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Iranian Bloggers Protest Government Crackdown on Reformist News Sites

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The hardline Iranian judiciary arrests three online journalists and bloggers and tries to block reformist sites. But the vibrant Persian blogosphere fights back, with dozens of bloggers posting "banned" news stories on their own sites. A look at Iran's struggle for Net freedom.

In the U.S., when bloggers fact-check the media -- as they did with the questionable National Guard memos on "60 Minutes" -- they are hailed as new media heroes. In Iran, when reformist bloggers and journalists fact-check the government -- as they did when the ruling hardliners railroaded the last election -- they are put in jail and their publications are shut.

That point was brought home recently when the Iranian government, led by Ayatollah Khamenei, moved to block three reformist news Web sites, and then jailed three journalists -- Hanif Mazrooie, Babak Ghafoori Azar, and Shahram Rafi Zadeh -- the latter two are also bloggers. These moves follow a string of reformist newspaper closures this year, as well as a controversial election in which the ruling party disqualified reformist candidates, resulting in a widespread boycott of the vote.

Plus, the Iranian government arrested Said Motallebi, the father of formerly jailed journalist/blogger Sina Motallebi, to try to silence Sina's recent comments about his torture behind bars in Iran. Sina was a cause celebre in the blogosphere last year, and he gave me a detailed interview about his 22 days in jail after he fled to Holland.

Sina told me recently this was the first documented case of the Iranian government putting a journalist's family member in jail. After Reporters Without Borders and other human rights groups and bloggers complained, Said Motallebi was released this past Monday.

That same day, an estimated 200 Iranian bloggers began to protest the government's attempted shutdown of reformist news site Emrooz (which means "Today") by renaming their own sites "Emrooz" and featuring content from the site. Hossein Derakhshan, also known as Hoder, was the driving force behind the latest protest; he has been a pioneer of the Iranian blogosphere since his relocation to Toronto.

So why the recent crackdown on the Internet and bloggers? Hoder pointed to a new survey in Iran that shows people trust the Internet more than any other news medium. "I guess the hardline conservatives have realized the great influence of the Internet, as a trusted medium, on young middle-class Iranians while they have effective control of all other media, from TV to newspapers, directly or indirectly," he said via e-mail.

Last year, Hoder helped bring attention to Sina Motallebi when he was in jail, and foreign media covering his plight helped free him. Now Hoder is hoping this protest will bring attention to the Iranian government's attempts at censoring Web content.

"What makes me and many Iranians frustrated these days is that the Western media pays no attention to anything other than Iran's nuclear program," Hoder said. "It looks as if the world does not care what is going on inside Iran as long as it doesn't threaten the world. So if the increasingly repressive regime is cracking down on individual freedoms and arresting Internet journalists and technicians, the world shows no interest. It's sort of sending a message to the regime that it's OK if you are repressing your own people, just don't threaten us and we won't disturb you."

Protests from inside and out

While Iran has been ruled by Islamist religious leaders since the revolution in 1979, reformists have made inroads into government in recent years. The Iranian parliament, elected by popular vote, had a majority of reformists after the 2000 elections, while President Mohammad Khatami is also a reformer, though he supported the 2004 elections in which hardliners took back the parliament. Still, the hardliners control the armed forces and judiciary and routinely weaken any reforms passed by parliament.

One of Khatami's vice presidents, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, has kept a personal Weblog both in Persian and English. When Motallebi's father was imprisoned, Abtahi wrote a passionate protest on his blog in Persian: "Family detention is one of the worst moral, social and religious actions."

Abtahi said he personally faxed President Khatami about the issue of Motallebi's father being held and wrote openly about being stuck between angry bloggers and the ruling party. "Attacks on news Web sites and arrests of cyberjouralists have caused a lot of disturbance," Abtahi wrote in Persian. "It's not easy to be a middleman between a group of bloggers and a group who view bloggers as the enemies of the Islamic society. Although I'm certain about the negative results my thoughtfulness toward the young bloggers is going to bring upon me, I'm happy to hear their voice."

Abtahi has been bold enough to speak out against reformist newspaper closures on his English blog. When two such papers, Vaghaiee-e-Etefaghieh and Jomhouriat, were shuttered in July, Abtahi wrote that "the voice of the majority will not be heard anymore."

