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Iranian Journalist Credits Blogs for Playing Key Role in His Release From Prison

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The conservative Islamic government is forced to take notice of the broad coverage given to Sina Motallebi's arrest and the ensuing online petition drive demanding his freedom. In a wide-ranging interview, he tells OJR about the 23 days spent behind bars, and how the events led to his leaving his homeland and moving to Holland.


Call them self-referential. Call them elitist. Call them blowhards. Call bloggers whatever you want, but you can't deny that they can make a difference, especially when they band together for a serious cause. In the case of jailed journalist/blogger Sina Motallebi, the Iranian and American blogospheres came together to get publicity and thousands of signatures on an online petition.

The result? Motallebi, 30, was released after 23 days in prison and recently left Iran for Europe. He told me the publicity helped his cause and woke up the Iranian government to a movement of bloggers in their country and abroad that would not back down when he was threatened.

"The community of bloggers came together and helped me, and spread the news around the Web, and became united," he told me by phone from Holland, where he lives with his wife -- who is also a journalist -- and 15-month-old son. "There was a petition with more than 4,000 signatures on one site. And there was coverage of the story in the foreign media. And there was pressure from other countries that were concerned with human rights. I think they found the cost of arresting me more than they thought before."

Despite the fact that many bloggers -- usually anonymous -- inside Iran write about forbidden topics, such as sex and political freedom, the Islamic government has had to back down on attempts to block many sites. The reformists who have some power in government actually appear to be embracing bloggers, as President Mohammad Khatami recently bragged at a United Nations summit that "of the Weblogs that are created and generated -- after those in English and French -- we are No. 3 [in Persian]."

"It was a breakthrough to the hear the president talk about blogs," said Aaron Scullion, a broadcast journalist at BBC News and an editorial consultant for the group blog for the summit. "A head of state, in Geneva, drew attention to the role the Web community can play in ensuring good governance. It was great just to hear him utter the word 'blog' -- I'm not a blog advocate, per se, but a lot of people in Iran are -- and it was great to see that connection made."

Plus, the Iranian vice president for parliamentary legal affairs, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, now writes a Persian-language blog and an English blog. Abtahi even posts photos to his blog taken from his camera phone. Iranian uber-blogger Hossein Derakhshan, a.k.a. Hoder, said he admires Abtahi for blogging and making his personal life so public -- a rarity among Iranian politicians.

"The vice president blogging is a good sign that blogging is going to be mainstream in Iran, and it's going to be accepted even among politicians and scholars," Hoder told me by phone from Toronto, where he lives. "I think we should endorse him. If he stops blogging, then it's not a good sign. He's been successful at opening some sites [that were blocked]."

Hoder has been successful himself at advocating for Persian-language blogs, as well as for English-language blogs by Iranians as bridges to the outside world. He writes one in Persian, one in English, set up a directory of Iranian blogs, has done his version of group news site MetaFilter dubbed IranFilter, and set up a site to cover the Iranian government's censorship. Not to mention his call for bloggers, including himself, to run for parliament in Iran's February elections.

With prodding from bloggers, the Iranian government had to back down from blocking the Google cache, a way for Iranians to get around many filters. And bloggers in Iran have taken real-world action, gathering in person just a few days after the Bam earthquake tragedy, and raising some $2,000 for victims, according to Hoder.

Pedram Moallemian, who runs the Eyeranian Weblog from San Diego and wrote the petition to free Motallebi, has been focused lately on helping raise money for quake relief in Bam. He told me that Web sites and blogs in Iran and abroad helped raise an estimated $4 million. When Moallemian posted a big "thank you" note on his blog for rescuers and people who brought relief to Bam, he was inundated with more than 200 comments echoing his thanks.

"Freedom is vital to Iran now and Weblogs are a means of freedom," said blogger Jeff Jarvis, president of Advance.net, in an e-mail to me. "Beyond that, note that many of the Iranian Webloggers pushed their fellow bloggers to start writing in English so they could get their story out to the rest of the world. This is creating an amazing bridge, from person to person, nation to nation, media to media."

Following is an edited transcript of a phone interview with Motallebi about his arrest, detention and blogs in Iran.

OJR: Tell me your background and what type of writing you did before your arrest.

Motallebi: I wrote for magazines and newspapers for over 12 years. I worked as a film critic for some film magazines, like Gozarsh Film, a publication that was closed two years ago. In 1996, I went to a reformist newspaper, Jamea (Society) Daily, and then I wrote political pieces because I studied political science at Tehran University, and was starting to write some political columns and commentary for reformist newspapers that were shut down one after another.

One and a half years ago I started a personal Weblog. First I started to write about the Internet and information technology on my Weblog. Then I started to write about different topics -- some political entries and some entries about pop culture and international issues. One year ago, I was first summoned to court and they questioned me about my Weblog.

OJR: Who summoned you?

Motallebi: They call themselves the Operation Office of the Judiciary. But later I found that they operate under many different names. I don't know the exact address where they kept me for 23 days. Because every time they wanted to move me from jail, they blindfolded me and put me in a van with covered windows. These people are very hard-line, and have arrested some journalists and social activists, and they're trying to get stronger and stronger.

