- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside Iran’s state-run broadcasting corporation this week to protest the monopoly it seeks over public opinion in the run-up to June 12 presidential elections.

The main headquarters of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), located in north Tehran on the city’s longest street, is a veritable fortress guarded by a small army of security officers led by a well-known veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Gen. Hajj Sefidi.

Protesters in the past have not dared to assemble in front of the headquarters, known as Jaam-e-jam in reference to a cup in Persian mythology in which King Jamshid could see the future. The sit-in against what demonstrators called the “anti-national radio and television network” was something new.

Iran’s rulers pay close attention to state broadcasting, which became the Achilles heel of the former shah’s regime when young revolutionaries seized the facility during the 1978-79 revolution.

Since that time, the facility has been guarded round-the-clock, and authorities have responded severely to even mild protests and staff gatherings.

There was no immediate reaction from authorities, however, to the latest demonstration.

Iranians opposed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have complained that IRIB focuses only on his activities and pays little attention to candidates opposing him.

Coinciding with last week’s protest, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main reformist candidate running against Mr. Ahmadinejad, sent a letter to Ezatollah Zarghami, the head of IRIB, asking for a meeting to “express his strong protest over the biased coverage of events in recent months and for turning the network into a private channel for one of the candidates.”

A reporter who asked not to be named to protect his safety told The Washington Times that protesters planned to escalate demonstrations if IRIB continues to slant its coverage in favor of the president.

The state broadcaster has sought to dominate public opinion for more than three decades through its control of five national TV channels and a dozen local TV channels. Iran’s constitution bars private ownership of TV and radio stations.

In recent years, IRIB has been controlled by hard-liners who support Mr. Ahmadinejad. News programs cover the president extensively and broadcast live interviews with him in prime time while largely ignoring his rivals.

The bias has aroused criticism even from some Iranian conservatives who are split over whether Mr. Ahmadinejad should be elected to a second four-year term.

Ali Larijani, a conservative who is speaker of the Iranian parliament, complained Thursday about “very biased coverage” by IRIB, a somewhat ironic comment given that Mr. Larijani once headed the organization. He urged IRIB management to behave more professionally rather than trumpet a specific candidate.

Mr. Larijani also criticized overall media coverage of the presidential registration process as not serious and an outlet for “shenanigans.”

A moderate newspaper, Mardom Salari, also criticized IRIB’s approach in an editorial Thursday.

“We have not yet forgotten the behavior of the IRIB in the presidential election in which [former president Mohammad] Khatami was one of the candidates. The IRIB did everything for Khatami’s rivals except openly ask the people not to vote for Khatami.”

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