In a trip financed by his online fans, Hossein Derakhshan, the godfather of the Iranian blogosphere, returned to his native country last week to cover the presidential election after five years of self-imposed exile.
Derakhshan, 30, had left Iran after authorities shut down the newspaper for which he worked during what he described as the country’s worst period of press restrictions. From Toronto, Derakhshan influenced Iran’s media culture by creating his Web log titled “Editor: Myself” and by helping other Iranians set up their own blogs. In a country where media censorship is pervasive, blogs have become a key instrument of dissent.
In the heat of the Iranian presidential election, Derakhshan finds himself in a predicament facing many reformists: having no choice but to support former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Derakhshan, who supported reformist candidate Mostafa Moin in the initial round of voting, has switched to “the enemy camp,” as he calls it, to back Rafsanjani. The former president is in a runoff Friday with hard-line candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Before last Friday’s balloting, Derakhshan had posted an entry on his blog (www.hoder.com) challenging claims by Rafsanjani’s supporters that the candidate had changed since his years as president, when civil freedoms were fewer than under current President Mohammad Khatami.
A day before last week’s election, Derakhshan visited Moin’s headquarters and for the first time met some of the leading reform strategists, many of whom had been following his blog. Reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh, who was surprised to see Derakhshan, joked: “They will arrest you either way. If Moin wins, we’ll at least know where you are.”
Derakhshan has been critical of the Islamic Republic’s policies, especially in the English version of his blog. “The English site gives me more protection. The authorities care about the influence that I have on Iranians inside, most of whom read the Persian site,” he said, sipping a cafe latte at a Tehran coffee shop.
His blog is blocked inside the country by Iranian authorities, but many users have figured out how to get around the filter. He had feared persecution if the authorities learned about his travel to Iran, his second trip home during his time in exile. In a June 10 entry, before embarking on his trip, he wrote, “I miss my country and I am frustrated that I must have fears of going back simply because of the words I have written in my weblogs.”
He later announced his trip to Iran on his English blog, asking readers not to write about it in Persian, warning in a June 13 entry, “You are playing with my safety by doing this.”
About four years ago, Derakhshan wrote instructions in Persian on how to create a blog, turning him into the creator of weblogistan, as the community of Iranian blogs is known.
The reformist newspaper Eqbal, which along with three other publications was shut down Monday for publishing a presidential candidate’s letter alleging election fraud, announced earlier that Derakhshan would be at a Moin campaign event. Dozens of his readers showed up to meet him.
Said Shafii said he had read “Editor: Myself” from its first day. “Within a month, thousands [of Iranian blogs] mushroomed. All of a sudden, we were all addicted. There were no restrictions in weblogistan, whether we wrote about politics or personal matters,” Shafii said.
But it was not long before a government crackdown on blogs started. One prominent blogger, Sina Motalebi, was arrested in 2003 and soon after fled to the Netherlands. Last fall, Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi ordered the arrest of more than 20 bloggers, all of whom were imprisoned for several weeks. So far, at least two have been sentenced to long jail terms.
Blogging and other electronic communications have become such a cultural phenomenon in Iran that most presidential candidates created personal websites this year to woo young voters, who represent a majority of the electorate.
The Iranian blogosphere has been an instrument for greater transparency. Former Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi joined the community in November 2003 by creating a site called “Webnevesht,” meaning writings on the Web. On the site, Abtahi provided insight into the workings of the Iranian government and published the testimonies of bloggers who said they had been abused during their detentions.
Hanif Mazroui, who was among the bloggers released from prison, came to meet Derakhshan at the Moin event. He said his imprisonment proved to him the power of blogging.
“Web logs are not like newspapers that you can shut down easily. There are ways to circumvent filters, and if they shut down your blog, you can just open another one,” Mazroui said.
Derakhshan had planned to spend a week in Iran, “taking advantage of the more relaxed atmosphere that always exists before elections,” but he stayed a few days longer. He said he received a government message that if he respected the Islamic Republic’s unwritten publication guidelines, the filter on his site would be lifted and he would be able to travel to and from Iran freely, without fear of arrest.
“It is amazing that even I, who doesn’t live in Iran and operates in cyberspace, will in some form have to limit myself and conform to the rules of the Islamic Republic if I want to be able to visit my country without problems,” Derakhshan said. He added, “But I will do it, and that is because I want to be able to reach readers inside Iran.”
Iranian journalists have established language ambiguous enough to express their points of view while keeping them inside authorities’ invisible red lines, in addressing such sensitive issues as those regarding supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, religious sanctuaries and methods of government control.
“Filtering me is to their disadvantage,” Derakhshan said, “because I am fundamentally against regime change and believe that reforms must come from within.”
Like some Iranian bloggers, he is opposed to television programs produced in Los Angeles and broadcast to Iran via satellite that campaign for revolution and urge voters to boycott the presidential election.
In his blog posting Wednesday, Derakhshan argues that “politics is always about choosing between bad and worse,” and though he won’t be here to vote Friday, he urges voters to prevent the election of Ahmadinejad, whom he and others believe would curtail some Khatami-era freedoms.
Derakhshan sees the runoff as a referendum on the hard-line faction’s vision for Iran. “Just like eight years ago, when people gave a definite ‘no’ to that ultraconservative vision by voting en masse for Khatami, they will once again go out and cast their ballots in a referendum.”
Derakhshan says he thinks Iranians have had to adopt a double consciousness. “Just like they can switch between state television and Western satellite programs by pressing a button,” he said, “so they switch in their daily lives. This artificiality is imposed on them and they have to deal with it. In effect, most Iranians live two lives, the private and the public.
“The Web log community is one space where Iranians can be themselves. It works against hypocrisy. It can only be good for Iran.”