They questioned me about my Weblog, and they accused me of counter-security activities [being a security threat], both for my Weblog entries and for my interviews with foreign radio like Radio Free Europe and French International Radio. They summoned me five times before arresting me [last] April 20. On April 19, they called me and asked me to go to a special office of the law enforcement, and then I posted an entry on my Weblog saying I think this time they will arrest me.

Before I hadn't written anything about being summoned or going to court or anything like that, because they said, 'You must not say anything about the summoning to court and the interrogation.' So they prevented me from writing something about it. But for the first time, because they summoned me not to court but to a special law enforcement office -- where another journalist was arrested -- I was almost sure this time they wanted to arrest me. So I put an entry about it on my Weblog. The next morning, when I was ready to leave the house, I saw the first feedback for that entry -- both from comments of visitors and on some other Iranian Weblogs.

I think that entry helped me very much, because at the interrogation when they arrested me, they said 'nobody knows about your case.' And I said, 'No, I wrote something about that on my Web site.' It was the first time somebody had seen the reactions to his arrest, before he actually was arrested.

I was arrested one day before my 30th birthday. I was in solitary ... for 23 days, and they interrogated me and accused me of counterrevolutionary activities against national security, promoting against the Islamic regime.

OJR: What do you think it was that made them interrogate you and arrest you?

Motallebi: In the interrogation, they questioned me about my articles from the newspapers, my entries in the Weblog and my interviews with foreign radio. They have almost a complete copy of all my entries in my Weblog. On the side of the paper, the interrogators wrote something about which entry is against national security and why it's against national security. During the interrogation, I saw this copy.

They also asked me about my articles and interviews, but I thought the main problem they had with me was my Weblog. Most of the questions were about my Weblog.

OJR: Do you feel like you wrote something different than what other Webloggers were writing at the time?

Motallebi: No, there are some Weblogs with anonymous writers that wrote more radical [things] than me, as did the writers outside of Iran. But I was in Iran and I was a known journalist. They know me, and they can connect me to the Iranian political newspapers and I wrote more freely [online] because there was no censorship of the Weblogs. I could easily explain my whims, my attitude, my ideas. I could freely and directly write for my audience. And visitors could even share their views with others. There were some radical comments on some of my entries, and when I was arrested the interrogators said that I am responsible not only for what I wrote but also for what visitors wrote in my Weblog.

At newspapers, an editor can change your article. They're afraid of Weblogs because in Iran we don't have the experience of an [open] society. We have a [closed] society. Weblogs are a good experience, where everyone can explain their ideas. And the government is very afraid of them.

One time I was interrogated while blindfolded. Saeed Mortazavi, a judge who shut down many reformist newspapers and now is the prosecutor of Tehran, was in the room and I easily recognized him from his voice. Other interrogators called him 'grand (or great) Haji.' He questioned me about some of my posts on my Weblog and then said, 'Now we make you an example for other Webloggers and will show them that Weblogging is not a free [means of expression] without any cost. We will show that they must pay the expensive costs of their writings in this way.'

OJR: So why do you think they let you go?

Motallebi: They didn't expect the pressure from Webloggers and foreign media in my case. They think I'm an individual [freelance] journalist and not affiliated with any political party, I'm not an insider. So they think that when they arrested me, there wouldn't be strong pressure to release me.

But the community of bloggers came together and helped me, and spread the news around the Web, and became united. There was a petition with more than 4,000 signatures on one site. And there was coverage of the story in the foreign media. And there was pressure from other countries that were concerned with human rights. I think they found the cost of arresting me more than they thought before.

OJR: So you think the bloggers who got the petition together and got publicity for your case helped you out.

Motallebi: Every time they put pressure [on me to] ask my wife to be silent, and threatened to arrest my wife and family members, it was because they were afraid of people uniting on the Web.

OJR: When I wrote my story about you being in jail, one of your cousins said your family didn't want to talk about it.

Motallebi: My wife and my family were not sure if what I was saying to them [from jail] was true or not. Some other journalists who had been in jail explained to them that these were not true messages, and [the government] put pressure [on Sina] to send this message. So don't believe the message that everybody must be silent.

OJR: When you were in jail, did they torture you?

Motallebi: They put more mental pressure on me, in many kinds of ways. They psychologically tortured me. I haven't explained it yet in my Weblog, but some day I will do that, because I think I owe it to the people who are in danger in Iran, to show them [how it is] in prison.

Then I was searching for a way to leave the country, because I was under a lot of bad psychological pressure after being released. They repeatedly summoned me and interrogated me. Every two weeks they summoned me. I left Iran on Sunday, December 14, and I had been summoned to appear the day after that [for interrogation].

When I first arrived in Europe, I wrote a post on my Weblog in response to the Iranian minister for information and communication technology, Ahmad Motamedia, who said he knew nothing about my case, and then that it was not related to my Weblog. I wrote that my case was strongly related to my Weblog, that I was arrested because of my Weblog, the accusation [from the government] was based on entries in my Weblog.

