Friday's Vote, The View From the Provinces
Over 60 million Iranians live outside Tehran, and their experience of the presidential campaign and access to news coverage often varies widely with residents of the capital. In many cities, regional coverage of the campaign is livelier than the strictly-watched national media climate of Tehran, with punchier headlines and more open coverage of reformist candidates. We turned to the editor of Iranwire's Ostanwire, Shahram Rafizadeh, who monitors news and developments across Iran's 31 provinces, to give us a view of how the campaign looks from smaller cities and towns.
What has election coverage been like in the provinces?
The provinical media's coverage has trended in two directions. One reflects the same tenor and content of coverage that's coming out of Tehran, while the other focuses on the demands and concerns particular to individual regions. For example, in the Sistan region, where there's a large Sunni presence, many news sites sought to cover the statements that Sunni clerics had made about the election. There's a site called Sunni Online in Zahedan that began publishing pieces critical of Rafsanjani's disqualifcation, and this site and others like it were attacked and brought down. Then you have regions like Hormozgan, for example, that should actually be more well off than they are, and news coverage there has focused on economic demands that are relevant to poorer residents.
Is there any province that is particularly keen on a certain candidate?
Yes, in Bushehr, for example, a province that has a fairly active number of independent or semi-independent news sites, there has been strong backing for the reformist candidates, amongst both people and the media. The provinces that have more active and independent news sites and print media have a more open political space, and this usually correlates with that province drawing closer to reform candidates and citizens' demands. Then you have provinces where political predilections reflect local dynamics rather than the media climate. For example, Sistan Baluchistan can't be compared in terms of development to Mazandaran or Bushehr, but even there Rowhani today, or Rafsanjani in previous elections, has had many supporters. This is because people who live there are predominantly Sunni, and face intense discrimination from the government, attracing them instead to reformists.
In fact, support for Rouhani in Bushehr is so widespread that provinical officials refused to permit his campaign to hold a rally.
Does media in the provinces cover presidential candidates who hail from that area more favorably? Can we expect the candidates necessarily to do well in their home provinces?
In Mashhad and the Khorasan province, where Qalibaf comes from, some media and sites feel they must support him because he's the region's candidate. But it's hard to say whether this will actually translate into more votes in a free election. There is some measure of politeness or deference in the regional sites' coverage of local candidates. In Yazd, for example, where Aref comes up, we saw that a number of regional sites, despise being close to the government in power, attacked himless. So at the very least provincial media might not always be compelled to support the local candidate, but they will be less negative about him.
How aggressively have the candidates campaigned in the provinces this time around?
It seems like they've all spent less time campaigning in the provinces that in the past two elections. Four years ago the candidates spent much more time traveling around the country making speeches, they even sent their representatives around to speak in their stead. This election this kind of activity has been less intense. Apart from certain candidates, some have had less opportunity for regional trips. Someone like Rezai had planned well in advance and travelled much more, facing no particular obstacles. But Rouhani and Aref had much less time, the bulk of their trips were made in just these past two weeks.
Some people say that Rouhani isn't particularly well-known outside Tehran, do you think this is the case?
I don't think, he's held senior positions for such a long time. I saw him myself for the first time in Semnan, when I was there for work. Rouhani comes from Semnan, and he'd come to participate in a local book festival, and this is 19 years ago. So in such a long stretch of time, a figure like Rouhani has had ample opportunity to make connections, travel, and so there is some awareness of him. He's also managed to make a number of speeches in a very short time, in recent days. He may not have been able to make into very small towns, but his campaign advertising has been centralized and come in waves, and I think it's made it possible for him to influence various cities.
What about Saeed Jalili, how connected are people in the provinces to his campaign?
Jalili has had much more limited exposure in the provinces. Before he actually registered for the race, Jalili hadn't even officially acknowledged that he was going to participate. Once he decided, for some weeks he kept saying that campaigning wasn't necessary, it was really only after the debates began that he started travelling in the provinces. There were concerns, either his own or those of people planning for him, that if Jalili entered the race and campaigned too early, he would open himself up to attacks that could destroy his chances. He has many weaknesses that can easily be used against him in a campaign.
For example, as head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), he was the one who gave the order for the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran to crackdown in 2009. That wouldn't have been possible without his signature, but to this day the media hasn't critiqued his role in what unfolded. Also, the house arrest and marginalization of the Green movement leaders, this too is often laid at the feet of Khamenei, but the only legal mechanism possible for this would have gone through the SNSC. That's the way it works. It's not Khamenei saying 'go throw someone in prison,'; it invovles either a judicial warrant or a SNSC decree.
How will Qalibaf fare in the provinces? As mayor of Tehran, the provinces must have been a priority for him, no?
Qalibaf has done seriously long-term planning for this election. Starting at least two years ago, we saw a string of related websites emerge all across Iran to work on his campaign. Their activity has intensified in recent months, but they've tried to present themselves as moderate sites to draw in readers, and this has increased their political profile. Then they began openly supporting Qalibaf, once electin season properly began.
We saw the very same thing being tried with those around Ahmadinejad, but because Mashai was disqualified, all those sites shifted their support to Jalili. They also started to criticize other candidates, coming out during their provinicial visits to say their record in the provinces was weak. So now these sites are supporting Jalili and also trying to promote the Ahmadinejad's governments' record in the provinces, trying to come up with a strong report card.
Can you give us a brief overview of the lay of the land, when it comes to media in the provinces?
Well you have two types of media, there's the conventional print media, and then the internet media, which is increasingly very current, uploading film clips, incorporating Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.
One general trend in recent years has been a mushrooming of regional websites affiliated with the government and the establishment, hewing close to its views. Even though the reformists in Iran were at one point far ahead in terms of sites and using the interent as a platform, that's now changed, after the 2009 crackdown. Ahmadinejad gave clearnece to those close to him to shut down many of these provincial websites, but the news climate is not entirely locked down in their favor. There are probably 600-700 sites working daily across the 31 provinces, and there's some space that exists in the divides between them. Much of the news they publish is partisan, they publish news in that manner, but in between such news we do get very important stories out of the provinces, even if they're being used in the context of these intra-faction rivalries. So we search between the divides for this news.
The situation is different with print media, the [government] hasn't been able to disrupt this sphere completely. When it comes to print media in towns and provinces,the reformist/independent to regime-affiliated rato is one to three. So for every two conservative weekly magazines that are published, there will be one reformist publication. In Sirjan, Bushehr, Gilan, Mazandaran, Mashad, parts of Azarbaijan, in all of these provinces you see publications runnign headlines that national, Tehran-based newspapers wouldn't dare use or publish. The regional newspapers put former president Khatami on the front page, whereas in national newswpapers this happens much less.