Before the revolution of 1979, Zia Atabay was a successful pop singer in Iran. Now 60, he presides over National Iranian Television (NITV), a two-year-old, Los Angeles-based satellite TV station that broadcasts cultural and political programming to Iranian expatriates around the world—and to his native land. The channel is banned in Iran, but that doesn't keep viewers from paying off officials or hiding their dishes in their gardens.
"When I started the station," says Atabay, "I told them they weren't allowed to play my music on it. I want to be serious, and my music is happy. I will play it again when Iran is free."
Associate Editor Jesse Walker interviewed Atabay at his L.A. office in January.
Q: Satellite dishes are illegal in Iran.
A: Yes. But everybody in that government wants money for themselves. They take a satellite dish down, and after two days, it'll be sold to someone else. So it goes in a circle.
Q: Is NITV turning a profit?
A: No. The station's losing money, I'm losing money. That's why we're changing to pay TV. People are going to have to buy cards to watch us, even in Iran. We're going to smuggle the cards in—and they'll buy them.
The American government wants to open another station. My experience is that when a government opens a station, nobody trusts it. Viewers believe me because they know I am not a politician, and I am not going back to be vice president or something like that.
Q: A lot of press reports claim that Iran is freer than it was 15 or 20 years ago. Do you think that's true?
A: That's bullshit. Before Khatami came to power, the people for freedom and change were underground. Khatami pretended that it was a new era, and they came up and started to say what they wanted. Then the government killed them or put them in jail.
Last week we put a tape of a torture room on the air. It was the wife of someone they had killed, someone from the Iranian intelligence service. They were beating her, trying to get her to say she was working for Israel. Even in Parliament, they started to think, "They could do this to me."
Q: Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Shah, has been on your station. Do you support his vision for Iran, or are you just giving a forum to dissidents of different political views?
A: I'm anti-communist, but I have communists on my shows. It's a free press. You have to have everybody on.
The son of the shah says that he is not his father. He says he doesn't care if a free Iran has a king or a president—that the day it's free, his duty is finished. But if he changes, I'll be the same. I'll talk against him.