All internal and external Iranian broadcast media falls under the aegis of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), a state-owned umbrella organization constitutionally mandated to serve as Iran’s sole legal TV and radio broadcaster.
Domestically, IRIB is an instrument of Iran’s efforts to preserve the Islamic revolution through repression. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned IRIB in 2013 over its usage of “state-media transmissions to trample dissent.” Treasury further cited “distorted or false IRIB news reports and the broadcasting of forced confessions of political detainees” and IRIB’s role in jamming satellite transmissions of Western-produced Persian language news broadcasts, as the impetus behind designating IRIB. While satellite dishes are officially proscribed in the Islamic Republic, a majority of Iran’s citizens own the illegal devices, giving them access to dozens of non-state approved Farsi-language news, entertainment, and film channels. The European Union similarly sanctioned IRIB’s chief in 2012, and several European satellite providers subsequently removed IRIB offerings from their service, but both the U.S. and EU opted to waive their sanctions against IRIB during the Iran nuclear deal negotiating process, enabling IRIB channels to return to Europe’s airwaves.
At the height of Iran’s financial crisis in early 2015 catalyzed by the international sanctions regime and a sustained drop in energy prices, Iran moved to shutter IRIB news outlets in the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, and Latin America. However, since receiving a sanctions relief windfall valued at over $100 billion in the wake of the JCPOA, Iran is poised to reinvigorate IRIB’s global footprint, as Iran’s parliament voted in January 2017 to double IRIB’s annual budget to $750 million. One of the Middle East’s largest news organizations, according to Iranian newspaper the Financial Tribune, the IRIB has “13,000 employees and branches in 20 countries, including France, Belgium, Malaysia, Lebanon, the UK and the US. IRIB offers both domestic and foreign radio and television services, managing 12 domestic television channels, four international television news channels, six satellite television channels and 30 provincial television channels.” According to Al-Monitor, IRIB “runs dedicated news channels in English, Arabic and Spanish while broadcasting in more than 30 languages, including Bosniak, Azerbaijani, Mandarin, Malay and Albanian.
Iran’s constitution gives the Supreme Leader the power to select the head of IRIB. Accordingly, the media conglomerate has been run by conservative and hardliners loyal to Khamenei since he assumed the role of Supreme Leader. IRIB’s mission is to provide consistent messaging in pursuit of the regime’s domestic, foreign policy, and military goals. Its programming aims to strengthen morality and religiosity in Iranian society, to uphold Iran’s revolutionary ethos, and to provide viewers a theoretical foundation for Khomeinist principles, such as velayat-e faqih, the invocation of rule by clerics from which the Supreme Leader’s absolute authority is derived. According to its charter, among IRIB’s guiding principles are conveying "The majesty of spirit of the Islamic revolution as well as that of constitution over all of the programs” and "The fulfillment of the Supreme Leader's point of view as the Islamic Jurisprudent."
As such, IRIB has served as a crucial institutional pillar of support for Iran’s hardline establishment in its factional struggles with reformists, shaping Iranian perceptions of the news in accordance with the regime’s prevailing worldview. IRIB has been an important agent in thwarting societal and political liberalization sought by reformist politicians and protestors, branding government opponents as enemies or foreign agents.
As student protests rocked Iran in 1999, IRIB became a target of the demonstrators’ ire due to its biased reporting and inadequate coverage of the unrest. IRIB played a similar obscurantist role during the bitterly disputed 2009 election, giving minimal coverage to the massive Green Movement protests, selectively using footage to tar demonstrators as merely “hooligans” rioting, and labelling opposition leaders and activists as “seditionists.” The broadcaster also initially chose to ignore the killing of protestor Neda Aghan Soltan at the hands of the Basij, acknowledging her death only after it crystallized an international uproar, and then conspiratorially painting the incident as “phony” or a fabricated Western media plot to undermine the Basij. IRIB also earned domestic and international opprobrium for broadcasting show trials and coerced confessions of Green Movement leaders and activists, a key factor in the U.S. and EU’s eventual imposition of sanctions against IRIB.
While IRIB’s occasionally heavy-handed methods have given its news programs a reputation for peddling pro-regime propaganda, a 2012 U.S. government funded survey found that 86% of Iranians still count IRIB among their top three sources of news, even though only half of respondents classified IRIB’s news content as “very trustworthy.” IRIB continues to dominate Iranian news consumption despite the mounted challenge posed by Persian-language news offerings by Western media organs, such as BBC and Voice of America, seeking to provide an alternative point of view to Iranian audiences. Iranian authorities regard these broadcasts with fear and mistrust, viewing them as a threat to their continued cultural hegemony. Iran accordingly invests heavily in censorship efforts, including jamming of international satellite broadcasts. Iranian police also regularly conduct raids to seize illegally possessed satellite dishes, and the IRGC’s Basij militia have staged ceremonies in which they destroy massive quantities of the corrupting devices.