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Targeting Tehran

By beaming dissent into Iran, much of it aimed at improving the lot of women, expat broadcasters are weakening the clerics’ chokehold on news.
 
 
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It's a misty October morning in suburban Virginia and three middle-aged women are hatching a subversive scheme – one that would land them in prison if they were ever to set foot in their home country, Iran, again.

They gather at George Mason University, a cluster of brick buildings skirted by meandering footpaths and thick oak and maple groves, then file into a soundproof recording studio and start flipping switches. Jila Kazerounian, a forty-seven-year-old computer analyst and the group's leader, hunkers down in one corner next to a mound of crumpled newspapers and gutted recording equipment, and grabs a mike. " Salam," she barks, "testing, testing, salam."

Nothing.

The project's technical director, Ramesh Rad, fumbles with the mixing-board knobs, sending shrieks of feedback through the room. When this doesn't work, she plugs and unplugs cords, and checks the settings on the audio-editing software. Finally, she and the others huddle around the computer monitor blinking and scratching their heads.

Eventually, Parvin, a forty-eight-year-old insurance-claim processor who asked that only her first name be used because she is concerned about the safety of her sister in Iran, suggests a plan B. Half an hour later, the group shuffles into her cramped home office. Parvin switches on her Hewlett Packard desktop and launches her digital-audio software. Leaning close to the mike embedded in her computer, she introduces Kazerounian, who pauses before launching her opening salvo.

"Allow me to first say hello to my fellow countrywomen," she says in Farsi, "the Iranian women who have been living under tyranny for the past twenty-five years."

The crew is recording the first half-hour program for their new radio station called Voice of Women. They intend to stream it over the Internet to a German company, which for $75 will broadcast it via short-wave into Iran on November 6. The station, which is ultimately slated to broadcast live for an hour each week, will feature news, talk, and a call-in segment, during which Iranian women can air their views.

The relative ease with which shoestring operations like Voice of Women can now reach Iran complicates the Islamic regime's struggle to control public opinion. The government has closed more than a hundred papers, many for questioning its policies. And the broadcast media, the most popular source of information among Iranian citizens, remain in the grip of the nation's spiritual and political leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "It's mostly propaganda," says Nati Toobian, who monitors Iranian television for the Middle East Media Research Institute, of official programming. "Even the government admits it's a tool of the regime." But the ruling clerics can't control what airs on the dozens of stations that expatriate groups in the United States and Europe have recently begun beaming into Iran.

Most credit Zia Atabay, a sixtysomething former rock star known as the "Tom Jones of Iran," with starting the trend. In March 2000 he launched National Iranian Television, a commercial station in Los Angeles aimed at his compatriots in the United States and Europe. Six months later, an NITV host, Ali Reza Meybodi, received a call from a man in the Iranian city of Isfahan during his live show. The man said he was receiving NITV's signal. Meybodi didn't believe him, so he jotted down the man's number and dialed him back. Sure enough, the man answered. Still doubtful, Meybodi grabbed a piece of fruit from a wooden tureen sitting on the nearby coffee table.

"What am I holding?" he asked. By this time Atabay and others had filtered into the makeshift studio.

"An apple," replied the caller.

Before long, everyone in the studio was weeping, and calls began pouring in from all over Iran. It turns out NITV reached Iran as the result of a technical snafu; someone at Eutelsat, the French satellite company, had flipped the wrong switch.

When he realized he could reach into Iranian living rooms, Atabay's programming turned political. He wasn't the first to beam dissent into Iran. Since the early 1980s, expats had been staging sporadic assaults on Iranian airwaves, mostly via short-wave, which regular Iranian radios receive. But after NITV's launch, with the cost of satellite airtime dropping and dishes sprouting from rooftops throughout the Middle East, Iranian exiles flocked to long-distance broadcasting.

As a result, Iranians can now tune into twenty-six television and twelve radio stations produced by expatriates, if they have the right equipment – and many do. There are 17 million radios in Iran, and an estimated 3 million to 4 million houses have satellite connections, in spite of the government's longstanding satellite ban.

Like Voice of Women, most of the radio stations focus on political and social issues. The majority feature weekly hourlong programs sponsored by a particular faction, be it the Communist Party of Iran or the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution. In fact, Voice of Women, which is sponsored by a fledgling nonprofit called Women's Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran, is the first Iranian expat radio station that isn't linked to a political party.

The television stations, in contrast, deliver round-the-clock programming, and only seven of the twenty-six focus on politics, while the others emphasize entertainment. Most of the political stations are run by monarchists who aim to enthrone Reza Pahlavi, the son of the American-backed shah who was deposed in the 1979 revolution that brought the current regime to power. While Atabay claims his station is neutral and independent, many people familiar with it say it has a clear monarchist bent.

There's been much speculation about where the stations get their funding. The television stations run advertising, but those with political leanings have trouble selling enough ads to cover their costs, which run upward of $1 million a year. Some suggest that the Central Intelligence Agency has served as their silent partner, but station owners insist this isn't so.

