Iran's state television may have to shut down several foreign language channels due to financial strains caused by sanctions, mismanagement, falling viewership figures and long-standing differences between the state broadcaster and the presidential administration.
Payman Jebelli, the head of the external services of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Broadcasting organization (IRIB) told Fars news agency on Wednesday June 10 that the organization’s ideologically charged Al-Kowsar TV network as well as the Iranian Radio's Dari service have already been closed due to accrued debts to satellite providers.
Jebelli added that a dozen other TV channels including the English-language Press TV and the Arabic news network Al-Alam, the Spanish language Hispan TV as well as i-Film channels in Arabic and English are among the networks that might be shut down soon due to financial strains.
Jebelli accused the President Hassan Rouhani’s administration of "negligence and deliberately exerting pressure on the state TV," adding that "the administration has refused to allocate foreign currency funds to the state broadcaster."
As a result, said Jebelli, the IRIB cannot pay its debts to radio relay stations and satellite service providers."
The IRIB's Dari radio has been broadcasting Shiite ideological programs into mainly Sunni Afghanistan during the past 40 years.
Jebelli said: "We have always suspected that the administration is following other objectives by exerting financial pressure on the IRIB. The administration has been increasingly targeting the broadcaster's international network."
However, Jebelli did not say how much the IRIB owed to relay stations and satellite providers. Nor did he elaborate on the Rouhani administration's political motivation for depriving the IRIB of funds. He said: "We thought the administration would do something to solve the problem after Al-Kowsar network was cut off."
In mid-May, Jebelli broke the news about the network's shut down and blamed "neglect by the administration" for it. Subsequently, the Planning and Budget Organization (PBO) published some evidence to prove that the administration has paid IRIB's budget in full and in foreign currency.
According to Mehr news agency, Jebelli said in May that the external services budget was reduced to one sixth of what it was six years ago when the Rouhani administration took office but did not say how large was the budget then or now.
However, IRIB insiders say the PBO has allocated the budget in Chinese yuan and other currencies not as fungible as U.S. dollars or euros. Converting the allocated sum into strong currencies would dramatically diminish the IRIB's purchasing power in the international market. The PBO has also confirmed that it has only Yuan at its disposal while the IRIB wants dollars or euros.
Meanwhile, the administration-run Borna news agency questioned why the IRIB should need extra budget for its routine activities. During the past years, other than the one-billion-dollar state budget, IRIB received over two billion dollars from the country's foreign currency reserve per orders issued by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
According to the March 2018 - March 2019 budget bill, the administration had allocated 8.75 trillion rials to the IRIB ($175 million) while the organization finally received 14.7 trillion rials (around $300 million) during that year. The administration believes the IRIB has received an extra 60 percent more than its approved budget.
Nevertheless, Jebelli claimed on Wednesday that despite five months of follow ups, "the administration has not allocated even one dollar or euro or dirham or dinar to the IRIB although all the formalities for the payment have been met."
Following the U.S. pull-out from the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington imposed heavy sanctions on Iran causing financial difficulties for Tehran. This has affected the country's overall budget.
But the IRIB has had other problems too. Its programming including what is broadcast on its external services is heavily loaded with ideological propaganda and disinformation and lags behind other networks in its target areas. This has led to a drop in their viewership as observed by Iran's own news agencies.
Meanwhile, the presidential administration has been always complaining about IRIB's one-sided messaging which reflects the ideas of Iran's hardliners and is often critical of the administration's approach to economy and foreign policy. That leaves no incentive for the administration to adopt a favorable policy towards the broadcaster.
Other than dozens of radio and TV networks beaming programs abroad, the IRIB operates two dozen channels in Tehran as well as over 30 provincial channels that often broadcast the same programs. Meanwhile it has several offices in other countries that spend millions of dollars on their staffing and operations.
According to media experts in Iran and various polls by Iranian polling agencies, the IRIB's viewership has been dropping particularly since 2009 as the broadcaster lost its popularity because of its biased coverage and due to the emergence of social media as well as several popular foreign-based Persian-speaking TV stations that operate on a fraction of the budget spent by the government on the IRIB.