On Monday, September 27, two separate items were shared by Iranian state-controlled media that brought the regime’s ridiculous censorship of women back to the fore. Amir Hossein Shamshadi, head of PR at Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, no less, disclosed on his personal Instagram page that according to a recent “audit” of the organization, directors were no longer permitted to depict men pouring tea for women in their workplaces.
Women, Shamshadi went on, were also not to be shown consuming any red-coloured beverages, sandwiches or pizza, or wearing leather gloves. Images of men and women in domestic environments were also to be specially reviewed by IRIB directors before broadcast.
The IRIB is also responsible for licensing and overseeing Iranian home theatre and streaming platforms, via a subsidiary called Satra. Also on Monday, the latest episode of the Iranian talk show Pishgoo, which airs each week on the Namava streaming site, shied away from showing its own guest’s face. Actress Elnaz Habibi had come on the program to talk to presenter Pejman Jamshidi, but only her voice was heard for the entire, surreal duration.
Viewers were understandably baffled, and veteran actor Amin Tarokh took to Instagram to complain. "I wish the guest's name had been subtitled, at least," he lamented. "Because we didn’t see her face at all, had the host not mentioned it [at the beginning], we’d have no idea which artist was being talked about! What pleasure is derived from getting a close-up look at the creators of the program, and a far-off one at the guest, just because they’re a woman? Especially a lady like this who’s very decent. All you get from the IRIB is a voice and no picture.”
Coincidentally, on the same day the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) published the results of its latest survey on Iranians’ overall interest in the IRIB. Some 1,581 citizens aged 18 and over had the question put to them: “How do you follow the news of the day?". Just 42 percent cited the IRIB as their preferred source of news, with another 41 percent opting for the internet and social media in the first instance. Smaller numbers preferred other satellite networks, word of mouth or “other means”. Based on ISPA’s previous published surveys, this suggests Iranians’ overall reliance on the IRIB for news has decreased by a full 15.6 percent since March 2019.
This is to be expected, given the widespread frustration in Iran with the IRIB’s ideologically-driven programming. With the blessing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the state broadcaster receives more than 50 times the funding of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance: subject to parliamentary approval, it will receive a total of 7.12 trillion tomans (US$251.5m) this financial year compared to 125.9 billion tomans ($4.5m) allocated for the Ministry.
Khamenei’s particular interest in the Iranian cultural sphere has become apparent in the past few years. About a week before Hassan Rouhani's second inauguration in July 2017, the Office of the Supreme Leader published a special bulletin entitled The Main Concerns of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Regarding the Cabinet. It highlighted his direct involvement in the selection of Ministers of Defense, Intelligence and Foreign Affairs, but also foregrounded Khamenei’s “sensitivity” regarding who was positioned as Minister of Culture.
As such Iranians assume the Supreme Leader’s whims have a heavy bearing on what plays out on their television screens, paid for by the taxpayer. In May this year, at a meeting between pro-Islamic Republic students and Khamenei, even that group openly criticized what they saw as censorship in the IRIB’s news broadcasts on issues like coronavirus and the shooting down of Flight 752 by the Revolutionary Guards. This, they said, was weakening public trust in the state broadcaster.
The new examples come thick and fast, on a weekly basis. In one case in mid-September, actors and writers involved in the IRIB TV series Hamsayeh (Neighbor) issued a public complaint about the number of scenes removed by senior managers. Elsewhere, last week a woman named Mahboubeh Balbasi, whose husband was killed in Syria in September 2016, claimed the IRIB had censored her TV interviews. In one example of content being cut, she said, “They’d asked me about 'night prayers your martyr carried out'. I’d said I never saw him reciting prayers because he was so tired.”
Also in September, Bijan Birang, the producer of some of Iran’s most popular TV series in the 1990s, bluntly told Farhikhtegan newspaper that IRIB directors preferred to present women as “oppressed” characters, and scolded producers for giving “too much space to the women”. In the same month, Hamid Arun, a newscaster for IRIB’s Razavi Khorasan Radio and Television, lost his job for criticizing the politically-driven sacking of a professor by Islamic Azad University. Yasman Najmoddin, a traditional musician, also complained about his image and performance being doctored on the IRIB’s Shab-e Ahangi program.