Iran’s state television thrives during the holy month of Ramadan, when a fresh schedule of shows and soap operas with social and religious themes draws a rising number of viewers.
This year’s Ramadan season is different, however. The broadcaster, which played a vital role in government propaganda in the wake of the disputed June 12 presidential election, is being punished by its audience.
Ezatollah Zarghami, head of state radio and television, was quoted in the media last week as saying that the number of viewers had shrunk by 40 per cent since the election. Though his office later denied the comments, some observers say the drop he cited understated the fall in interest.
The predicament of the state broadcaster underlines the persistence of Iran’s election crisis – the biggest upheaval in the Islamic republic since the 1979 revolution.
It suggests that the treatment of the opposition by the authorities is provoking anger among ordinary Iranians, rather than serving to end the tensions.
State television played a big part in the post-election crackdown, accusing protesters – who insist that the presidential poll was stolen and handed to the radical incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad – of being “rioters”.
The station showed pictures of the accused and called on viewers to denounce them to the authorities.
Wide coverage has also been given to trials of reformists, with biased analysis based on the supposed confessions of prisoners. It claimed that they were influenced by western governments to launch a US-backed “velvet revolution”, that the election was healthy and that opposition leaders’ charges of a rigged vote were made up.
Yet, if the court sessions – denounced by the opposition as show trials – were meant to destroy the reformist opposition and turn Iranians away from Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the main challenger to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, they appear to have failed.
The regime’s strategy has been further undermined by allegations of prison rape and torture, which have been highlighted by the reformist media, causing concern in religious circles and even among conservative supporters of the president.
State television has ignored the accusations, broadcasting instead repeated official speeches claiming that the 85 per cent voter turnout in the presidential election represents evidence of popular support for the Islamic regime.
“Public opinion has lost its trust in the radio and television because the ruling regime has misused them to justify its policies,” says Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a spokesman for the Association to Defend Press Freedom. “The strategy to use the media as a propaganda tool has lost its impact.”
The state broadcaster has also been stung by a boycott campaign launched by bloggers who have urged Iranians not to buy advertised products. One leading businessman told the Financial Times that he had withdrawn an advertising package booked for this month to deprive the television station of revenues. He also feared that viewers might boycott his products.
On the cultural front, too, there have been repercussions. Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, a celebrated traditional singer, has demanded that state television stop playing his songs. “That organisation has no role in producing my pieces and should cease airing my voice,” says Mr Shajarian.
He complains that his nationalist songs were broadcast after Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was declared winner of the presidential vote.
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