OJR: So the main reason you left was because you were afraid they would put you in jail again?

Motallebi: It was very hard for me, because the continuing interrogations put strong psychological pressure on me. I'm a writer. I've been a writer since I was 18 years old. They prevented me from writing, even in my personal Weblog, and even in newspapers in Iran. I couldn't write anything. For seven months, I had many ideas to write things, but I couldn't write because they threatened me not to write anything. I was afraid that if I started my writing after jail, they would force me to write what they wanted.

It was very horrible and the psychological pressure on me from the interrogations was harder and harder and harder, and I couldn't stand it anymore.

OJR: What do you think brought the Internet and Weblogs to the attention of the Iranian government? Was it your case?

Motallebi: Weblogging became an important threat for the government because they could shut down any newspaper they want, but it's not easy for them to confront this large number of Webloggers. I think with my case they were more focused on the Weblog. In the first interrogation one year ago, they didn't mention my Weblog, they mentioned my Web site. They didn't know about Weblogs at that time. My interrogators didn't know anything about Weblogs.

One day they were taking me from prison blindfolded to an office, and I was there for some time. I met an officer who was reading a newspaper, with a story about my case. He asked me, 'What is a blogger? What does that mean?' I understood that my case introduced Weblogging to many people who didn't know anything about that. The good side is the audience of mainstream newspapers and media, for the first time became familiar with this term and phenomenon.

And the bad side is the interrogators, the police officers and judges become familiar with them too. But technically they can't stop them. They wanted to make my case an example to others. But now, the number of Weblogs, bloggers and their visitors is growing and they can't keep track of all of these people and arrest every one of them.

OJR: What do you think about the vice president of Iran who's writing a Weblog?

Motallebi: I think it's very important because I don't see any other official at the same rank in other countries writing about their personal views on a Weblog. The political life is very separate and very private and not for outsiders.

OJR: How did the Iranian bloggers react to the Bam earthquake?

Motallebi: The earthquake showed once again that Iranian bloggers, when they come together and unite, are very powerful and can do many things. One year ago, a young Iranian blogger died in a tragedy. Her fellow bloggers came together and become united to show their emotions. The visits to her page rose and many blogs put banners up for her memory. That was the first time that bloggers showed that they can be together, despite their differences.

In my case, the bloggers showed that they can form a pressure group. They not only showed their emotions, but also united to follow their interests and wills. In the case of the Bam earthquake, they showed that they can organize [in the real world].

OJR: Do you think in the future that they might organize protests against the government?

Motallebi: You can find many political activists among Webloggers, but I think a large number of Iranian youngsters who write Weblogs are not very political. They have more social ideas [than political]. If one of them is arrested, or if there's a nationwide election, they might pay attention. Their protests would not be in the streets; they would be on the Web.

OJR: Why do you think Weblogs have become so popular inside Iran and with Iranians abroad?

Motallebi: I think there are two reasons, one social and one technical. Socially in Iran, we haven't experienced a [free] society where everyone can express their ideas. We don't experience the freedom of expression that much. But Weblogs give the opportunity to Iranians to speak freely and share their ideas, their views, and even the details of their personal lives.

Freedom of expression was also important for people talking about their personal life, especially for girls and women. That's the reason you see many Iranian females blogging now. Under Islamic rules, many things are prohibited for young people. Each week many Iranian youngsters are arrested only for going to a party or walking with a friend of the opposite sex. So normally, they can't even talk about their personal life. But online with their fake names, or in some cases their real names, they can mention their personal lives and experience freedom of speech.

The technical reason for the spread of Weblogs in Iran is not considered very much. Because of the Iranian alphabet and the coding of Iranian Web pages. Before the release and spread of unicode, Iranian Web sites had many troubles, because there were many standards for encoding the pages. It was difficult to view a Web page because you had to install a font on your computer. After unicode was released, there was a very clear guide put out by Hossein Derakhshan on how to make a Weblog, about two years ago. That guide helped to promote Iranian Weblogs.

OJR: How important are English-language Weblogs by Iranians outside of Iran?

Motallebi: It's very important because they introduced Persian bloggers to the rest of the world. I think they give a more realistic image of life in Iran, because before that, the common image about Iran was created by politicians. Both pro-government and counter-government people have created extreme and unrealistic images of Iran. But when Iranian English-language writers like Hossein and Pedram connected the Iranian blogosphere to the world, they promoted a realistic image of Iran and showed what an ordinary Iranian thinks.

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Related Links
Daily Summit Weblog: Iran's ICT minister confronted
Daily Summit Weblog: President Mentions Weblogs!
Editor: Myself Weblog
Glaser: Weblogs Unite to Protest Detained Iranian Blogger
How to build a Persian Weblog
I, Hoder Weblog
IranFilter
Me and Mani Weblog
Rooznegar Weblog
Stop Censoring Us Weblog
The Eyeranian Weblog
Webnevesht Weblog
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Sina Motallebi: "They didn't expect the pressure from Webloggers and foreign media in my case."

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