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SAUL GONZALEZ: For the past two weeks, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Iranian cities, to demand greater social and political freedoms in their country. Iranian officials have blamed broadcasters in the United States, whom they charge are bankrolled by the U.S. Government for inciting and encouraging the unrest.
One such broadcaster is North Hollywood, California-based National Iranian Television, NITV. From their spartan studios, staffed by a handful of people, NITV beams news and public affairs programs into Iran 24 hours a day. It’s programming that blasts the ruling regime, and calls on ordinary Iranians to speak out against their government. Zia Atabay, a former pop music singer in pre-revolutionary Iran, is NITV’s founder, president, and a co-host of several of its shows.
ZIA ATABAY, National Iranian Television: I want to give them a chance for freedom if they want to talk, and they have to have a voice to talk, and this the way, the only way, because nobody help them. We offer them to have a voice; to have communication.
SAUL GONZALEZ: And to encourage them to go into the streets.
ZIA ATABAY: Encourage them to… yes, let’s say yes!
SAUL GONZALEZ: Watching NITV’s programming on clandestine consumer satellite dishes in Iran, where having such receivers is a punishable offense, viewers can telephone or fax into the studio. In recent days, most of the calls have been about the protests in Iran and the government’s violent crackdown in response. These comments from a woman in the Iranian city of Shiraz are typical:
IRANIAN WOMAN ( Translated ): Everyone should come out on the streets and protest and get involved in the demonstrations so this government falls.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Since the protests started in Iran, Atabay says his station’s covered them as if they were a breaking news story just down the street.
ZIA ATABAY: Anytime we break into it, if anything is happening in Iran. Even if it is in the middle of the night, 2 o’clock in the morning, I am here, I am coming, and my colleague they come and sit there and talk and we listen to what they are doing.
SAUL GONZALEZ: NITV is just one of about a dozen small television and radio stations that broadcast politically charged messages into Iran from the Los Angeles area. LA itself is the capital of America’s Iranian-émigré community, the city where thousands of people fled to after the 1979 Iranian Revolution toppled the shah and put Ayatollah Khomeini into power…
Many of these exiles, like those gathered at this Tuesday’s street protest on Wilshire Boulevard, are vocal in their hatred of the Iranian government.
Exiles hoping to topple Iran’s government
BEHROUZ NAZER, KSMI Radio: People out of the country, I can say over 90 percent of them, definitely want this government changed.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Behourz Nazer is the president and founder of KSMI Radio, which broadcasts a diet of political talk shows over the airwaves in Los Angeles and via the Internet into Iran. Nazer, like other U.S.-based Iranian broadcasters, hopes his programming will help bring regime change to Iran.
BEHOURZ NAZER: We are not under any condition accepting this government as a proper government for the people of Iran. So…
SAUL GONZALEZ: You want to help start a revolution there?
BEHOURZ NAZER: Exactly.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Make no bones about it, I mean, that’s what you want, right?
BEHOURZ NAZER: Exactly. What we want is definitely to overthrow this government.
SAUL GONZALEZ: However, some Iranian immigrants, like Afsheen Matin-Asgari, are skeptical of both the effectiveness and importance of these broadcasts into Iran. Asgari, who travels to Iran frequently, is a professor of Iranian history and culture at California State University Los Angeles.
AFSHIN MATIN-ASGARI, California State University, LA: If you watch satellite television, they tend to cast themselves as the voice of the Iranian opposition, for example, it’s as if there is direct link between the streets in Iran and…
SAUL GONZALEZ: …what they are saying in the studio?
AFSHIN MATIN-ASGARI: …and what they are saying in the studio. And there is no such direct link.
SAUL GONZALEZ: One practical reason for that, says Professor Asgari, is that relatively few people back in Iran can even watch or listen to the programs broadcast from the United States.
AFSHIN MATIN-ASGARI: If we are talking about satellite television, for example, very few people have satellites in Iran, because it is technically illegal. But people can afford to kind of go around the laws, can keep it and use it, but that’s a very small percentage of the population, mostly upper-class households in Tehran, maybe a few other cities. Most people don’t see satellite television.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Asgari also argues that LA’s Iranian émigré broadcasters too frequently use the airwaves to advocate the return of Iran’s ousted royal family to power. They do this, he says, by ignoring the monarchy’s past governing abuses, and exaggerating its successes.
AFSHIN MATIN-ASGARI: In general, they are perceived as monarchists because they tend to project ideal images of a golden age in Iran before the revolution, and obviously that’s when Iran had a monarchy. And they are not critical of the Iran in the 1970s and ’60s, but they are extremely critical of the Islamic Republic period, so the immediate conclusion is that they are for return to the old regime, and that is the monarchy.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Atabay rejects the charge that he’s a closet royalist.
ZIA ATABAY: I don’t belong to any party in Iran or out of Iran. I don’t care what will be there, really. It’s not important what kind of regime is going to replace, monarchy or republic. Only thing that is important, has to be a people or a government; the church and state has to be separated.
SAUL GONZALEZ: LA’s community of Iranian activist broadcasters hope they have an ally in the Bush administration, which has stepped up calls for democratization in Iran in the wake of the recent protests.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I appreciate those courageous souls who speak out for freedom in Iran. They need to know America stands squarely by their side and I would urge the Iranian administration to treat them with the utmost of respect.
SAUL GONZALEZ: However, U.S. government officials deny Tehran’s claims that Washington is underwriting broadcasts by U.S.-based stations into Iran. Saying his radio station is funded out of his own pocket, Bahrouz Nazer admits he would gladly accept money from Washington to stay on the air.
BAHROUZ NAZER: I think they should help us, in order that we can help people of Iran to continue this uprising. And now is the time for us to become very active and to push the buttons any way we can, and this costs money.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Last week, legislation was introduced in Congress that, if passed, would provide financial assistance to U.S.-based stations broadcasting to Iran.