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Blogs as Journalism in Iran

Iran is home to one of the most vibrant and active blogging cultures in all the Islamic world. This in a nation whose government has an ambivalent relationship with bloggers - at best. How the Internet is changing the way Iranians learn about the world - and how the world learns about Iran.

Looking to learn about the hottest bands in Iranian rock and roll? Check out Pourya's Blog. If reading Persian poetry - old or new - is more your thing, you'll love Parham Baghestani's blog. Debates about trends in modern architecture? The best restaurants in Tehran? Just wanting to find some new friends or learn Farsi? The best answers, increasingly, can be found on blogs.

While the rest of the world may know Iranian blogs primarily as tools of political dissent and debate, the truth is much more complicated. Nearly as complicated, says Mohamed Abdel Dayem, as modern Iran itself.

"If you look at the universe of regularly updated Iranian blogs, they tackle everything from poetry and music and literature and politics and religion...and it's not a blogosphere that has only one angle, which is unfortunately the way it's frequently portrayed."

Dayem is the Middle East and North African Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. At first blush, it may seem odd that an organization like CPJ that works to protect professional journalists would be so focused on Iran's blogosphere. But a closer look at Iranian blogging yields an answer.

"The Iranian regime, especially in the late nineties, shut down so many print publications - dailies, weeklies, upward of a 100 - and as a result of that many professional journalists were pushed into the online world," explains Dayem. "They were effectively put in that position where they had to write online."

Listen to our unedited Mohamed Dayem interview:

Perhaps more so in Iran than in many other countries, news stories often first appear on blogs, where writers are freer to cover events outside the sanction of government censors. Only after attracting tens of thousands of readers, and drawing untold numbers of anonymous comments, will the more established, state-controlled media pick it up.

In the U.S., that's what many would call citizen-journalism. In Iran, says Nikahang Kowsar, it's just journalism.

"Many Iranian citizen journalists are journalists/citizen-journalists. Maybe it's an Iranian thing. We transformed Islam in our own way. We transformed the Mongolian Army into another being. So we also transformed citizen journalism into something else. That's our art."

"Nik" Kowsar may be best known for skewering Iranian public figures with his editorial cartoons. But he is firmly plugged into Iran's blogosphere. "They're trying to give choice to the choiceless - it's not just about voice to the voiceless. They're questioning authority, even questioning the leaders of the green movement, asking them questions (like) 'What were you doing in the 1980's?', when people were being killed or tortured."

Both Kowsar and Dayem note that many Iranian bloggers welcome attention from the rest of the world - some even invite it. But Kowsar cautions that younger Iranians want their blogosphere to remain theirs, and that percieved interference by the U.S. would not be helpful.

"I heard an individual is going door to door in Washington DC promoting the idea of giving satellite Internet connections to people inside Iran. The government can detect send and receive (signals) in the country. They arrested many people in 2002, 2003. It didn't work then; how can it work now?

The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates between 30 to 50 Iranian journalists and bloggers are currently in prison; the higher number anywhere in the world. Dayem says many are charged with crimes such as "undermining the foundations of the Islamic Republic" or even, in some cases, charged for things they haven't even written yet.

"There was an Iranian blogger and online journalist who was detained on a bus, on his way to an event that the government didn't want him to cover." He was arrested, he says, as a preventative act - what Dayem calls being charged with a "thought crime."

But Iranian blogs continue to proliferate, making it less likely they will ever be silenced. Now even the government in Tehran has launched a new program to create 100,000 pro-government blogs over next five years.

The Iranian relationship between government and blogger is what Nik Kowsar compares to a game of cat and mouse. "But if the mouse is faster," he says, "the mouse might catch the cat."

You can watch Kowsar and Dayem participate in the recent event "Iran's Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices"co-sponsored by George Washington University and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.