Meanwhile, Iranian bloggers inside and outside of Iran joined together to mirror content on the blocked reformist sites. While my queries to Khatami, Abtahi and Iranian officials in the U.S. went unanswered, Hoder pointed out that hardliners had already noticed the blogosphere protest. In Monday's issue of one government-backed newspaper, Jomhoori-e Eslami, Hoder says he was personally attacked as someone who has "written the harshest swears to the regime's officials...[and] takes pride in drinking [alcohol] and having fun."

The French human rights group Reporters Without Borders issued a strong condemnation of the journalists' and bloggers' arrests, as well as the continued online blockage and closure of reformist publications. The group's Internet specialist Julien Pain told me that bloggers should send messages of support for their jailed colleagues to persan@rsf.org, and that these messages will be sent to the families of the imprisoned journalists and displayed online on the Farsi-language section of the Reporters Without Borders site.

The inexact science of blocking sites

While blogs have grown in popularity in Iran as a place for the younger generation to express themselves, the ruling government has started to pay attention to the Internet as a place of dissent. At first, the government focused on blocking pornographic sites, but that has recently expanded to more political sites .

Hoder says the government has clumsily assumed that they could shut down Web news sites by arresting people at the sites' hosting services. "It strikes me that the stupid hardline security officials who are ordered to shut down the voices of these Web sites...are unable to understand the difference between a Web site and a newspaper," Hoder wrote on his blog. "So they think by shutting down offices, or servers, they can stop a decentralized network of unknown journalists and activists from raising their voices through the Internet."

On the continuum of government censorship of the Web, Iran has done less than China but more than India, according to OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a group research effort between the University of Toronto, Harvard Law School and the University of Cambridge to gauge Web filtering and surveillance in various countries.

Nart Villeneuve is director of technical research at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, as well as the ONI. He explained how Iran depends on commercial filtering software at various service providers in order to block sites, including a master blacklist with political sites being added and subtracted. For the most part, the blocked political sites are in Farsi and not in English or other languages, according to Villeneuve.

"For the reformist/opposition sites, I have observed that in Iran some of these sites are sometimes blocked and unblocked at various times," Villeneuve said via e-mail. "There does not seem to be a method to this. There is often media attention when sites are re-blocked but this fits with the general pattern of blocking/unblocking."

Meanwhile, bloggers are sending out e-mails based on RSS (Really Simple Syndication) services to get around site-blocking efforts by the Iranian government. Villeneuve says that for each circumvention technique the bloggers use, the censors will come up with a different way to block it.

"The key is to establish and capitalize on relations of trust between human-to-human -- as oppposed to technological peer-to-peer -- networks in which customized solutions can be developed and implemented," he told me. "I have been working on a draft paper on this precise issue."

So while the Iranian blogosphere is fighting online censorship, it also must fight an uphill battle for attention in the Western media, which has been focused on journalists abducted and killed in nearby Iraq. More broadly, Reporters Without Borders estimates that around the world so far in 2004, 38 journalists have been killed, 129 journalists are in prison, and 68 cyberdissidents are in jail.

But bloggers can use their network of connections with media people, politicians, activists and others who can spread the word online. Kayvan Hosseini, a blogger, journalist and broadcaster now based in Prague, told me the current protest gives bloggers hope that they can continue to make a difference in Iranian society.

"Many famous Iranian writers and journalists are supporting the protest," Hosseini told me via e-mail. "Iranian society is without hope today and the Internet is their little window to the world. They don't want to miss this window and I think they are ready for a fight without blood. The Iranian government filtered more than 400 political Web sites but people have found many ways against filtering. I think the second revolution in Iran will happen with the Internet and many people in Iran believe the Internet is a good place to exercise democracy."

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Related Links
AFP: Iran blocks three reformist websites
Abtahi: Closing two newspapers
Citizen Lab
Hoder: Badge of Honor
Hoder: Bloggers protest against crackdown
Hoder: Internet: Iran's Most Trusted Medium
Kayvan Hosseini's Weblog
Mohammad Ali Abtahi's English Weblog
Mohammad Ali Abtahi's Persian Weblog
NRO: The Great Iranian Election Fiasco
OpenNet Initiative
RSF's Farsi-language page
RSF: Journalist's father released
Reporters Without Borders
Stop.Censoring.Us: Blogger/Journalists arrested over Reformist websites
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Sina Motallebi: journalist & blogger

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Blogger Hossein Derakhshan "Hoder"

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Nart Villeneuve: director of technical research at OpenNet Initiative & University of Toronto's Citizen Lab

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Blogger, journalist & broadcaster Kayvan Hosseini

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