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TV Turns 60 In Iran With Biased, Ideological Programming And Low Credibility

Iran's last monarch Mohammadreza Shah Pahlavi (L) visiting Iran's first television station founded by Habib Sabet Pasal (R).

TV broadcasting in Iran turns 60 this October. During the past six decades, the broadcaster was transformed from a private organization to a national broadcaster, the focus of its programming changed from information dissemination and entertainment to one of political brainwashing, garnering support for the government inside Iran and acting as a tool for disinformation around the globe.

Now called the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and known for its monopoly on all TV and radio broadcasting in the country, it was originally a private station launched in 1958 by a former bicycle repair shop owner.

Habibollah Sabet started "Televizion-e Iran” 13 years after the end of World War II and only five years after a U.S. and British intelligence backed coup d’etat toppled Iran's popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.

Sabet was by that point one of Iran’s richest and most successful businessmen. According to the New York Times, “Sabet, whose upbringing in poverty and in the Bahai faith was a double disadvantage in his ascent to the mostly Shi'ite Muslim Iranian elite, founded more than 40 corporations and was involved in banking, television, business and industry."

Portrait of Habib Sabet Pasal, a Baha'i who was one of Iran's major industrialists, and the founder of the first Iranian television station.
Portrait of Habib Sabet Pasal, a Baha'i who was one of Iran's major industrialists, and the founder of the first Iranian television station.

The only TV station in Iran at the time, Televizion-e Iran was known by viewers as “Channel 3.” It broadcast initially three hours and then five hours in the evening. In 1966 the government nationalized all radio and TV broadcasters in the country under the umbrella of National Iranian Radio Television (NIRT).

Until that point, Channel 3 was mainly an entertainment channel with minimal news coverage. Iranian leaders at the time thought the national TV broadcaster could be used to push forward economic, social, and political progress in the country and engage with the public through what was then a new medium. The channel’s reach was limited geographically, however, to Tehran and Abadan.

During this period NIRT provided high quality educational and entertainment programing.Having previously been dependent on the official news agency, Pars, for its news coverage, NIRT set up its own cutting edge newsroom.

NIRT raised awareness in the areas of public health, economics, and the arts. Apart from its two main TV channels and provincial stations, NIRT sponsored the country's leading intellectual magazine, Tamasha, and funded many artistic activities in its much celebrated City Theater, Drama Workshop, and the Center for Preserving and Promoting Iranian Music.

Meanwhile, NIRT spread its network all over the country, providing public information and entertainment as well as opportunities for local talents to flourish. But its news content was controlled by the state and opponents of the shah had no access to express their views.

The main building of Iranian state TV in Tehran built in late 70s..
The main building of Iranian state TV in Tehran built in late 70s..

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the new directors of NIRT believed TV should be made obsolete and that clerics should speak to the nation via the radio.

Nevertheless, during the past 40 years, Iranian state TV, now rebranded again as IRIB, increased the number of national channels from 2 to a dozen, while also maintaining 31 provincial channels as well as several channels in various languages, most notably English (Press TV), Arabic (Al-Alam), and Spanish (Hispan TV).

During this time, the TV broadcaster that was once the country’s most authoritative news source became a blatant tool of political and religious propaganda and lost all credibility with viewers. Iran’s own Culture Ministry reports reflect the station’s dwindling status in the minds of Iranians. Media critics and officials including former presidents of Iran have repeatedly criticized IRIB for biased news coverage and depriving reform-minded citizens of a voice.

While IRIB’s foreign language channels trumpet the Islamic Republic's regional political ambitions and further a major disinformation campaign about the West, domestic channels in the Persian language constantly promote the party line and attack any individual or group with a dissenting opinion.

In the universe of IRIB TV news, all bad things happen in Europe and America, while everything that takes place in Iran is good, that is, unless it is sabotaged by Iran’s enemies.

Recently, IRIB has been giving limited IPTV licenses to regime insiders to have their own, (but still state controlled) Internet-based video-on-demand programs, which are mainly low-brow gossip shows about celebrities.

Iranian state TV’s director is appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and is answerable directly to him. The Supervisory Board, consisting of representatives of the executive, legislative, and judiciary bodies, has not been observed to exert any influence on programming. There are no checks and balances to assess the organization's success or failure or its commitment to its mission.

IRIB has exclusive broadcasting rights in Iran. Private TV is out of the question, and watching satellite TV beaming from abroad is officially banned, although many watch foreign-based channels for news and entertainment as they find domestic TV dull and unreliable.

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    Behrouz Turani

    Behrouz Turani is a British-Iranian writer and journalist as well as a consultant on Iran's political dynamics and the Iranian media landscape.