Persian, U.S. blogospheres come together
Another journalist is detained by the Iranian government in Tehran. Seems like the same old story of a crackdown on independent media by a hard-line administration. But this time, the detainee, Sina Motallebi, is different. His roots are in print journalism, as a film critic, later covering politics for a reformist paper Ham Mihan, and the arts for Hayat-?-No (subsequently shut down). Most recently he gained fame with his popular Persian-language Weblog, Webgard (meaning "Web surfer"). And now the Persian blogging community, surprisingly strong, has linked up with top American bloggers to promote an online petition to ask for Motallebi's release.
The journalist's wife, Farnaz Ghazizadeh (who runs a blog about their baby son), told the Associated Press that the judiciary had summoned Motallebi before for questioning relating to interviews he gave to foreign media on his Web site. According to Reporters Without Borders, Motallebi also angered Iran's hardline judiciary by defending Alireza Eshragi, a journalist at Hayat-?-No who oversaw a page that ran an old political cartoon that offended the government. The human rights group said Motallebi was accused by the judiciary of "undermining national security through 'cultural activity.' "
Though it isn't totally clear why he's being detained, what is clear is that the Persian blogosphere is mobilizing to help free him. Fellow blogger Pedram Moallemian was born in Iran, and lived in Canada, where he was the director of the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Liberty and Equality. He now lives in San Diego and wrote the online petition to help bring attention to Motallebi's detention. Moallemian only got into blogging in the past year, but he is amazed at the popularity and power of blogging for Iranians inside and outside of Iran.
"We've seen Iranian blogs take donations for orphanages," he told me. "And Weblogs helped a group of 50 to 60 people gather in Iran for International Women's Day on March 8. Bloggers even ran for city council in Tehran in the past election, though they had no chance to win" [because reformists protested by not voting at all]. At one point, Moallemian ran a Weblog that summed up the Persian blogs in English, but it was too time-consuming for no pay. He works as a retail consultant now.
Linking to the West
A key link from Iran's teeming world of Weblogs to the West has been Hossein Derakhshan, a colleague of detained journalist Motallebi. Derakhshan, also known as Hoder, runs an English Weblog called Editor:Myself as well as one in Persion. He helped bring the story to the attention of various top bloggers such as Buzz Machine's Jeff Jarvis and the San Jose Mercury News' Dan Gillmor. In turn, the petition soon hit 2,000 signees and made appearances on Daypop and Blogdex as a popular blog link. The Oxblog's Patrick Belton wrote an appeal to his U.S. senator, and exhorted others to follow suit.
"I wanted to try to find bridges to Persian blogs just as I've found bridges to German blogs," Jarvis told me via e-mail. "Especially now, the exchange of information and opinions and the process of getting to know each other can only be good. So far as I know, it is the first time a Weblogger has been arrested because of what he says online. But even beyond that, this indicates that Weblogs are a powerful tool for free speech in any land -- a fact that clearly (and unfortunately) has been recognized even by Iranian officials."
Hoder has been quick to give updates on the detention, and surmises that the Iranian government might be trying to curb Western cultural influences in the youth. Hoder says that Motallebi was "rarely political," but is the most Net-savvy geek type among the many journalists currently jailed by the Iranian government. But does that mean the government will crack down on the freewheeling Persian blogosphere, where one woman has reportedly been detailing her sexual exploits? Hoder thinks they haven't caught on quite yet, and haven't blocked key Persian sites as the Chinese government has done to dissident sites.
Publicity helps or hurts?
While the petition's proponents would like to get mainstream press attention to help pressure the Iranians to release Motallebi, the detainee's family and close friends are more circumspect. One cousin told me the family was holding off on answering my questions for fear that publicity might cause more harm than good, creating a backlash that could infuriate the mullahs. In fact, Motallebi's family pulled down the front page of his Weblog because of anti-government comments posted there; it was not the work of the Iranian government or caused by increased traffic.
Still, the bloggers feel that hushing up Motallebi's detention would play into the hands of the hard-liners, allowing them to detain journalists and others without an outcry or protest. "I appreciate the family's point of view," said petition author Moallemian, "but you have to look at the larger picture. This would work against other people arrested later."
Already, he sees paranoia online due to the arrest, with people asking that their comments be removed from blogs because of fear that the Iranian government is watching. "I don't think they were going after Sina's content -- his last post was on Michael Jordan's retirement, I think," said Moallemian. "They're going after the blogging movement. If Hoder was in Iran, I'm sure he would be brought in. Blogging is just the latest avenue for young people to say something -- and they want to block that."
The government of Iran is generally tight-lipped about journalists detained, hasn't made an official statement about Motallebi and hasn't returned my e-mails. But the groundswell of support for Motallebi online might lead to his release -- thereby strengthening the resolve of bloggers (or making them paranoid the government is now taking notice).
That's the underlying Catch-22 here. Bloggers are under the radar of the hard-liners, and that gives them unprecedented freedom. Losing a prominent voice like Motallebi's is a blow to the community, but losing Net access would be an even more devastating blow. So while bloggers are asking for his release, they hope for the attention of human rights groups, the mainstream press and objective voices -- not the saber-rattling of some ideologues.
Jarvis, for one, envisions a future without fear. "Eventually, all but the most Stone Age governments will have to let the Internet in because it has become the price of doing business in the world, and with it comes access to information and the ability to publish to the world (at no cost, with no expertise). The tools of publishing and broadcasting are coming into the hands of the people, and that will make a difference in the world." Without a doubt.