When Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivered a speech at a highly anticipated government rally last month, Tehran's Azadi Stadium was nearly empty.
At least that's how it appeared in footage aired by Iran's state-controlled television.
If one were to judge by a video posted on Ahmadinejad's website, however, they would get a much different picture. That video shows a stadium with a capacity of 100,000 more than half full. Some moderate websites and news agencies
estimated that between 60,000 and 70,000 attended the gathering.
The discrepancy highlights the battle for influence that is being waged in the Iranian media ahead of the country's June 14 presidential election.
Scores of politicians will officially file their names as candidates this week, with the preliminary registration process taking place from May 7-11. From the initial list the number of names is expected to be whittled down to a select few by the Guardians Council, which has the final say in approving candidates.
As candidates prepare to try their luck in the political game, the media environment has already turned foul, pitting the combative outgoing Ahmadinejad against powerful rivals close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Reports in some state-controlled media show Ahmadinejad in an unflattering light, depicting the president as grooming a handpicked successor -- his right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei -- in an attempt to maintain influence. Under Iran's constitution, Ahmadinejad cannot run for a third consecutive term.
Iranian media have been always closely connected to politics, with each political faction controlling several outlets.
The state broadcast is under the direct control of Khamenei and his allies, as is the ultra-hard-line daily "Kayhan," which is said to be the mouthpiece of the supreme leader. Ahmadinejad and his government control the state news agency IRNA, the daily "Iran," and a number of websites and blogs. Other factions and centers of power, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), have their own media outlets.
Ahead of the June 14 vote, media on one side have taken to describing Ahmadinejad and members of his close circle as the "deviant current." Ahmadinejad, through his outlets, has spread warnings about official electioneering and has made thinly veiled threats to leak damaging files about Iranian authorities.
A report aired by state television in March provides a window into the concerns Ahmadinejad's rivals have about him influencing the presidential race, even if they don't mention him by name.
"Some are not candidates themselves. According to the law, they cannot run in this term. It is said that they have plans for the elections," the announcer says. "This group has a main candidate and several secondary ones. If the main candidate is disqualified, the group will create a [crisis]."
Coverage Meant To Embarrass
State television, watched by millions of Iranians, has become the main platform for attacks against the president. In recent weeks, it has aired talk shows attended by critics of the president who have blasted his economic policies and accused him of mismanagement. Coverage of recent trips Ahmadinejad has made to Iran's provinces, which are believed to be part of his strategy to promote Mashaei, are also clearly aimed at embarrassing him.
Manuchehr Honarmand, editor in chief of the Iran-related video portal Lenziran, follows Iran's state broadcasts closely. He says the tide has clearly turned against Ahmadinejad, a former Khamenei protege who fell out of favor due to a power struggle with the supreme leader.
"First of all, [state TV] doesn't have live coverage of Ahmadinejad's trips to the provinces anymore, and it airs footage [of Ahmadinejad events] that shows empty stadiums and squares," Honarmand says. "Ahmadinejad's team has retaliated by posting videos of the speeches he gives during his provincial trips on his website."
On April 28, state television was accused in reports by IRNA of "childish" behavior and biased coverage aimed at preventing citizens from welcoming Ahmadinejad to their provinces and attending his events.
"Unfortunately, the state broadcast of the province dismissed the dense crowd that had come to Imam's Square to welcome the president," Isfahan Governor Zaker Esfahani was quoted as saying by IRNA. "It showed the empty spaces around the square."
All Criticism Permissible
Aside from state media, websites close to some of Ahmadinejad's opponents have joined in the apparent effort to discredit the president by posting pictures of poorly attended speeches, conducting interviews with his critics, and reporting polls that show dissatisfaction with his policies.
The opposition Kalame website, addressing the question of who might be behind the alleged effort, reported on April 25 that the Intelligence Ministry told the country's media that any amount of criticism against Ahmadinejad ahead of the June vote was permissible.
The website Baztab, which is said to be close to former IRGC commander and presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai, last week posted a report based on rumors that Ahmadinejad is in possession of an audiotape that reveals fraud in the 2009 vote.
The report said the audiotape documents a telephone conversation between Ahmadinejad and top officials in which the president is told that he actually won far fewer votes than the official results showed.
The president's office has called the report baseless, while Baztab's editor in chief later said the report had taken the government by surprise and "neutralized" its plans for the upcoming vote.
Germany-based Behnam Gholipour, chief editor of the Digarban website that monitors Iran's hard-line media, says the media battle is likely to become even more heated. He says it could result in the publication of some information that might not otherwise become public.
"Until not long ago, the atmosphere was not right for the criticism of the government because Ahmadinejad and his government had the support of the establishment, and the hands of his conservative critics were tied," Gholipour says. "But the current atmosphere allows them to criticize his performance and make public some of the realities of [his presidency]."