Next week, Iran is holding its first presidential election since the one in 2009 that sparked the protests in the street known as the Green Revolution. The Iranian government is hoping to avoid a repeat of what it saw in 2009, in part by restricting the free flow of information in the country. Bob speaks to Golnaz Esfandiari, a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe and editor of the Persian Letters blog, about what the Iranian media landscape is looking like in the run up to the election.
BOB GARFIELD: The Iranian presidential election is a week away, the first one since the 2009 polling, when a police crackdown on protests known as the Green Revolution, left many dead and jailed.
Authorities in Iran seem to be doing everything they can to restrict the free flow of information in the country, in the hopes that they can prevent a repeat of 2009.
Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe and editor of the Persian Letters blog. She's been following the media in the run-up to the vote.
GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: At least one or two of the presidential candidates have, during their TV appearances, criticized censorship on state TV, which is quite interesting.
BOB GARFIELD: These candidates are given equal time on state TV.
GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me what that looks like.
GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: They appear in different shows. There has been very long debates, and the first one ended in a fiasco because it was the short question-and-answer format, and some of the candidates basically refused to answer to some of the question, and they said the questions are wrong. And there was a very funny part where the presenter would show some pictures to the candidates and they would have to describe or speak about whatever came to their mind, which –
- ended up being very funny.
BOB GARFIELD: They did a Rorschach test of presidential candidates on national television.
GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: Exactly. It was a presidential Rorschach test, and this debate has led to lots of jokes among Iranians.
BOB GARFIELD: I understand that the election videos of even these hand-selected candidates were censored by the state. For what, exactly?
GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: One of the candidates – his name is Mohsen Rezaei. He's Loyalist to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, so he’s very much in line with the establishment. He, apparently, in his campaign video, was talking about poverty in the Iranian society, and he recalled meeting a man who had lost a few of his children in the Iran-Iraq war, and he apparently said that the man told him that if the situation continues as it is and he can't keep his family, then he would commit suicide. And Rezaei’s website reported that that sentence was cut from his campaign video.
BOB GARFIELD: Is the issue of the sanctions by the US and other Western countries against Iran over its nuclear ambitions, is that an issue in the campaign?
GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: It is because the economy is the main issue for Iranians. They complain about the rising prices and how difficult life is getting for them. Many people say that the sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians instead of the regime.
BOB GARFIELD: The sanctions affecting the general populace, as opposed to the elites, is actually always the idea isn’t it, to put political pressure from the body politic on the people making the decisions? Yet, there doesn't seem to be a lot of backlash towards the ruling clerics. Is the Iranian public feeling just defeated?
GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: There is the sense of disillusionment among many, especially of the young people. Some believe that they can't make a change. Others are so busy with day-to-day life that they say, I don’t care about politics.
And there’s also not a real candidate that can mobilize people at this point. The state crackdown of four years ago, it’s ongoing. It's not being reported in the media but there are still arrests, there are still people being summoned by intelligence officials. And the government has had four years to get ready for this election. They’ve created new bodies to monitor social media.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the Ayatollah Khamenei has denounced social media as a Zionist tool, and yet, the - the ruling elite is getting into social media. How are they doing that?
GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: Khamenei himself or his people who work on his team have been using Twitter to spread his message for a few years now. He's also very active on Google Plus. He has an Instagram account, also a Facebook account, Sayed Jalili, which is by far the most hardline of the eight candidates; he's very active on, on social media. But the thing is that none of them would acknowledge that these are official accounts. Often, they write, these accounts are being maintained by the supporters.
As for Ayatollah Khamenei, it’s the same. His people are never going to say, yes, we are working on this account, but it was reported by a few sources inside the country that, for example, his Facebook is run by his media people.
BOB GARFIELD: I’d love to see his Pinterest; I’m just dying to know what he’s pinned.
GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Golnaz, thank you very much.
GOLNAZ ESFANDIARI: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe.