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As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani squabbles with hardline parliamentarians over next year’s national budget, state broadcaster Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) will inevitably be richly funded despite rising public objections to its partisan reporting.
A draft of the budget bill for the next Iranian calendar year, which begins on March 21, sparked an uproar over a proposed 35% year on year increase of IRIB’s budget.
IRIB operates upwards of 100 local, national and international radio and television stations, and holds an absolute monopoly over media services in Iran.
With satellite dishes capable of receiving international signals still officially banned and no real competition from privately-owned domestic networks, IRIB plays a key role in influencing Iranian public opinion.
The gargantuan media conglomerate employs as many as 50,000 people and relies on government funding and commercials to meet its day-to-day operating costs.
The head of the IRIB is appointed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It is virtually exempt from accountability over its content from all elected offices and regulatory bodies.
Apart from domestic programming, its major international networks are Press TV, Al-Alam and Hispan TV, which broadcast documentaries about Islam and Iranian culture and present international news stories through a not-so-subtle state-sanctioned lens for foreign audiences in English, Arabic and Spanish languages.
Rouhani’s administration has proposed that IRIB should receive a whopping 28.35 trillion rials (US$118 million) for this budget year, equivalent to the cumulative budget of 10 out of Iran’s 31 provinces.
The broadcaster will also have access to $150 million in foreign currency reserves that are proceeds of the National Development Fund of Iran, the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
The National Development Fund of Iran is a depository of petroleum export revenues that are reserved for infrastructural projects or emergency expenditure, and it is only possible to withdraw cash from it with the green light of the Supreme Leader.
According to the draft budget, IRIB is supposed to deploy the funds to “qualitatively and quantitatively” develop its programming, including animation, documentaries, films and television series.
Yet news of the budget rise stoked anger among Iranians frustrated by what they view as misplaced priorities given the grave economic maladies facing the nation.
Iranians, moreover, widely see IRIB as an unrepresentative and undemocratic media organization whose programs peddle anti-Western propaganda, conspiracy theories, anti-science myths and religious extremism.
In a survey conducted last year by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA), only 32.6% of respondents said they believed the IRIB programs reflect the realities of Iranian society.
Even with stringent restrictions on foreign programming, internet censorship that affects thousands of news sites and virtually every major global social media platform, and the primacy of state-run media, less than half of survey respondents, or 45.8%, named IRIB as their primary source of information.
More telling are the results of a survey administered by ISPA in the aftermath of nationwide protests in November 2019, when Iranians instigated an uprising against a 300% spike in fuel prices and entrenched socioeconomic inequalities in which 1,500 protesters were killed by security forces, according to Reuters.