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Building Blogs

Online journals are under fire in Iran, but bloggers there and around the world refuse to let their voices be silenced.
 
 
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The Gutenberg of Persian weblogs, Hossein Derakhshan, thinks of the online journals known as blogs in terms of three metaphors. "Iranian weblogs are like bridges," Derkhshan said, "linking men and women, young and old, politicians and people, Iranians and the world." Derakhshan also believes blogs are cafes, serving as the only space for genuine public debates in Iran at present. Above all, however, blogs are windows into Iran, allowing the Iranian government to see what is on the minds of its citizens, as well as the West to view what is actually occurring in this closed nation.

Now that the United States has begun to shift its attention to Iran as the next phase of its Middle Eastern overhaul, Iranian weblogs offer unique cultural insights that mainstream media sources fail to present. According to N. Alavi, who blogs at IranBlog, "Western analysts, academics, and journalists have had little or no real access to Iran. They have at times relied unduly on partial inquiry and the images presented by state organs or longtime exiled groups who are drastically out of touch with the changes in Iran and at times just push their own political agendas." As a result, the little news that we do receive about Iran is either limited to stories relating to the globally perceived threat of violence stemming from the Middle East or by their own censorious government.

Alavi, like Derakhshan, claims that the only authentic voices in Iran can be found in its rapidly growing blogosphere. And while the Iranian blogging community is quickly becoming subject to an inordinate amount of draconian governmental sanctions and newly imposed punishments, even governmental higher-ups, including Iran's former reformist vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, have embraced blogging. Blogging may prove to be the future of Iranian journalism, and it is also Iran's only chance of establishing a connection with its youth while attempting to alleviate tensions between the Iranian government and the West.

Now, a group called the Committee to Protect Bloggers has declared Feb. 22 a day of action to free two Iranian bloggers, Mojtaba Saminejad and Arash Sigarchi, imprisoned for the opinions expressed on their blogs. Curt Hopkins, director of the Committee, told BBC News, "I hope this day will focus people."

The Rise of the Blog

Ever since Derakhshan first found a way to create a blog in Farsi – the primary language spoken by Persians – in 2001, blogging has modernized Iranian culture, linking it with the West while preserving Islamic traditions. Derakhshan discovered blogs after the Sept. 11 attacks, when blogs really started to showcase their ability to provide in-depth coverage and gripping personal accounts that the mainstream media does not provide. A tech journalist living as an expatriate in Canada, Derakhshan felt compelled to start blogging in order to remain connected with Iranian culture, and because blogs were a perfect means for expressing himself to his former Persian readers. But writing his blog was just one small part of his initial mission; Derakhshan spent his first year introducing, promoting and keeping track of all Persian blogs to come on the scene. A Wired News article from 2003 estimated that 12,000 Persian blogs had spawned virtually overnight, and according to Alavi, writing in The Guardian, 75,000 Persian blogs were running as of December 2004 (experts now estimate that number to be well over 100,000), marking Farsi the fourth most popular language for blogging. "A phenomenal figure," Alavi wrote, "given that in neighboring countries such as Iraq, there are less than 50 known bloggers."

The recent preponderance of Iranian blogs is largely due to the fact that Iran is an educated society in which about two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30. Derakhshan refers to his generation of Iranians – the father of Persian blogs is also under 30 – as the "post-Revolution generation," since they have no memory of the Iranian revolution that took place in 1979. This generation is very individualistic, embracing Western culture while still taking pride in their own traditions. In IranBlog, Alavi tries to "capture and put across the voice of a new generation that tries to describe Iran as it sees it today."

Open Forum

Blogs are crucial to the public discourse in Iran right now because the Iranian government wields an iron fist over the country's major media outlets, stringently monitoring the content of daily newspapers, as well as radio and television broadcasts. Unlike in the United States, Derakhshan informed me, there has been absolutely no coverage, no discussion of the country's nuclear program in Iranian press. And this is where his notion of weblogs as cafes really comes to life: blogs are a means of open dialogue. "Blogs are the only space where public debates can take place, where the policies of governments can be discussed freely," says Derakhshan. Persian blogs were where anyone with access to the internet could find out the truth about the recent Parliamentary elections in Iran, and where mounting tensions between Iran and the U.S. were avidly discussed.

"We finally have a way to find out how others in our society think," blogger Bahman Kalbasi said, "whereas before even if each one of us was opposed to the traditions, parts of religion, or the regime, we had no way of knowing how others think and how many people shared our concerns. Through blogs, we now have a big community of young Iranians that has so many things in common. Before, we didn't know how to practice democracy although we demanded it in the governmental level. Now we read each others blogs, we disagree and we survive; no one has to be eliminated just because we disagree." Another blogger noted, "Has everyone noticed the spooky absence of Graffiti in our public toilets since the arrival of weblogs? Remember the toilets at university we used to call our 'Freedom Columns'?"

