Monday, 13 April 2009

Hossein Derakhshan and Virtual Iran-Free the Blogfather

The Iranian blogging phenomenon was triggered after the contribution of Hossein Derakhshan on how-to to write blogs in Farsi and one of the most recurrent themes analysed by academics interested in Iran's youth culture.

Hossein Derakhshan now imprisoned since last November 2008 contributed in establishing bridges of communication between a country with a limited public sphere like Iran and the rest of the world. The phenomenon he contributed to represents the need for alternative platforms of expression and is a vehicle for social development and assertion of Iranian Identity both within and outside the boundaries of the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, the usage of new media technology sets Iran the challenge of global free-flow of information.Hossein’s arrest is the prove of the danger that new media set to the I.R.I. This leads one to question: is Iran ready to use those media to develop its own “Neither East nor West” particular political, social and economical non-western-like model in setting the country back into the race of worlds most influential country? Or is it going to use them to increase its isolation from the international panorama by threatening the safety of Iranian online journalists and bloggers hence contributing to it’s own demonization?

Hossein Derakhshan is an Iranian-Canadian blogger and journalist and a fellow student at SOAS, University of London, who spent the last eight years between Canada and the U.K before his return to Tehran in the past month of October 2008. Hossein, aka Hoder, is hailed as the "blogfather" of Iranian Blogging because in 2001 he published guidelines of how to blog in Farsi on the site contributing to the boom in blogging that has led to Iran being today amongst the ten biggest blogging nations of the world according to Technorati statistics on the State of the Blogosphere.

According to Derakhshan (Khosravi 2008:157), the popularity of blogs among young people in Iran symbolises the great changes that Iranian society has undergone during the past two decades. The Iranian blogosphere is a reflection of the increasing tolerance in Iran’s society, he says. (1) His blog Editor:Myself or Rooznegar blog by Sina Motallebi his fellow blogger and journalist, were held by the Online Journalism Review as powerful tools for free-speech that linked Iran with the West.

Since the time of Hossein's statement to the current day, blogging has been widely embraced by Iranians throughout the whole spectrum of Iranian society, inside the country and within diaspora communities. Clark Boyd, technology correspondent for the BBC World Service, wrote in his 2005 article about Persian blogging around the globe that Internet has become the main medium for information, news, analysis and information exchange for Iranians inside and outside the Iran.

The fact that blogging is embraced by religious and political figures such as the President Ahmadinejad, could symbolize that the IRI is moving towards a more tolerant model of society that looks into the new media as a tool to overcome the isolation that certain policies have drawn the country into. The almost equivalent presence of topics concerning conservative politics, religion, secular and reformist ideas on the Iranian blogosphere is surprising, states Mark Jones in his Blogging Iran article to Reuters in April 2008. However, blogging is still a risky activity for Iranians, particularly for those who publish under their own name, as we can see by the recent death in prison of Omidreza MirSayafi.

The arrest of Hossein Derakhshan in Tehran last November has come to destabilise the world of free-speech activism, in which the "blogfather" was a major figure. Accused of “espionage for the Israeli government” at first and later of “insulting religion“, Derakhshan travelled to Israel in 2006 and 2007 and blogged about this experience as well as the intentions behind it. Treating these as a mission for peace activism, he attempted to present the human face of Israel to Iranians and to reassure Israelis that the average Iranian does not want to cause any harm to their country. Since then, he has continued to write prolifically, putting forward controversial opinions in defence of the IRI, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the right of Iran to develop nuclear energy. Activists and members of the Iranian diaspora started tagging Derakhshan as an "Agent of the Regime" and many heated discussions can be followed on his weblog until the day of his arrest last November 2008.

To all those willing to take a closer look at the contribution of Hossein Derakhshan to his country's development of public sphere and free-speech, it is well worth looking at the Iranian blogosphere which he helped generate. Numerous blogs, used by an extremely wide range of people, reflect a vast range of debate topics. Nevertheless, we can claim that Hossein is one of the pioneers of technological and cultural development for the IRI, that he so clearly stands out to defend from diverse threats. His weapon is no other than his words defending his belief in the Iranian republic.

The IRI could be growing towards a more tolerant model if we take the increasing presence of Iran in the blogosphere. However, the filters, the successive arrest of bloggers and Internet journalists like Hossein Derakhshan , Sina Motallebi - among many others- and the death of bloggers such as Omidreza MirSayafi show us something different. Still, Iranian’s mark a daily presence on the web. In parallel to the reality of the country itself, a Virtual Iran is developing despite the attempts on restrainin the free-flowing information. The attempt of control of Virtual Iran’s free speech can affect the development of the “real” Iran as well as the image passed on Internationally.

Independently of the content of the speech itself, the Internet is a tool for freedom of speech. Blogging represents the possibility of discussion, debate and freedom of expression for the individual, and is arguably conducive to individual and social progress. The development of Iranian blogosphere is a symbol of the development of Iranian society and the changes of the IRI. The fierce critique to some of it’s content, especially to those defending a pro-regime position, might only symbolize the lack of experience of free-speech by some particular individuals. However, the importance is that the blogosphere is there and must strive to maintain it’s diversity and contribute to Iran’s development.

Iran could be developing slowly into a new state model where new technologies serve s its own inner development, and simultaniously allowing Iran to be back in the race as world leading country. However, the control and use of new technology to threatening its own people might only increase its unpopularity and isolation from the rest of the world. The answer lies not only in the daily choices of Iran’s Govern, but also on how much it allows negative international pressure to interfere in inner politics that degenarate on an increasingly self-threatening paranoid state.

Let us hope that Hossein Derakhshan's passionate quest for a progressive and tolerant Iran does not fade with his arrest and – for now – uncertain future.

If you want to contribute to the Request of the immediate release of Hossein Derakhshan visit the website and sign the petition.

By Maria Rijo Lopes da Cunha.

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