The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is one of the two major media cartels in Iran, and runs dozens (if not hundreds) of production companies and media outlets, as well as social media content production networks. Iran’s other major media cartel is the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (the IRIB).
The IRGC and its paramilitary subordinate, the Basij, run numerous media outlets, all of which use public funds to continue and expand their operations. Tasnim, Fars, Nasim News, Rah-e Dana, Daneshjoo, Basij and Sepah news agencies, as well as Javan newspaper and Mashreg News website are all examples of IRGC-run media outlets in Iran. They all follow a hardline approach regarding both domestic and international news, analysis and politics. They operate as an interconnected network, spreading similar news and analysis on different topics, and sometimes even publishing the same content to reach wider audiences. These media outlets are well known for spreading accusations, mostly baseless ones, about the dissidents of the Islamic Republic, as well as critics or rivals of the Guards.
In addition to IRGC-run media outlets, over the course of the last decade this military force has extended its propaganda activities to new arenas, including film production and producing content on social media platforms. These new activities, too, have been mostly organized through new centralized, state-funded cartels.
The Owj Arts and Media Organization
The Owj Arts and Media Organization is a wealthy, powerful IRGC cartel that produces a wide range of films, TV series, documentaries, animations, motion graphics, and video clips, among other initiatives. Owj started its activities in April 2011 and since then, has received massive funds from the IRGC, and carried out numerous lucrative media and film projects.
Many of Owj’s productions are sold to the IRIB, which is for the most part a collaborator rather than a competitor to the Owj Arts and Media Organization. However, in recent years, growing financial competition between these two cartels has on various occasions made the news.
In order to have a better understanding of the extent of Owj's activities, it is useful to quote its director, Ehsan Mohammad-Hassani, who said in February 2017 that at that time, 80 companies and institutions had been registered as the cartel’s subordinates inside and outside Iran. He added that more than 40 IRIB international radio/television networks were using Owj’s productions, and that the group produced 700 documentaries per year (in addition to films, series, animations, and other output).
The Owj Arts and Media Organization also runs dozens of training centers tasked with educating the new generation of revolutionary artists in a variety of fields including film production, scriptwriting, graphic design, animation, and audio/video editing.
Nevertheless, in addition to organizing and training pro-regime artists, Owj also tries to attract a wide range of professionals (especially actors and filmmakers) who are not necessarily in line with the IRGC's ideology, but are nonetheless willing to work for the IRGC. The Owj exploits these artists to produce more professional material under its own brand, and to expand its dominance throughout Iran's film production arena. In order to attract such artists, Owj makes very competitive payments to its collaborators, and even provides a kind of security protection to them.
The Martyr Avini Arts and Media Organization
The Martyr Avini Arts and Media Organization is another wealthy, powerful IRGC cartel that focuses on the production of films, TV series, documentaries, animations, motion graphics, video clips, and other projects.
The Martyr Avini’s activities are similar to those of Owj. The major difference between the two IRGC-backed cartels is that the Martyr Avini organization is relatively more focused on sensitive national security and political subjects, and less on entertainment. This cartel is, therefore, less open to non-revolutionary filmmakers and enjoys tighter connections with the IRGC intelligence agency. To better understand the nature of the Martyr Avini’s ties to the IRGC, it is worth mentioning that the head of the cartel’s board of directors is Mohhamad-Reza Tooyserkani, the Supreme Leader’s representative in the Basij.
One of the most provocative Martyr Avini productions was a TV series in the spy thriller genre named Gando, which was broadcast in mid-2019 on Iran's state-run TV network. The TV series was made with coordination and support of the IRGC intelligence agency. The series indirectly targeted President Rouhani’s confidantes and accused the president’s entourage of having connections to American spies. Despite the Rouhani administration’s dissatisfaction with the TV series, the administration could not stop the IRIB from broadcasting it.
It is not clear when the Martyr Avini Arts and Media Organization was founded. Nevertheless, in July 2019, the organization announced in an official statement that it had “been active” for about 20 years.
The Seraj Cyberspace Organization
The Seraj Cyberspace Organization is the wealthiest, most powerful Iranian cartel and focuses on cyber activities and content production on social media and interactive platforms.
Seraj’s major activity is to encourage, mobilize and fund organized activities of pro-regime individuals, mostly Basij members, online. Seraj runs interlinked, active branches in all 31 Iranian provinces, all of which operate in coordination with Basij headquarters. These branches run training courses with regards to different social media and interactive platforms, during which people who support Iran’s hardline politics learn how to operate as a team to promote online campaigns, boost specific hashtags and attack designated targets. The massive range of their activities are funded by the IRGC, and some hardline figures have revealed that people with links to Seraj are paid for every hour of their activity, or every content that they post on social media (for instance, every tweet).
The great majority of Seraj-related accounts on social media use fake profiles, because firstly it is believed that every cyber activist runs a number of social media accounts (which is especially useful for promoting pro-regime hashtags), and secondly these accounts are used to spread fake news, as well as abusive and defamatory content against the Islamic Republic’s (and the IRGC’s) opponents or critics.
The structure of the Seraj Cyberspace Organization, like the identity of Seraj- linked individuals,, is not transparent. For instance, it is not even clear when the organization began its activities. In August 2016, the Seraj Cyberspace Organization website was launched in an official ceremony at which Mansour Amini (the director of Seraj) and Hossein Nejat (the cultural deputy of the IRGC) were both present. However, it is believed that the organized activities of IRGC-funded pro-regime cyber activists had been operating since 2013.
In addition to managing training courses and cyber campaigns, the Seraj Cyberspace Organization is active in a wide range of software projects too. These projects include designing software programs, mobile applications and online games (with revolutionary content). Seraj-backed networks are also involved in hacking and infiltration projects.
The Case Study of Avant TV
The IRGC’s media activities are not only carried out within the framework of official agencies or media cartels. There are also smaller, less-official IRGC-funded projects that, while not crossing the force’s redlines, portray themselves as revolutionary dissidents of the country’s political elite.
A famous example of these projects is Avant TV, an internet television channel that was launched in December 2017. The channel broadcasts a range of shows in the form of field reports, long interviews, documentaries and investigative programs. These programs are mainly focused on social injustice and corruption cases of government officials. However, the targeted officials are mainly the associates or supporters of the Rouhani administration. Some of the investigative reports also expose certain critics of the Rouhani administration, but they do not deal with the corruption cases of IRGC commanders. In addition, the media outlet has never blamed the Supreme Leader and his entourage for the country’s problems.
Avant TV has apparently capitalized on attracting new audiences that are exhausted by the economic climate, and critical of the Islamic Republic’s performance with respect to social and economic justice. In order to attract these audiences, the IRGC has exempted the internet channel from a number of regular restrictions that are usually imposed on other state-run media outlets. For instance, after the mass killing of protesters in a small town near the southwestern city of Mahshahr that took place during the 2019 protests in Iran, an Avant TV reporter produced a very strident report, in which the town’s citizens elaborate on their economic problems and the brutal repression to which they had been subjected. This report, which did not resemble the government's official narrative on the Mahshahr protests, made headlines inside and outside Iran. But the report concluded that IRGC troops, which had opened fire on people, had mistaken the protesters with ISIS members. It also portrayed the Leader’s representative in the town as being the official who stopped the brutal repression of people. In other words, despite the significant difference between Avant TV’s report and IRIB’s one-sided narrative on the Mahshahr protests, the channel refrained from criticizing the Leader’s appointees.
The journalist who made the famous Avant TV report, Hamed Hadian, is one of the rare journalists whose reports have been published on Ayatollah Khamenei’s official website.