Iran’s state television has announced a controversial plan to allow the parliamentary election candidates to place campaign ads on TV for hefty amounts of cash.
The March 1 election is strictly limited to ultraconservative candidates with minimal participation from other conservatives. Reformist and moderate candidates are effectively barred from running. Voter turnout is also expected to be extremely low, partly due to what former President Hassan Rouhani has called “meaningless elections.”
The state television (IRIB) is strictly under the control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s office and is the sole broadcaster in Iran.
The advertising plan which calls for up to 1,5 billion rials ($3,000) per advertisement has been widely criticized by candidates, journalists, politicians, and members of the public, as biased, unlawful and impractical. Although this can be considered a modest amount of money in other countries, in case of Iran the average employee makes a little over $200 per month.
Some have also accused IRIB managers of being greedy and wanting to accumulate cash to add to their hefty annual budget from the government, a huge advertising revenue, and ad hoc handouts in foreign currency from the National Development Fund.
Previously, limited candidate ads were allowed for presidential campaigns but the practice never applied to parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, according to Etemad newspaper in Tehran, based on nine different polls conducted between 2014 and 2021, IRIB’s viewership has been constantly falling. In all, the broadcaster has lost over 45 percent of its viewers during seven years, due to dull programming and highly biased reporting.
According to Etemad, the latest amendment of the election law prohibits advertising election campaigns on homegrown and foreign social media and generally on the Internet.
On the other hand, IRIB Chief, Payman Jebelli, has told the Iranian government that it has prepared for launching 200 election campaign channels and will sell airtime to candidates.
Although advertising on some of Iran’s Tv channels including Channel 3, which broadcasts entertainment and sports programs, and the Sports Channel which broadcasts popular athletic events, might make sense at certain times, channels dedicated to election are meaningless for viewers as interest in political activity has dropped to under 20 percent of eligible voters in Tehran as a result of people’s dissatisfaction with the government’s performance and their grievances about the harsh treatment of protesters in recent years.
Advertisers in Iran generally know that the best time for airing ads is before and after football (soccer) matches and major TV serials. It is reasonable to believe that the only people interested in the election campaign channels’ output are likely to be the candidates, their campaign managers and a very limited number of general viewers.
On the other hand, many candidates including two of IRIB’s own employees, Amir Hossein Sabeti and Mohamad Reza Ranjbaran have complained about the IRIB’s pricing of advertising for candidates. As regular employees, the advertising fee is an astronomical figure for them.
Ranjbaran wrote that the IRIB is set to make around 4.2 trillion rials out of advertising for Tehran candidates alone. Sabeti wrote a letter to the IRIB Chief and published it in a series of 8 tweets against the advertising plan. In the letter, Sabeti accused the IRIB of capitalism and said it was unbelievable for him that the broadcaster demands such hefty figures for election campaigning.
Like many other social media users, Sabeti wrote that the plan was unfair as those who have money can campaign and those who do not have enough funds cannot.
In other posts on Twitter, Iranian journalist Ehsan Rastegar accused IRIB managers of profiteering and Hesamoddin Ashna, an adviser to Former President Hassan Rouhani who represented the Executive Branch of the government at the IRIB Supervisory Board from 2013 to 2021 questioned the legal basis of the pricing.
IRIB later announced that it has lowered advertising rates particularly for candidates from small towns, but rates in the capital, Tehran, seem unchanged.
Regardless of the ongoing controversy, it remains unclear how many minutes of advertising is covered by the rate charged, the format of the advertisements, the specific time slots, and frequency of airing. Etemad claims that the fee covers the airing of a 20-minute video that presents the candidates’ backgrounds, plans and perspectives. However, it’s worth noting that the video will undergo a review (including potential censorship) before being broadcast.