised questions and offered input into Iran International’s coverage of human rights in Saudi Arabia, as well as suggesting certain story ideas, particularly related to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Khatib denied influencing editorial decisions and said he was an independent consultant who offered services to broadcast companies around the world.
Last month, Khatib emerged as Bloomberg Asharq project director in a deal signed between Bloomberg and SRMG.
According to one source, Saudi Arabia gave $250m (£197m) in funding to help the launch of Iran International, which runs no commercial advertising. The source did not give a timeframe, but a scrutiny of its office’s rent and employee salaries points to an initial five-year period – $50m per year. Volant Media lost £26m in 2017, according to accounts filed on 4 October.
One former employee said many staff were stuck between a rock and a hard place. “They have realised they have not been told the truth about the Saudi paymasters behind the station but at the same time they can’t afford to resign or leave their job instantly for fear of incurring repayments under their contracts. Some rely on the television’s visa sponsorship to be able to continue living in London,” the former staff member said.
Gary Sick, who served in the US national security council under the Carter administration, said both Iran and Saudi Arabia were making active use of media in their regional rivalry.
“Iran’s Press TV is full of negative stories about the Saudi leadership, and official (and unofficial) Saudi media portray Iran as the single greatest source of instability and terrorism in the Middle East,” he said.
Rob Beynon, the acting head of the television station, did not deny that funding for it came from the Saudi royal court.
“[Iran International] provides news for all Iranians, in Iran and in the diaspora, reflective of the widest range of opinions. Our output is governed not by any external individuals but by our editorial guidelines, which are published in English and Farsi on our website,” Beynon said.
He added: “It is transparent and impartial, as you can see from our output. The management structure is as you would expect in any news organisation. Decisions are taken by our senior editorial managers, who report to me.”
Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent, the Guardian.com