State Television Becomes a Focus for Iranian Anger

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To the triumvirate Iranians blame for the disputed election result and ensuing violence — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ali Khameni and their henchmen, the Basij militia — Iranians have added an unlikely candidate: state media. The wrath of many Iranians toward the state's all-powerful organ of propaganda, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), known in Iran as seda va sima, has been mounting over the past two weeks. It reached a fever pitch this weekend, as state television ignored the killing of "Neda," an Iranian woman protester shot on a Tehran street who has rapidly emerged as an iconic symbol of the opposition's anguish over the unfolding crisis. "The whole world was mourning Neda as a martyr, the world was crying for her, but there was no word from [state media]," a resident of central Tehran wrote to me in an e-mail. "How shameful!" (Read a story about how one woman's death may have many consequences.)

Cartoons decrying state media are now sweeping the Facebook sites that function as an information transit point for protesters and their sympathizers. "Lying media, our shame, national TV" reads one cartoon, while a photograph of a Tehran window display shows a TV set bearing this banner: "There is nothing more vile than wounding the pride of a people." (See pictures of the turbulent aftermath of Iran's election.)

Iranians critical of the government have long viewed state media as a propaganda tool, but only in recent days has the institution emerged as a focus of their ire. State news broadcasts have largely overlooked the enormous street protests of recent days, including the June 16 protests that stretched across five miles of Tehran. When the news does make mention, it shows brief scenes of what presenters describe as "hooligans" rioting. Street interviews either highlight those who back Ahmadinejad, or young people who claim to be recanting their support for Mir-Hossein Mousavi in light of recent developments. (Read a story about how to report in Tehran when you're banned.)

As authorities moved to quell the protests, first with warnings and then by violent crackdown, state television has aired movie blockbusters at the hour of anticipated demonstrations to try to keep people at home. "State media has always been hard-line and deceitful, but these days it's badly humiliating people," a 35-year-old resident of Tehran told me. "By all of this, it has become as hated as Khamenei and Ahmadinejad themselves." (See pictures of the Basij and other plainclothes terrors of Tehran.)

The building outrage toward state television can also be traced to the demand last week by Mohammad Reza Shajjarian, Iran's beloved and foremost classical musician, that state TV and radio cease broadcasting his songs. Shajjarian's anthems helped galvanize the Islamic revolution of 1979 and retain today their evocative and emotional pull. "I emphatically asked IRIB not to broadcast my voice, because this is the voice of the dirt and dust and will always remain so," he said in an interview with the BBC, referring to the denigrating term "dirt and dust" with which Ahmadinejad has labeled the protesters.

The government has long relied on state media as a primary tool for tarring its opponents as enemies or foreign agents and shaping Iranians' understanding of the news. Reformist politicians and clerics have long sought oversight over the institution's vast budget and activities, viewing IRIB as perhaps the government's most indispensable means of thwarting change. In a student uprising against the Islamic authorities in 1999, young people chanted slogans against state media and demanded the firing of its chief.

The current level of antipathy toward IRIB, however, is unprecedented and proving worrisome to even staunch allies of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Ali Larijani, the current Speaker of parliament who formerly headed IRIB, recently said that "the IRIB should not act in a way that provokes people." Such rare criticism, especially from a key political figure who backed Ahamdinejad's electoral win on cue from Khamenei, suggests the delicate fissures within the regime's backing for the President.

Under Iran's constitution, the Supreme Leader is responsible for appointing the head of IRIB, and typically Khamenei has chosen loyalists. When Larijani left the organization in 2004, he put forward one of his own trusted deputies, Ezatollah Zarghami. A former member of the Revolutionary Guards and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Zarghami also worked with Larijani at the Guards' political directorate. Analysts say Zarghami's role there was to fashion a modern theoretical foundation for velayat-e faqih, the doctrine of absolute clerical rule on which Khamenei's authority rests.

Will Larijani's public criticism of IRIB influence his successor? Though Zarghami is appointed by Khamenei and certainly loyal to him, analysts both in Iran and the West do not consider him unequivocally in Ahmadinejad's camp. Reformists in Tehran have said in recent years that a small cabal within IRIB works directly in tandem with Ahmadinejad but that the organization's political fidelity extends beyond the President. These distinctions help explain why IRIB agreed to air six debates during the presidential campaign, which was unprecedented in Iranian politics. The debates secured a rare prime-time opportunity for opposition candidates to make their case against Ahmadinejad before the nation, and the electrifying acrimony of the programs helped bring the electoral campaign alive.

In the spectrum of Iran's establishment, Zarghami and his ally Larijani are considered staunch conservatives, but not in the reactionary mold of Ahmadinejad. While IRIB has enabled the regime's decision to repress the protests, Larijani's criticism of its broadcasts suggests the regime is worried that yet another powerful state institution may become a lightning rod of substantial popular hatred.