Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
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A thorn in the government's side?

By Azadeh Moaveni

On any given night in Tehran something exceptional is taking place: hundreds of thousands of Iranians are gathered around their television sets watching the same channel. Its broadcasts, which include news, old films, music videos, and talk shows, are avidly discussed on the streets of Tehran. Although the channel is called the National Iranian Television Network (NITV), it is broadcast out of Los Angeles.

Since the 1979 revolution turned television into a grim, state-controlled affair -- which most Iranians say they find biased, boring, or both -- those who could afford it have invested in the illegal, but tolerated, satellite dishes, while others have largely tuned out. The result has been that for years, Iranian society has lacked the glue of television, which binds most modern societies together through its reflection of what is important and entertaining for a given community.

However, since Zia TK started beaming his NITV out of Los Angeles six months ago, people are tuning back in, having found, for the first time in years programming that they like. Without any obvious agenda besides keeping Iranians informed and entertained, the channel's popularity has skyrocketed.

If the channel continues to be received in Iran, uninterrupted by signal distress from the authorities, the cultural implications, not to mention political ones, could be tremendous.

When President Mohamed Khatami's 1997 election triggered a power struggle within the regime, the hard-line establishment began to use state television as a political weapon against the reform movement. By contrast, NITV's conventional news coverage of Iranian politics makes the bias of state television all the more glaring. Khatami's recent attendance of the United Nations Millennium Summit, for example, received extensive NITV coverage, while state television downplayed the visit showing only brief clips. Iranian analysts suggest the ascendancy of NITV over the state-controlled broadcast could further undermine the regime's legitimacy. Analysts suggest NITV may be especially effective in shaking support for the regime among ordinary Iranians, as it presents developments in domestic politics in a way that is easy to follow for those too overworked to keep on top of the press.

Although the station's popularity may be in large part due to a prevalent fascination with music videos of dubious quality, Iranians are also getting a window onto the lives of their compatriots in the diaspora. Last month while at the UN Khatami said that whether at home or in the diaspora Iranians' "hearts share one point: Iran."

NITV may increase the number of Iranians yearning to join expatriates abroad by giving them glimpses of a thoroughly Iranian life -- complete with concerts, professional organisations and stores specialising in Iranian food -- that can be lived outside the country. At the same time, the channel is building awareness in the diaspora of the changes inside Iran. This, in turn, seems to be increasing nostalgia and tourism.

Word of the reform movement is also spread, perhaps one reason the Iranian authorities have shown such good grace in tolerating the broadcast.

Among NITV's numerous talk shows, the evening programme that interviews London-based Iranian journalist Alireza Nourizadeh is one of the most popular. As an established source of often reliable, and always attention-grabbing information on important domestic issues like the killings of dissidents, Nourizadeh's commentary is followed avidly. With NITV, Iranians who might not log on to the journalist's Web site can catch him ruminating candidly about how the head of the judiciary should either resign or deal with the dead-end investigation into the intelligence ministry's involvement in the killings. By turning political news into national theatre, NITV is stepping into the shoes of the currently suppressed independent press.

This matters because even bored Iranian housewives who leave the television on after watching a Shah-era romance film are drawn into paying more attention to politics.

One such woman, seeing a relative off at the airport, whispered conspiratorially: "Did you watch Nourizadeh last night?" Looking around to make sure no one was listening, she continued, clearly enjoying herself: "He said there is a 20 year-old woman named 'Sahar' that has supposedly slept with many politicians and knows their secrets!"

Just as glossy magazines and talk shows are the medium through which ordinary folk around the world follow politics, NITV is making it easier and more fun for Iranians living in their country to be politically aware.

And reruns of old pre-1979 favourites, like the famous serial Dayi-Jan Napelone (My Dear Uncle Napoleon) are reacquainting Iranians with their common tastes. Part of NITV's popularity is that it achieves that delicate mix of news, high and pop culture and nostalgia that draws a huge audience.

Other Iranian channels in the US, dominated by basmati rice commercials and trashy music videos, have flopped even in a Los Angeles where many Iranians reside.

Even if NITV's broadcast only ruffles a few feathers, leaving the prevailing order intact, its promotion of a common culture may prove to be significant. After all, social cohesion is clearly lacking in Iran's ethnically and religiously diverse society and ambivalence regarding the government is pervasive. As the Qatari channel Al-Jezirah has shown in the Arab world, a broadcast network can become a significant thorn in a government's side.

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