HOLLYWOOD — Student demonstrations against a repressive Islamic government have been a regular occurrence in Iran recently. And while the protests take place in Tehran, the locus of their organization is a much more unlikely place: Los Angeles.
Seven satellite television stations and one radio station (broadcasting on satellite and short wave) aimed at Iran and its emigrants around the world are headquartered here, primarily in the San Fernando Valley.
The first launched in 1988 and the youngest is just a few months old, but most share the distinction of having started with purely commercial goals before morphing into a potent form of communication for Iranian dissidents.
Iranians use clandestine fax machines to contact talk shows on these stations to express frustration about their government and share information about protests.
“This was not our intention, but our talk shows became a central switchboard for people around the country talking about these protests,” says Kambiz Mahmoudi, VP of Channel One, one of L.A.’s Iranian stations.
It has made them the focus of pro-regime activists. Channel One and its competitors NITV and Pars TV, all transmitted by Loral’s Telstar-12 satellite, have been jammed since early July.
According to Ken Tomlinson, chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the Voice of America and recently launched a new television program in Iran that was also blocked, the source of the jamming is a location outside Havana, Cuba.
The President of the National Cuban Assembly has called the accusation a U.S. plot to “justify aggression.” The Iranian government hasn’t commented, but execs at the satellite stations suspect that Iran, which sells oil to Cuba, is behind the move.
The Iranian government has jammed their signals before and they all chose to use the U.S. Telstar-12 specifically because it can’t be blocked from Iran.
Since the U.S. protest, the jamming of its Iranian station has stopped. But private networks on Telstar-12 aren’t so lucky.
Kayvan Abbassi family-owned Azadi Television, which opened six months ago, said operators had tried several times to avoid the jamming by changing their signal, but have still lost their connection.
The only TV stations to move onto another satellite so far, Tapesh TV and Iran TV, air solely entertainment programming. Radio network Radio Sedaya Iran has been able to take partial advantage of a new satellite and short-wave broadcasts to be the only network with political content to make it into Iran.
Although the sympathies of the execs behind these stations clearly lie with the protesters, they also have more commercial intentions.
Most carry advertisements, one of the only ways for marketers to reach the Iranian population, or charge subscriptions fees to viewers outside of Iran. Many also receive donations from the wealthy Iranian-American community.
And some of the execs admit that if protesters succeed, there may be benefits beyond the political.
Zia Atabay, CEO of NITV, which produces an around-the-clock broadcast of news, politics, cooking programs, pop musicvideos, comedy and pre-revolutionary romance films, says: “The Iranian people know me and love me and when the next government is free, we are in a position to be the biggest media company in Iran.”