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Is Iran’s national broadcaster being pushed to brink of irrelevance?

Iran's national broadcasting monopoly IRIB continues to play a partisan role in the country.

A prominent Iranian TV commentator's move to the United Kingdom to join an opposition station after a long career at Iran’s state TV has revived a longstanding debate over the public approval of IRIB, the sole national broadcaster holding a monopoly over domestic radio and television services in Iran.

Mazdak Mirzaei is a 48-year-old soccer commentator and TV show host who has moved to the UK to work with Iran International, a London-based TV channel launched in May 2017, which is believed to be funded by a “secretive offshore entity and a company” whose director is a Saudi Arabian businessman with close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Iran International regularly features guests who are highly critical of the Islamic Republic and does not shy away from presenting itself as an opposition media organization.

Over the past couple of decades, and especially following the disputed presidential election in 2009 that saw a bitter re-election victory for hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, IRIB’s various TV and radio channels have been relentlessly airing propaganda against the country’s reform movement in the form of one-sided debates, interviews with conservatives, opinionated news programs, recorded “confessions” of political prisoners, talk shows with Ahmadinejad sympathizers and even drama serials with political undertones.

IRIB operates 18 national TV stations, 31 provincial TV channels, 83 radio stations and multiple international TV and radio networks. It’s a very large organization with close to 50,000 employees. Even though its budget is allocated by the administration, IRIB is not responsible to the government or any regulatory body, and only answers to the supreme leader, who appoints its head.

As reported by local sources, the IRIB budget for 2018 equaled $157 million. In addition, IRIB earns astronomical revenues through its commercials and, according to some accounts, makes between $21 million and $31 million annually from ads aired during the Persian Gulf Pro League season, the highest division of professional football in Iran.

Despite its generous funding, the media conglomerate has fallen short of satisfying the public and instead parochially serves as a mouthpiece for a certain political movement opposed to reform and progress in Iran. In the aftermath of the signing of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal by Iran and six world powers, IRIB broadcast hundreds of hours of shows denigrating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, roasting the Rouhani administration.

The majority of airtime in Iran’s state TV is dedicated to ideological, religious programs, lengthy sermons by clerics, documentaries promoting conspiracy theories, anti-American and anti-Western indoctrination and shows commissioned by security and military organizations.

Recently, a TV series made in the spy thriller genre called “Gando” was broadcast on IRIB's Channel 3, which narrated a few stories that included the detention of Iranian-American journalist Michael Hashemian by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ intelligence unit on espionage charges. Hashemian’s account in the film was inspired by the July 22, 2014, arrest of Jason Rezaian, the Tehran bureau chief of The Washington Post who was charged with espionage and “propaganda against the establishment.” The serial fiercely attacked the government of moderate President Hassan Rouhani and depicted his Foreign Ministry officials, including the relatively popular Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as weak, submissive and incompetent; Zarif's efforts to secure the release of Rezaian were ridiculed in the TV series.

Pro-reform activists and commentators criticized "Gando" and its producers, saying that the huge budget underpinning its production should have gone to more useful purposes rather than serving a divisive agenda. Javad Afshar, the director of “Gando,” indicated that the budget for producing the series was somewhere around $600,000.

In the series, reporters, environmental activists, photographers and artists are depicted as foreign agents trying to undermine the Islamic Republic, and supposed sophisticated efforts to identify and indict these people are shown in an exaggerated manner.

The former director-general of IRIB, Mohammad Sarafraz, who resigned two years after taking the post, said in an interview with the Shargh daily earlier this year that he was unhappy with the meddling of non-relevant actors in the IRIB affairs and that this was one of the reasons he quit.

“One of the reasons I resigned from my position was the interference and meddling of intelligence organizations in IRIB's internal affairs. These organizations insisted that thousands of people engaged in arts, drama and making films and TV series should be banned from presenting their works through IRIB,” he said.

Iran’s state broadcaster is facing a popularity crisis these days and even a colossal budget and the diversity of its stations haven’t been able to secure it a victory in its rivalry with overseas TV stations received via satellite dishes, including Persian-language networks based in the UK and the United States such as BBC Persian, VOA Farsi and Manoto TV.

There are conflicting figures about the viewership of foreign TV channels by Iranians. As satellite dishes are officially banned, there are no well-founded and precise reports about the number of Iranians who watch these TV stations. Ali Jannati, Iran’s former culture minister, had said in December 2013 that 71% of Tehran residents have satellite dishes and watch foreign TV stations. Azim Daraee Fazeli, a member of Iranian Psychological Association, claimed in 2015 that more than 90% of Iranians view foreign TV channels via satellite dishes.

IRIB has acquired a reputation as a media organization in which staff and media personalities are recruited and promoted based on their connections and personal, friendship or familial ties rather than their merits and capabilities. The same way, biased decisions by its managers, who are mostly archconservatives and hard-liners, can eliminate a popular celebrity and terminate a trendy show overnight.

In the recent months, an extensive debate has been raging on social media and public sphere over the suspension of “90,” an immensely popular soccer show, whose host, Adel Ferdowsipour, had managed to keep millions of Iranian viewers glued to their TV sets for 20 years, earning the accolade of being the most popular TV show in Iran. Ferdowsipour had some pro-reform inclinations and the newly appointed manager of Channel 3, Ali Foroughi, a well-known hard-liner with paramilitary links, loathed him.

Entertainment, music and shows with jovial, happy themes are seriously lacking in IRIB programming and the entire media apparatus is serving an insular ideological and political agenda. There are reports that IRIB lost some 20% of its viewers after the 2009 presidential elections, in which it conspicuously sided with Ahmadinejad and unremittingly attacked the reform movement and its leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

IRIB calls itself the “national media” but it barely caters to the needs and interests of a nation of 80 million.

“There are many factors which can explain the decline in the popularity of IRIB. First and foremost is the lack of representation. IRIB doesn't truly act as a national institution to reflect what is really happening in the country. Apart from an entrenched political prejudice, it is reluctant to reflect the radial socio-cultural transition which the country is experiencing today,” said Afshin Shahi, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Bradford.

“IRIB doesn't recognize the rapid generational changes, and as the result, a large segment of the population cannot relate to IRIB's media productions which have been conditioned by the ideological particularities of the hardline faction of the state,” Shahi told Al-Monitor.

Shahi emphasized that IRIB’s campaign against the reform movement and openly siding with a certain political movement has stripped it of credibility: “After 1997 and the landslide victory of Mohammad Khatami in the presidential election, IRIB actively took a side against the reform movement and it became an important player in Iranian political factionalism. Although IRIB has a lot of resources, it is not accountable to anyone except the supreme leader. Inside Iran, IRIB is often accused of favoritism and selectivism which is increasingly undermining its 'national' status.”

IRIB is now fighting to remain relevant. The growing traction of social media and the more impartial and unbiased reporting of Persian-language stations operating abroad such as BBC Persian mean IRIB has a difficult job to convince its viewers to remain loyal. 

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