Iran General NewsIran's big brother for bloggers

Iran’s big brother for bloggers

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The Guardian: Respectful comments on the president’s blog are in sharp contrast to the censorship of ordinary web users in the Islamic republic. The Guardian

Respectful comments on the president’s blog are in sharp contrast to the censorship of ordinary web users in the Islamic republic, reports Saeed Kamali Dehghan from Tehran

Want to start a blog in Iran? Then you’ll have to register it with the government – which has recently begun to require that all bloggers register at samandehi.ir, a site established by the ministry of culture of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government.

All you need do is give your personal information, including your blog’s username and password – otherwise it will be filtered and blocked so that nobody in Iran, and perhaps outside too, will be able to access it. This has led to an outcry among many Iranian bloggers who consider the net an independent and free forum for expression.

You might think that’s only going to inconvenience a few people – but you’d be wrong: Iran has nearly a million bloggers, around 10% of whom are active, according to Mehdi Boutorabi, manager of the Persianblog free blog hosting service.

His company, the first such service founded in Iran, now hosts more than 780,000 Persian blogs; and the blog search engine Technorati now lists Farsi, Iran’s native language, among the top 10 languages used online.

And not everyone is going along. Parastoo Dokouhaki, a renowned blogger who writes on womens’ rights, has put a banner on her blog at parastood.ir which reads: “I will not register my site!” (It’s been made available for others to copy).

Government clampdowns

Consequently, her blog is filtered in Iran. Many bloggers who have fallen foul of the government clampdowns have subsequently put the same banner in their web pages.

But censorship isn’t just for blogs. Most of Iran’s reformist newspapers have been shut down, rooftop satellite dishes are banned, books are censored and relationships between boys and girls are limited. Yet blogs also play a major – even growing – role in modern Iranian society. This is why almost all the leading candidates for Iran’s last presidential election ran their own blogs.

Acknowledging the influence of blogging in Iran, President Ahmadinejad launched his own blog last year even while his government cracked down on bloggers. The president’s blog is available in Farsi, English, French and Arabic; he is aiming at an international audience.

What has the president got to say? “I am sorry to say that the American people are kept in an absolute censorship concerning the outside world by their government,” he wrote in March.

“I am certain if the American people know where and on what, their tax money is spent, even the strong supporters of the government would not stand it and rush to the street to show their opposition in regard to that issue,” he went on, responding to a letter apparently from an American mother claiming her son was forcibly taken and sent to Iraq.

In response, comments seem to be unfailingly positive and respectful: “Do you think we could all live together peacefully in this world if the Americans stopped aggressive interference in other countries?” asks one apparently English commenter.

Blogging’s influence in Iran is undeniable. Recently, when Seyed Reza Shokrollahi found that his friend Yaghoub Yadali, an Iranian writer, had been held illegally in jail for 40 days, he blogged it (at khabgard.com); he got 5,000 hits. The next day the link had been spread through the Iranian blogosphere and into newspapers’ headlines. Finally, the government was forced to release him.

Space for dissent

Blogging in Iran is not confined to particular groups. Even clergymen and hardliners who once viewed it as an “opposition” activity today have blogs of their own – along with gays and lesbians, who have their own communities online.

“In Iran there is no place to talk about your homosexuality except in your blog. Now I have hundreds of Iranian gay friends who are bloggers. When I read about their feelings in their blogs I’m healed that I’m not alone in the country,” says one Iranian gay blogger writing at hamzaaad.blogspot.com.

And blogs also give a space for dissent – as happened when the British sailors were taken captive earlier this year. “Fifteen British sailors were captured, so what? Then sanctions are increased, Iran Industrial Ministry prohibited, domestic banks’ relations with foreigners ceased, we were condemned in UN and the next vessel came to the Persian Gulf again in result of that,” wrote Omid Valinasab, an Iranian blogger at iwishpolitic.blogfa.com, denouncing the government for the detainment.

But the biggest problem most Iranian bloggers face is filtering. Using a search engine in Iran usually means being confronted again and again with a screen saying: “Dear customer, access to this site is forbidden.”

And this happens not when searching for sex, but using a phrase like “les livres” (books). The first time, it can be surprising. But persist, and you’ll hit the wall of internet filtering again and again for words such as “stocking”, “honey” and “teen”.

Are French books forbidden? Well, some are, but in this case it seems you have to blame the close orthography of the French article to the word “lesbian”.

Breeding innovation

But it’s not just searches that can disappear behind the wall. The prizewinning novelist Reza Ghassemi, now based in France, woke up one morning and found his site (rezaghassemi.org) of the past six years simply banned.

From getting more than 6,000 hits per day, the post-filter number was around 300. He didn’t know who to complain to, or why; only later did others remind him – and in the end persuade him – that the reason was the presence of a file package, titled Eroticism in literature, displayed on his website. The censor had noticed it and cut his site off.

But the move has also demonstrated one of the internet’s strengths, and even borne out the way in which necessity breeds innovation. Ghassemi, like many of his colleagues, found that the clampdowns in Iran on the publication of physical books made it wiser to publish his latest novel in the form of an ebook. Bloggers have welcomed it, reviewing it as though it had been published in paper form.

For clever users, filtering sounds pointless: thousands of proxy sites distribute the net’s wider content to blogs or emails. But self-censorship is already affecting journalists, writers and intellectuals who fear prosecution.

Whether the bloggers can fare any better remains to be seen; but what’s clear is that they are all there, trying, working away at the edges that let the rest of the world creep through to tell Iran what the rest of the world is thinking, saying and doing.

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