Persian blogging perfectly exemplifies what Dan Gillmor refers to as "open-source news" in his prescient book on the future of media, We the Media . Open-source news is participatory journalism that encourages grassroots reporting and dialogue among readers, as opposed to the antiquated system of major media sources that simply lecture. While this journalistic revolution is now making its way throughout the world, it has already swept through Iran. A sort of counter-intuitive progression, considering Iran severely lacks the freedom of expression on which most Western nations pride themselves. Yet, the anonymity that weblogs provide is crucial to giving a voice to thousands of Iranian citizens and airing countless concerns that could never have seen the light of day in Iranian press. In a closed society, access to unrestricted information is a precious as water in the desert. This anonymity is all the more important for Iranian women, who for the first time in their lives have the chance to express their thoughts freely on issues as mundane as marriage and cosmetics to the more weighty topics of crime and the current Iranian regime.

Of course, Iran's authoritarian government has caught on to these blogs, resulting in harsh repercussions. Not only has the regime attempted to create blogs to propagate their own political agenda (the hard-line Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even has a web site), they have also begun to crack down on blogs in an attempt to maintain their monopoly over every form of media in the country. For a nation that lacks the most basic of civil liberties, it should be no surprise that Iran became the first government to take legal action against bloggers in 2003, when journalist Sina Motallebi was arrested. The Iranian government has been hard at work silencing reformist blogs by filtering and blocking web sites within the country. In one instance, the government found the host company of a blog it deemed critical of the state and arrested all of the technicians and web journalists. Prior to the Parliamentary elections in February 2004, the government also blocked about 50 major online publications that discussed the elections, including the popular news site, gooya.com, and Reporters Without Borders. The Iranian Parliament was then able to challenge many reformist candidates without any objections, resulting in the current Parliament that is even more dominated by hard-liners.

Blogging on the Run

Reporters Without Borders estimates that over 10,000 political web sites have been blocked from within Iran, as well as popular chatrooms such as Orkut, which serve as vital forums for public discourse. Even worse, towards the end of 2004, Amnesty International reported that "around 25 Internet journalists and civil society activists [were] arbitrarily arrested in recent weeks, marking an alarming rise in human right violations in Iran." These journalists were taken to undisclosed locations, humiliated, beaten, threatened with rape and tortured. One of the journalists arrested was Fereshteh Ghazi, a young reporter writing on women's issues. Recently, Ghazi covered the case of Afsaneh Nouroozi, an Iranian woman who was wrongfully sentenced to death for killing the Head of Police Intelligence on Iran's Kish Island, who had attempted to rape Nouroozi. Thanks to Ghazi's courageous reporting, Nouroozi may soon be released from prison, and yet Ghazi had to be hospitalized following her release from her interrogation in December 2004, during which she was beaten and suffered a broken nose.

Although many of the online journalists who were detained by the Iranian government testified before a presidential commission, the regime tried desperately to keep these crimes under wraps. The proceedings were held at the end of 2004 behind closed doors, and members of the judiciary threatened many of the abused Persian bloggers for testifying. These scare tactics were actually spearheaded by Tehran's Chief Prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, who threatened each of the journalists who testified, along with their families. Elsewhere, Persian bloggers could not write about this abuse and the gross infringement on civil liberties because they either did not know about these crimes or were fearful of the Iranian regime. Fortunately, the revelation of these human rights violations was made public by reformist cleric Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who served on the commission and put the details of the journalists' testimonies on his own weblog.

Abtahi resigned from his post as vice president and confidant of President Mohammad Khatami last year after being disappointed by the elections. He wanted to reach out to the majority of Iranian youth who felt helpless against their theocratic government, and the best way to do that was through Iran's nascent cyber community. Within a very short time, Abtahi's blog has become a huge success. Derakhshan likened Abtahi to a pop icon, as he has gained the trust of Iran's secular youth. "He's a total populist," Derakhshan said, referring to the possibility that Abtahi might still have ulterior political goals, "but he's good populist." Thanks to Abtahi, Persian blogs have remained, as Alavi says, "an alternative media that for the moment defies control and supervision by authoritarian rule." And while Abtahi most likely had assurances from his ties in Parliament before going public with the testimonies of the abused online journalists, he has nevertheless been summoned by the clerical courts recently.

While many Persian bloggers have begun to criticize the Iranian regime more readily, Abtahi set a courageous precedent for bloggers everywhere. Abtahi is also accomplishing his goal of bridging the gap between government and the people in his effort to effect social change. "He comes across as down-to-earth, fairly clever, and sometimes outspoken about the problems of the regime, which, from his 'insider' position, is quite fascinating," said The Lady N, who runs the blog Another Irani Online. She added, "He also manages to humanize many prominent members of the regime (e.g. through the pictures he takes and posts on the photo segment of the blog)."

Persian blogs represent a grassroots movement that is paving the way for Iran's political awakening. These thousands of online journals show their tyrannical government that social change is inevitable. "If the Supreme Leader was a fan of reading blogs," Derakhshan said, "Iran would be a different country." Moreover, these genuine Iranian voices are trying to tell the rest of the world that not only are the people of Iran ready to embrace democracy, but that they are fully capable of bringing about this change themselves. Iranian bloggers are ready to open the bridge, the café, the window with the West and start an international dialogue.