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Iran’s State Broadcaster: Crisis of Popularity and Credibility

On March 21, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi signed into law the 2023 budget bill after parliamentary approval and instructed the Planning and Budget Organization to enact the fiscal plan. A cursory review of the financial breakdown reveals the administration’s priorities, dominated by outsized funds allocated to religious institutions and ideological bodies, and a deplorable underfunding of public services, education, health services, and national disaster response funds.

One entity that was privileged enough to receive prodigious funding from taxpayer revenues was the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). The vast organization monopolizes multimedia broadcasting on a national level. Since private broadcasters are forbidden and the government is growing more invasive in its surveillance of social media to weaken individual producers, IRIB and its nearly 100 TV and radio stations are the sole purveyors of public information and entertainment in Iran.

But despite the government’s continued support of the IRIB and the authorities remaining sanguine about its persuasion of public opinion in favor of the Islamic Republic, there is mounting evidence to suggest that the media behemoth is failing in its mission. Over time, more and more Iranians are being alienated by its lopsided and biased programming.

Massive Budgets to No Avail

In the 2023 budget provisions, IRIB is the recipient of 79.38 trillion rials of government financing, equivalent to $158 million, calculated with a U.S. dollar traded at 500,000 rials in the open market. Of course, the bloated value of foreign currencies in Iran’s troubled economy makes the dollar equivalent of the outlays for IRIB seem much smaller. Layered on this generous government subsidy are the colossal revenues that the state broadcaster receives from advertising, often in violation of the broadcasting rights that should be granted to sports clubs whose matches are aired live.

Last year, a local economic news website, Eghtesad News, estimated that based on IRIB’s official advertisement tariffs, the IRIB-run TV3 network grossed a total of 310 trillion rials, or $635 million, only through airing commercials before and after the 60 football fixture featuring the nation’s two most popular clubs, Persepolis FC and Esteghlal FC. IRIB is not exempt from the tax law, but given that it only answers to the supreme leader and its chief is appointed by the ayatollah. It is not evident whether the administration is capable of or willing to hold it accountable.

The structure of the IRIB resembles an inflated administrative bureaucracy rather than a media corporation. It hires nearly 50,000 employees, and the majority are clerical workers and bookkeepers rather than producers and journalists. The recruitment process also functions in a non-transparent manner, and many enter the organization through personal and familial connections. For example, it is a longstanding practice for IRIB employees to recommend one of their immediate family members to replace them once they retire.

As such, it is not usually the most brilliant reporters, anchors, or producers who end up being enlisted by IRIB, but those with ties to the institution who support its favored ideologies. The organization is a hardliner, driven by religious orthodoxies, that an average Iranian cannot become part of unless they are capable of demonstrating fidelity to the government’s revolutionary ideals and a strict reading of political Islam. Even if they don’t practice, they need to be sanctimonious.

Disconnected from Iranians

In the eyes of many Iranians, the IRIB coverage is removed from reality. Despite the regime’s efforts to cement the broadcaster’s hegemony, the media juggernaut is losing in a competition against heavily restricted social media and exiled broadcasters. Other than a group of Iranians who are the ideological lieutenants of the establishment and the older generation of religious traditionalists who deeply distrust any source of information beyond Iran’s geographical boundaries, the majority of urban dwellers and youngsters don’t recognize the IRIB’s narrative to begin with and don’t relate to its worldview.

In its news programs and talk shows, the dominant narrative is that the country is making rapid headway, the shortcomings that people complain about are trumped-up fallacies peddled by the “enemies,” the economy is in a good shape, the West is continuously crumbling, and Iranians are overwhelmingly happy with their government. Critics of the establishment are hardly ever invited to be on the shows, and one-sided debates feature pundits who are overly judgmental and opinionated, not only in favor of the clerical leadership but against the people they pejoratively refer to as “liberal” and “Westernized.”

During the recent protest movement, for example, different IRIB stations depicted the thread of events as entirely a machination of the United States, Israel, and other traditional foes of the Islamic Republic, bad-mouthing the protesters as “rioters,” without even partially acknowledging the grievances over which people had taken to the streets. In August 2022, one month before the protests broke out, the conservative Khorasan Daily wrote in an editorial, “in the recent months, reports have been aired in the news programs of the [state] TV that have had no dividends but to enrage the audiences.”

Even when it comes to entertainment, IRIB has not appealed to Iranians. In February, the Polling and Research Center of IRIB reported that only 38.3% of Iranians viewed the most popular drama series aired on TV3. A decade ago, millions would tune in to IRIB’s nighttime soap dramas, game shows, and other entertainment programs. Those numbers are not retrievable anymore.

A Crisis of Popularity

In 2020, the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA), one of the few reliable polling agencies in the country, found in a survey that out of every 10 Iranians, only three believed the IRIB’s coverage reflected the realities of the society. This chronic crisis of trust is a conundrum the IRIB management and its state benefactors never grasped and addressed, which is why an organization with millions of dollars of funding is seeing even its traditional audience base being compromised.

According to similar polls, while more than 70% of Iranians reportedly relied on IRIB as their primary source of information in 2004, that number has plummeted to 45% in 2022. The cruder public sentiments that cannot be captured in such polls in fact include views that the IRIB is a mouthpiece for government propaganda and overt lies. In their daily conversations, many Iranians deride its news bulletins and other political shows as a travesty of reporting because they are so inaccurate.

It is possible to have public institutions that are opulent and drain taxpayer money with little to no visible productivity. IRIB is certainly one example. As long as it counts on all avenues of news dissemination remaining constrained so that it thrives, and as long as it wages psychological warfare against its own people, its ratings will shrink and in the sophisticated global competition for winning hearts and minds, it will be a sad loser.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning journalist from Iran, an Asia Times correspondent, and a former Chevening Scholarship recipient. He is an alumnus of the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship by the East-West Center, a 2022 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow, and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. He is the recipient of a Professional Excellence Award from the Foreign Press Correspondents Association. Also, he is the silver winner of the Prince Albert II of Monaco and United Nations Correspondents Association’s Global Prize for Coverage of Climate Change. Ziabari was a finalist for three Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism, in 2020, 2021, and 2022. His writings appear in Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, The New Arab, the National Interest, openDemocracy, Responsible Statecraft, Middle East Eye, Atlantic Council, and The Middle East Institute.

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