That doesn't mean the stations have escaped the attention of officialdom, either in Washington or Tehran. Last December, the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute launched a show on the Los Angeles-based station Radio Sedaye Iran, a move it hopes will help influence regime change in the Islamic Republic. Iran's President Mohammad Khatami, an embattled reformist, recently lent a deputy $400,000 to launch a satellite television station that will broadcast from London to Iran. Conservatives have blasted him for flouting the satellite ban and for blurring the boundaries between official stations and outside networks, which "sometimes go close to . . . harming national security and the moral health of society," according to the conservative paper Khorasan.

It's a bright morning in Woodland Hills, California, a leafy Los Angeles suburb filled with sprawling office parks. Kevin Jamshidi, a reporter and producer, is bounding through the atrium of NITV's studios – 18,000 square feet of clean lines with splashes of primary color – when the phone rings and he snaps up the receiver. Tomorrow the world will mark the third anniversary of September 11, and the caller, an NITV reporter, is on the steps of the U.S. embassy in Brussels where 350 candle-toting Iranian exiles have clustered to commemorate the 2001 attacks. Later, they plan to march on their home country's embassy.

When the call comes, a live talk show is on air, which in the world of Iranian expat television means a well-coifed man in a tailored suit sitting alone on a soundstage musing about politics, history, or Persian culture. Jamshidi orders the control room to break into the program, and the caller's voice is soon crackling over a speakerphone on the host's desk. "Down with the Islamic Republic," chants the crowd in the background. "Down with the Taliban, either in Kabul or in Tehran."

For Iranian dissidents, commemorating September 11, 2001, is also a way of lashing out at Tehran and its fiercely anti-American rhetoric. Partly as an act of protest, Atabay went on the air just after the attacks and urged Iran's residents to hold a candlelight vigil. Some six thousand heeded his call, and many landed behind bars as a result.

Next up on NITV is the news. Like many who work at the expat-run stations, the lead anchor, Noureddin Sabet Imani, an earnest-looking man dressed in a crisp suit and wire-rimmed glasses, started his journalism career in prerevolutionary Iran, where he worked in state-run television. He delivers the international news with an air of cultivated neutrality. The Iran report, which comes at the end of the program, is another story, however. The correspondent, who calls in live from Paris for the segment, blends fact with opinion. Today, for instance, he tells of a student in the city of Hammadan who died after being tossed out a dormitory window. No one knows who did it, but the correspondent notes, "When these things happen in Iran, it's usually the work of the Revolutionary Guard."

The caller is one of a handful of paid reporters NITV has scattered around Europe and the Middle East, according to Atabay. Many reports, however, flow from anonymous eyewitnesses who call from the scenes of unfolding events – including those that official media aren't covering. It was eyewitnesses who called on August 15 to say that a sixteen-year-old girl convicted of "acts incompatible with chastity" had been hanged in the northern city of Neka. The incident didn't make headlines in the United States or Europe until August 24; expat broadcasters had reported it within hours.

Some station owners worry that airing such reports could make them targets. Atabay has been known to hire armed bodyguards, and the station's studios are outfitted with fingerprint scanners, motion detectors, and cameras that he can monitor over the Internet from anywhere in the world. Local police have also been notified that the building is a potential trouble spot. "They know to come right away," Atabay explains, "so they don't have to bring the yellow bags."

While the Iranian government hasn't directly attacked any U.S. broadcasters, it has attacked their signals. NITV was kicked off its original satellite, Hot Bird 5 over France, because Tehran kept jamming it. NITV and the other political stations eventually migrated to Telstar 12, which sits above the middle of the Atlantic Ocean – too far away to jam from Iran.

But even Telstar 12 isn't entirely safe. For the last five years, Iranian dissidents have commemorated the student protests that wracked Iran for six days in 1999. Around the 2003 anniversary, students flooded Iran's streets once again. Jittery clerics closed universities, banned public gatherings, and announced that they had jailed more than four thousand agitators. But their efforts to preempt protest were initially scuttled, in part by expatriate broadcasters who urged people to take to the streets. That is, until Telstar 12 came under attack. The satellite was jammed from Cuba, and many Iranians believe Havana was simply doing Tehran's bidding.

Why would those who had poured into the streets demanding democratic reforms ally themselves with the mostly monarchist stations? After all, Iranians were subject to censorship, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and assassination under the shah, as they are under the current regime. Kazerounian suggests it's an alliance born of desperation. "They're just so fed up," she says. "They'll come out to the streets no matter who calls them." She isn't sure if anyone outside Iran should be pushing protest, though. "How can we call on them to risk their lives when we're sitting here in our safe homes?" she asks. "It has to be an indigenous voice calling for transformation."

Rather than incite unrest, Kazerounian's aim is to ensure that Iranian women – who have been flogged, raped, and stoned to death by the government – don't suffer in silence. She wants them to phone and fax in their stories, so she can call attention to their plight, both inside and outside Iran.

Back inside Parvin's office, soft afternoon light is filtering through the sheer curtains. Kazerounian leans toward the computer, a yellow pad tucked in her lap. She doesn't need her notes anymore. The words are just pouring out of her.

Finally, her pace slows. It's clear by her tone she is wrapping up. "The heavy weight of the struggle against the regime is on the shoulders of the women in Iran," she says. "For those of us in exile, our responsibility is to connect with you and ensure your voice is being heard around the world."

Mariah Blake is an assistant editor at CJR.