In the back room of a Tehran apartment, a young assistant was busy hanging indigo-blue fabric on yellow walls. A small video camera was set up to face a news anchor’s desk, and a big hole in the wall awaited the last-minute delivery of a soundproof glass pane.
The set was thrown together to tape the inaugural broadcast of Saba TV, a station aspiring to provide an alternative voice, in Persian and from Iran, to programming monopolized by hard-liners. From the makeshift studio in the capital, the taped program was ferried to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to be beamed via satellite into millions of Iranian homes that night. But the show did not go on.
Iranian security agents stopped the producer carrying the tape from getting off the plane in Dubai last month, holding up Saba TV’s launch and leading human rights organizations to complain about a crackdown on free expression.
The station is financed by one of the Islamic Republic’s oldest revolutionaries, Mehdi Karroubi. In the first round of last year’s presidential election, the former parliament speaker trailed hard-line Islamist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who ultimately won the office, by only about 640,000 votes. Karroubi has charged that the election was rigged and has been quoted as saying he “took a nap and awoke to see about 1 million votes shifted.”
After the vote, Karroubi wrote an angry letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei resigning from his position on the Expediency Council, which resolves disputes among government branches, and as an advisor to Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.
Newspapers that published the letter were shut down the next day. It was then that Karroubi announced his intention to form a new political party and launch a television station “where we can air our opinions,” he said in a recent interview.
Karroubi has since been formally reinstalled in his government posts, and Saba TV is the first satellite station linked directly to a top government official. If it succeeds in getting on the air, it will deliver news, interviews and music to Iranians who own satellite dishes as well as millions in exile. The station would reach viewers in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, southern Russia, Africa and parts of Europe.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the government has deemed national broadcasting the privilege solely of the state. Satellite dishes are illegal in Iran, but enforcement is lax, and swaths of urban and rural landscapes are dotted with large, metal plates.
Although state television promotes strict Islamic mores, the approximately two dozen Persian-language stations broadcast via satellite from exile communities in the West, mostly Los Angeles, offer anti-regime political talk as well as music videos and films that Iran’s ayatollahs consider licentious.
“The programs on the L.A. stations are mostly by expatriates who live in a dream world in which the shah will return to Iran tomorrow,” said Mahmoud Nader Riahi, Saba TV’s production manager. “Saba TV will be based in reality. We are a news station that is connected at the navel to Iran, with most programs produced inside Iran.”
Riahi, who had been based in the U.S. after working in Iranian state television for 15 years, said he joined the project “because Iranians deserve better television.” The new station’s slogan is “Have the Courage to Know!”
Riahi is the producer who was carrying the station’s debut episode to Dubai on Dec. 21. After Riahi was waylaid by the Iranian agents, Karroubi, known as a conciliator committed to working within the framework of the Islamic Republic to press for reforms, intervened to prevent the tape from being confiscated. Nevertheless, Saba management decided to postpone the broadcast while awaiting further negotiations with Iranian officials.
Saba, meaning “zephyr,” or light wind, seems an appropriate name for the television station of an old-guard revolutionary who is against radical changes of the kind that younger reformists in Iran have promoted.
Sitting in his reception hall before a larger-than-life portrait of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the mild-mannered, white-bearded and turbaned cleric said he wanted to lead Iran according to Khomeini’s vision, “which was progressive and believed in putting the government in the hands of the people.”
His new National Confidence Party “aims to be present in the governmental and electoral scenes and help the reconstruction of reformist forces in Iran,” which took a “hard blow” in the recent election. “We feel that we must be very active and make sure our rights are not taken away,” Karroubi said. Previously, Karroubi was a leader of the Society of Combatant Clerics, the reformist party that counts former President Mohammad Khatami among its members.
Saba TV has hired a young newspaper reporter who was barred from covering Iran’s parliament last year. Masih Alinejad, 29, had been accused of stealing pay slips to reveal large bonuses for legislators who had campaigned for social justice and equity. Now she roams Tehran with a small camcorder, interviewing political sources.
Saba’s managing director is Behrouz Afkhami, a renowned Iranian film director and former member of parliament. He had been pursuing his own TV venture before joining energies with Karroubi. In May, Afkhami secured a $400,000 loan from Khatami’s office for a station broadcast from London, but Khatami later killed the deal under pressure from conservatives.
Afkhami says the main opposition to Saba TV’s launch comes from Ali Larijani, head of the Supreme National Security Council, who also spearheads Iran’s nuclear negotiations with European nations. Before he resigned to run for president in the June election, Larijani had been the director of Iranian state television and radio for 10 years.
“We have learned that Larijani has warned newspapers of publishing news and advertisement regarding Saba TV, saying the network’s activities were illegal in Iran,” Afkhami said. He added that a few other satellite TV stations have unofficial bureaus in Iran with the government’s full knowledge.
“Karroubi is feared as the main reformist competitor to the forces that are in power now,” said Afkhami, pointing to Karroubi’s support in the June vote, which many attribute to his campaign promise to hand a monthly $80 stipend to every Iranian.
In recent weeks, newspapers have refrained from publishing news about Saba, fearing repercussions that could include their own shutdown. But the conservative newspaper Kayhan, which is directly linked to Khamenei, has attacked Saba TV, saying it has the support of Israel Radio and will run immoral programs.
Because the broadcasts are to originate from Dubai, Saba could be aired without the consent of the regime in Tehran, though officials could discourage information gathering in the country. But Karroubi is holding out for an accord. And now, the station might have to relocate, as some officials in Dubai looked likely “to renege on cooperation agreements due to pressures from the Islamic Republic,” Afkhami said.
Saba TV’s staff said it would not give up. “We would like to cooperate and work from within Iran,” Afkhami said. “But if Larijani insists on his monopoly, there is always London or Istanbul. We will go on air.”