Iranian blogosphere-supporting grassroots efforts

Azar Nafisi and Frank Sesno

Washington, D.C.–Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s senior correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari served as online moderator on a discussion yesterday held in Washington, D.C. on the state of new media in Iran and the emerging blogosphere.

The discussion, “Iran’s Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices,” was presented by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. Author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” Azar Nafisi, Executive Director of Global Voices Ivan Sigal, Executive Editor of VOA Persian News Network Hida Fouladvand and Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists were among the many esteemed panelists.

Esfandiari discussed the significance of a series of Iranian citizen media sites and blogs, including the blog of an Iranian former vice president who writes from prison and Kouhyar Goudarzi’s Web site, who is reportedly facing the death penalty.

Bloggers have called on other bloggers to write about those who sit behind bars who don’t receive media attention in Iran or internationally.

“This just shows how bloggers are using this new media,” she said. “They are publicizing the cases of prisoners that nobody knows about…It’s very powerful, I think.”

Nafisi, the keynote speaker, said online journalism has flourished in the past year despite the government’s attempt to stop news from spreading.

“Finally, those voices and those images that have been forced underground for so many years have burst and blossomed on the Internet and on television screens,” she said.

leaders from CPJ, VOA, Kowsar and Global Voices

The presentation also featured a series of political cartoons by Nikahang Kowsar, a popular Iranian cartoonist who went to jail for his depiction of “Professor Crocodile” that criticized a prominent Islamic cleric. He said many Iranian journalists have turned into citizen journalists in exile.

“We know that we’ll be crucified in the future, but we love it,” he said.

Esfandiari also pointed to an article in Global Voices by Hamid Tehrani, who said the use of citizen media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube has helped “immortalize” the movement for younger generations.

“However, the cornerstone of this movement is not technology – it’s the people,” said Tehrani in the article.

Nafisi told the audience not to feel sorry for the people of Iran, but rather join with them in the spread of information.

“They have taken responsibility for their lives and they have refused to be victims. What you need to do is to support their voices and to add your voice to them and to communicate to them…VOA and Radio Liberty need to create a conversation with the Iranian people.”

Nafisi noted that the power of the blogosphere and citizen journalism being carried out in Iran is evident in the government’s backlash.

“The bloggers in Iran…notice that if they flog women for showing their hair, if they put bloggers in jail for 14 years and torture them, if journalists are jailed for just simply telling the truth or showing a cartoon, that shows how vulnerable the regime is, how afraid they are,” she said.

Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Middle East and North Africa Project Corrdinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the line between citizen journalism and traditional journalism has blurred. In the late 1990s, the Iranian government shut down a significant number of publications, and as a result, journalists migrated online in the late 90s and early 2000s.

“Hundreds, thousands of journalists really. And you see those professional journalists alongside regular students, doctors and engineers,” he said.

The Iranian blogosphere consists of roughly 70,000 active blogs, or blogs updated at least once a week, CPJ reports. This shows a flourishing community of online writing when compared to other nations. He said the Arab language blogosphere is roughly half of that, or 35,000 blogs while the population of the Arab world is more than 350 million people.

“It really gives you an idea of how active the Iranian blogosphere is,” he said.

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