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Iran: State-Controlled Media Coverage Under Fire Ahead Of Elections

Reformist leaflets are distributed in Tehran on March 13 (AFP) Iranian law requires state-run television to provide equal airtime to all political groups during the run-up to elections. But many opposition politicians allege that has not happened ahead of the March 14 parliamentary elections.

Political opponents of the complain that state-controlled media -- and television in particular -- have not been objective in covering the ongoing parliamentary election campaign, clearly favoring the ruling conservatives and marginalizing reformists.

Isa Saharkhiz, an independent journalist and a member of Iran's Association for Press Freedom, tells RFE/RL that while state television offers reformists their "rightful airtime," television authorities usually schedule such broadcasts so that television appearances by opposition politicians reach as few people as possible.

The Guardians Council, a 12-member body that answers to Iran's supreme leader, has already eliminated hundreds of reformist candidates from running in the polls, mostly because they are deemed unfit to continue the work of the Islamic revolution. But Saharkhiz says the opposition's chances are also hurt by television, which "draws a negative portrait of reformists and -- directly and indirectly -- encourage people not to vote for them, and at the same time promote the conservatives."

"In various television and radio programs -- including news, reports, and other programs -- we can see some kind of double standards: undermining one side and promoting and supporting the other side," Saharkhiz says. "The airtime that is provided by the law is very short. It's probably not even 1 percent of programming."

Critics cite an example of state television bias on March 10. Some 170 well-known figures from Iranian cinema, theater, and television issued a statement stating their support for the Reformist Coalition inspired by former President Mohammad Khatami.

Yet the statement did not appear in state-controlled media. Soon afterward, the semiofficial Fars news agency published an urgent report saying that most of the performers whose names appeared on the statement had denied ever signing it.

But some independent journalists claimed that television employees who signed the statement were put under pressure to either reject the document or terminate their employment with state-run television.

Mostafa Tajzadeh is a member of Islamic Revolution Mojaheddin Organization, a political group that, along with nearly 30 other factions and parties, forms the Reformist Coalition. Tajzadeh accused state-controlled media of violating the election law by openly supporting some political groups while creating restrictions for the others.

"We, the reformists, do not have a publication, do not have a newspaper," Tajzadeh said. "All those state-run newspapers -- including, 'Iran,' 'Jam-e Jam,' 'Hamshahri' and 'Kayhan' -- have been acting against the law by promoting conservative movements."

The Reformist Coalition claims that state-controlled television has sought to set various reformists groups against one another.

For example, last week, after Khatami reportedly refused to give an interview to state television, the network swiftly aired an interview with Mehdi Karoubi, the leader of another reformist coalition, the National Confidence Party.

Karoubi happily thanked the station: "We thank this television and radio station for their efforts to rally political forces. We are grateful."

But journalist Saharkhiz said that no matter how hard the Iranian authorities tried, they could not prevent the free flow of information and keep Iranians in total darkness.

There are still a number of independent publications in Iran -- including, "Etemad-i Melli," which belongs to Karoubi's group -- as well as foreign radio and television targeting Iranian audiences as well as the Internet with hundreds of blogs produced both inside and outside Iran.

Nonetheless, authorities routinely block and filter websites, and access to the Internet is still limited beyond cities.

Ironically, Saharkhez thinks state media's perceived bias during the election campaign may work to their own disadvantage.

"People have realized that the state-run media is biased and that it does not offer the information they need," he said. "As a result, people's interest in independent publications, blogs, and foreign radio stations has increased in Iran suddenly over the past few weeks."

RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.