On March of 2000, Zia Atabi, a former Iranian rock star placed a small satellite dish on the roof of a former pornographic studio in one of Los Angeles neighborhoods and began broadcasting.
Atabi, formally known as the "Tom Jones of Iran” escaped his homeland shortly after 1979 and found refuge in California, where approximately 600,000 ex-Iranian patriots live today. As is common in many ethnic groups in the United States, The Iranian community enhanced its local cultural activities. Zia, contributed support to his community’s cultural needs by borrowing some money from his wife, and launching a Farsi satellite station. He called it NITV (The National Iranian Television Network) since he wanted to stress its non-partisan nature to his ex-patriot community. The station began airing some old films, music and eventually news and original programs. Few days later he received his first telephone call from Teheran The Iranians on the line were exhilarated, telling him how excited they were to finally see programming that has been banned in Iran for over two decades. This caught Zia by surprise... “What do you mean? ” he asked.... “I am not even broadcasting to Iran!”. Well, He wasn’t. But someone in the satellite dispatch station pushed a button that opened an additional link that quickly went across the ocean. The Iranian regime had feared an American invasion, but did not prepare for an intrusion that entered 300 new homes every single day.
According to Zia, approximately 25 million Iranians who encompass a third of the population have up until now, viewed NITV. It has created a culture around it. Since private satellite dishes are expensive (and not to mention, illegal), the programs are often recorded and distributed to the public on VHS tapes and via the Internet, often bringing large local crowds together for a private screening. Zia was quickly able to set a satellite link to other centers of Farsi speaking communities like those in Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain. The channel was received in the Middle East, Europe, the Persian Gulf, South America, and even Australia adding millions of viewers.
“We tell the Iranian about Gandhi and Nehru in India”. Says Zia “We broadcast programs about the iron curtain and about the fall of the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, I asked young Iranians to show solidarity with America. The world must understand that the Iranian people do not stand for the terrorists. Using my channel, I asked that they take to the streets and they did. The images of students in the streets of Teheran were broadcasted all over the world”. Ali Dean, an Iranian comedian, known for impersonating ayatollahs was hired by Zia. Ali successfully recreated the popular 1980’s British show “Spitting Image”. The difference was that instead of puppets in the spitting image of Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock, the Farsi speaking community was watching deformed puppets in the image of Mullahs. NITV began fighting the Iranian theocracy by revealing its leaders true faces.
Following NITV’s example, other Farsi news channels begun beaming their way to Iran. Among these are private channels like Azadi TV and Channel One TV, one of the fastest growing Los Angeles-based Farsi TV stations, and government sponsors channels such as Voice Of America and Radio Farda, a 24 hours U.S.- run radio service in Farsi.
In response to this new wave of streaming information, the Mullahs of Iran launched their counter attack. Private ownership of satellite dishes has long been illegal in Iran and is a punishable offence. Armed with government microwave trucks designed to jam satellite signals and help locate the satellite dishes themselves, the Mullahs unleashed the revolutionary guards in the urban and rural parts of the country. Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former, very influential Iranian president, ordered an early end to the academic year in order to avoid the forth commemoration of the first wave of student riots July 9th 1999. Iran also reached out to its allies for help. Only a few weeks ago, intelligent sources reported a secret visit to Cuba by Moshen Hashemi, the son of Mullah Rafsanjani. The details of the visit remain on unknown, however by July 4th, 5 days before the anticipated July 9th anniversary, Cuban satellite jamming systems were successful in blocking Parsh TV, Azadi TV, VOA, and NITV broadcasts into Iran. The jamming signal is thought to have come from a monitoring complex outside Havana, a facility built by the Soviet Union to eavesdrop on the United States during the cold war.
Though the Mullahs have been temporarily successful in their efforts to turn off the waves of freedom, Zia believes that the power of the dish has been unleashed and will not be forgotten. He tells me that when Iranian students, Arrested by the republican guard, come out of jail, they immediately call his station. They play a crucial role giving information on the evolving situation on the ground. In turn, Zia promises to send them the new satellite frequencies that will be in use.
Unfortunately, finding alternative ways of reaching the audience in Iran becomes an increasingly difficult task.
Kourosh Abbassi , a spokesperson for Azadi Television, says that they tried changing the satellite frequencies but "within minutes" the new ones were blocked. The task of locating these broadcasts on the satellite dial becomes increasingly more difficult. “The morale is so low here”, adds Mr. Abbassi, as he notes over 2000 responses received from supporter’s in Iran; "Technically if they can do it to us, they can do it to anyone, even to CNN."
On June 28th, Iranian students took to the streets by the thousands - and they are still in the streets today. According to government reports, 4000 of them were arrested (although the actual number is estimated at 10,000), many with the use of excessive force. Some of the Television and Radio stations were able to find alternative ways to reach their audience using short wave, the internet, and telephones. Alireza Morovati, an anchor for Voice of Iran radio station told me that the students were coordinating their activities on the air: “Someone from Shiraz was talking with someone from Teheran, telling them about the demonstration and the riots. Teheran and Shiraz were connected only via Los Angeles” It seems that the battle over the power of the dish is reaching a climax. “Our mission is to bring the voice of freedom to Iran” says Morovati and sometime all it takes is one small dish.Nir Boms is the Vice President of the Washington based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.