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Candidates Run Rings Around Censors, Fun To Watch

Politicians are quickly catching up. Elections are so much more fun with TV consultants, social media advisors and all the technology needed to motivate those voters. When it works, yippie!!! When it doesn’t: fake news. But then, restrictions apply.

no jokingAs in many other countries, elections in Iran are media events. Ahead of the May 19th presidential election, the six candidates assembled to debate before TV cameras over three consecutive Friday nights. The Interior Ministry banned the TV debates, at first, then changed their minds after the candidates complained. Televised debates have been part of Iran’s election process since 2009.

President Hassan Rouhani is running for re-election. He and his challengers, generally, used their time together on television to state positions, accuse each other of corruption and shout a lot. “This is so much fun,” said International Crisis Group senior Iran analyst Ali Vaez, who watched the debates so you didn’t have to, quoted by RFE/RL (May 12).

Like nearly everywhere, Iran’s leadership is concerned about interference, domestic and international, in the elections. “The security of the country must be completely preserved during the election,” said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, quoted by Reuters (May 10). “Anyone who deviates from this path should certainly know that they will be given a slap.” He “recommended” the candidates focus on economic issues. As head of state Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last word on just about everything.

The TV debates were broadcast by State broadcaster IRIB - Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. It is the terrestrial broadcasting monopoly with 12 domestic TV channels and 30 radio channels. IRIB’s director general is appointed directly by Ayatollah Khamenei. International satellite channel Press TV is affiliated with IRIB.

IRIB channels have been broadcasting campaign ads and special programs. Several segments of a video prepared by President Rouhani’s campaign were deleted before broadcast. Campaigns have taken a page from the European and American populist playbook, reported Bloomberg (May 6), with slick - and negative - attack ads.

Other television channels reach Iranians via satellite, though owning a dish is officially prohibited. GEM TV is popular and known primarily for showing Western TV shows, Turkish soap operas and foreign films dubbed into Farsi, Arabic, Kurdish and Azeri. At the end of April GEM TV CEO Saeed Karimian was assassinated in Istanbul, Turkey, where he had fled after an in absentia conviction for spreading propaganda. The Farsi1 satellite channel shut-down service to Iran at the end of 2016.

All the major international broadcasters have Persian (Farsi) language services targeting Iran. BBC Persian service just added a digital-first interactive TV channel, via the web, to augment election coverage. (See BBC World Service presser here) Foreign radio and TV broadcasts are regularly jammed.

Most presidential candidates have been taking advantage of social media, even though Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are officially blocked. The Iranian leadership is mindful of deadly riots following the 2009 presidential election. Social media was blamed for facilitating protests and motivating what came to be called the Green Movement.

Mobile messaging app Telegram, quite popular in Iran, has also been disrupted during the election cycle. An unedited version of President Rouhani’s campaign video circulated immediately on Telegram, which has 40 million users in Iran, reported Bloomberg (May 7). The United Nations (January 2017) estimates Iran’s population at 80.9 million with a median age of 30.1 years.

Internet usage in Iran is substantial, despite restrictions, estimated at 68% of the population. Getting around official blocking means accessing the web with proxies and virtual private networks (VPN), both considered criminal activity. In 2015 Freedom House estimated VPNs being used by 45% of Iranian internet users. Other estimates suggest two-thirds of Iranians under 25 years use VPNs. President Rouhani pitched easier internet access during the 2013 presidential elections and recently complained about restrictions on Telegram imposed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

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