As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani squabbles with hardline parliamentarians over next year’s national budget, state broadcaster Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) will inevitably be richly funded despite rising public objections to its partisan reporting.
A draft of the budget bill for the next Iranian calendar year, which begins on March 21, sparked an uproar over a proposed 35% year on year increase of IRIB’s budget.
IRIB operates upwards of 100 local, national and international radio and television stations, and holds an absolute monopoly over media services in Iran.
With satellite dishes capable of receiving international signals still officially banned and no real competition from privately-owned domestic networks, IRIB plays a key role in influencing Iranian public opinion.
The gargantuan media conglomerate employs as many as 50,000 people and relies on government funding and commercials to meet its day-to-day operating costs.
The head of the IRIB is appointed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It is virtually exempt from accountability over its content from all elected offices and regulatory bodies.
Apart from domestic programming, its major international networks are Press TV, Al-Alam and Hispan TV, which broadcast documentaries about Islam and Iranian culture and present international news stories through a not-so-subtle state-sanctioned lens for foreign audiences in English, Arabic and Spanish languages.
Rouhani’s administration has proposed that IRIB should receive a whopping 28.35 trillion rials (US$118 million) for this budget year, equivalent to the cumulative budget of 10 out of Iran’s 31 provinces.
The broadcaster will also have access to $150 million in foreign currency reserves that are proceeds of the National Development Fund of Iran, the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
The National Development Fund of Iran is a depository of petroleum export revenues that are reserved for infrastructural projects or emergency expenditure, and it is only possible to withdraw cash from it with the green light of the Supreme Leader.
According to the draft budget, IRIB is supposed to deploy the funds to “qualitatively and quantitatively” develop its programming, including animation, documentaries, films and television series.
Yet news of the budget rise stoked anger among Iranians frustrated by what they view as misplaced priorities given the grave economic maladies facing the nation.
Iranians, moreover, widely see IRIB as an unrepresentative and undemocratic media organization whose programs peddle anti-Western propaganda, conspiracy theories, anti-science myths and religious extremism.
In a survey conducted last year by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA), only 32.6% of respondents said they believed the IRIB programs reflect the realities of Iranian society.
Even with stringent restrictions on foreign programming, internet censorship that affects thousands of news sites and virtually every major global social media platform, and the primacy of state-run media, less than half of survey respondents, or 45.8%, named IRIB as their primary source of information.
More telling are the results of a survey administered by ISPA in the aftermath of nationwide protests in November 2019, when Iranians instigated an uprising against a 300% spike in fuel prices and entrenched socioeconomic inequalities in which 1,500 protesters were killed by security forces, according to Reuters.
That survey found that a mere 11% of Iranians agreed “to a large extent” that IRIB performed objectively in its coverage of the deadly protests. Among Iranians with higher education degrees, the figure stood at a trifling 5%.
IRIB is infamous for its explicit censorship of critical debate and does not shy away from openly stifling independent comments by its guests and experts on Iran’s domestic affairs and foreign policy. Its entertainment channels also heavily edit foreign movies and television series to ensure “immorality” is not screened to the public.
In the year since the disputed 2009 presidential polls, which saw populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win a bitter reelection, managerial positions in different IRIB channels have been filled with the protégés of the former hardline president. Major talk shows, debate and news programs are dominated by ultra-conservative hosts and pundits.
IRIB’s controversial airing of forced confessions from political prisoners in the wake of the 2009 presidential election protests prompted the United States to level sanctions against the broadcaster and its director at the time, Ezzatollah Zarghami, on grounds of restricting or denying the free flow of information to the Iranian people.
Although the more moderate Rouhani government has tried to secure positive coverage of its policies, in particular, its diplomatic outreach with the West to resolve a dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program, the hardliner-dominated IRIB has never treated Rouhani favorably despite lavish budgetary earmarks.
In stark contrast to the favorable and sometimes obsequious coverage it gave to the ultra-conservative Ahmadinejad administration, IRIB has been comparatively bent on pillorying Rouhani since the day he took office.
Its propaganda against the moderate president intensified after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed by Iran and several world powers, including the US, in 2015.
“The IRIB is dominated by a radical political faction,” said Iranian journalist Mira Ghorbanifar, who added that because the broadcaster does not depend on financial contributions from the public to survive, it easily ignores their interests. “They conveniently ignore the views of a large portion of the society and trivialize them.”
Over the years, there has been an ongoing debate as to how to make IRIB a more responsible, agile and effective news outfit capable of producing programs that cater to the rapidly evolving needs of a young population that has embraced foreign broadcasters and social media.
Experts say IRIB functions more like a government agency than an impartial media organization. Observers also claim its resources are often squandered on internal bureaucracy and administrative formalities than on producing news.
“Over the years, 50,000 people have been employed by this conglomerate, and are actually considered government employees,” said Reihaneh Yasini, a journalist and researcher of media studies in Tehran who believes IRIB is “too inflated” to be able to function smoothly.
“There are 49,000 people tasked with supervision, and the remaining 1,000 are those who work. This is why the situation is like this,’” she claimed. The media studies researcher says the majority of IRIB administrators do not have a media background and this explains the broadcaster’s editorial failings.
One of the latest controversies surrounding IRIB involves the cancellation of one of its most popular programs, Navad, a weekly sports television show dedicated to discussing issues related to Iran’s football scene. On the air since 1999, its on-air polls have in the past drawn as many as three million participants.
The show was canceled in 2019 after a religious hardliner and former Basij militia member was promoted to manage the state-run television station on which the show appeared, purportedly due to the cultural attitudes and relatively liberal proclivities of its host, popular football commentator Adel Ferdosipour.
More IRIB-related suppression could be on the horizon. A new parliament plan could appropriate extra funding to IRIB to “supervise and manage” cyberspace. The particulars of the plan are not clear yet, but critics believe it could be yet another step by conservative hardliners to further restrict media content.