Washington - For bloggers in Iran, the unpredictability of responses from the authorities makes it impossible to foretell whether they will be targeted in the ongoing government crackdown on alternative media sources. But fear has not stopped Iranians from using the blogosphere to influence their fellow citizens.
Earlier in 2008, Iranian authorities decried the alleged dangers of blogging, text messaging and other popular means of communication. They even threatened to charge some bloggers with heresy, which carries a potential death sentence. (See "'Heretic' Bloggers Risk Execution Under Iran's New Restrictions.")
Many Iranian bloggers, including one who now lives in Canada and spoke to America.gov, have been arrested and served time in prison for circulating their opinions.
"I didn't think they would arrest me, because there were other bloggers who wrote more radically than I did," the blogger said. "There is really no safety in numbers, and they don't always confront everyone. This is a drunk camel that comes and sits in front of one person's house. No one knows whose number this lottery will pick."
The world's mainstream news media took note when the Iranian government began the arrests in the early 2000s, but since the novelty has worn off, major news outlets no longer seem to be paying attention.
"Right now there is a gentleman in the city of Bushehr in southern Iran who is on trial on charges of blogging, for ... saying things like, 'What right does law enforcement have to enter such and such restaurant, or some other place?' However, ... the news about it is not reflected and noticed so much."
Deciding whom to arrest, while erratic, is a calculated decision by the government, the blogger said: "The reason they arrested me was because I was also a journalist in addition to being a blogger, and I was in contact with a vast spectrum of different people. They thought breaking me and destroying me in the public opinion would frighten all the other ones."
Much to his satisfaction, the blogger discovered after release from detention that this was not the case. Many of the people the blogger had encouraged to start blogs or had offered to help set one up had done so on their own during his absence.
BROADENING THE NARRATIVE
The use of blogs, text and Bluetooth messaging, and YouTube has given Iranian dissenters and students the opportunity to reach a wide audience and challenge the country's mainstream news media with a much different narrative.
In countries where the government either controls media content or pressures news outlets to engage in self-censorship, user-generated materials can sometimes become the only source of reliable news. Even in places with greater freedom of expression, these alternative media sources allow ordinary citizens to participate in news coverage rather than merely be news consumers.
For example, by circulating an online video of the attempted rape of a female student by a Hezbollahi (religious or cultural police) deputy at Zanjan University in July, students were able to demand justice in a case in which it otherwise would have been elusive. The deputy in question was the head of the university's disciplinary committee.
The video sparked a one-week sit-in by 3,000 students. "They did not arrest him earlier, and they wanted to cover up the incident. This [sit-in] finally led to his arrest, even though they also arrested that girl, but she was detained for only three days and then released," the blogger said.
The video "was seen throughout Iran ... because now the majority of the people in society have mobile [phones] in Iran. ... It was spread around and everyone became aware of the issue," the blogger said, "and [the widespread circulation] caused other Iranian university students to threaten their own strike if justice was not served." The Hezbollahi deputy remains under arrest.
In another example, government minister Abbas Palizdar, a longtime supporter of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told a group of the paramilitary Basij and Hezbollahis that Ahmadinejad was not a corrupt official - unlike many others in power.
When a blog circulated a video and transcript of the speech, it caused a sensation now known in Iran as "the Palizdar Affair."
Palizdar's remarks "embarrassed all of these senior clerics [by implying] they were all involved in financial corruption," the blogger said. In the 24 hours after the information was posted to the blog, daily visitors jumped from 100 to 25,000.
"This caused, first, a rift in the regime itself, and they arrested 13 people on charges that they had taken confidential documents out of the inspector general's office." Other officials were dismissed and some could still face arrest, the blogger said.
"If the Internet was not there, if YouTube did not exist, if there were no Web logs, this would not have happened."
STRATEGIES TO PROTECT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The blogger advises those still in Iran to write anonymously and to use filter breakers or nets that can change IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, information that can be used to trace bloggers' locations.
Another tactic to minimize detection is creating an internal blogging network in systems such as BlogSpot for a group of people who can read each other's blogs while blocking everyone else.
"It can go up to a thousand or two thousand members for different groups and guilds and professions. Individuals, organizations or guilds that have similar opinions and ideologies can use these systems," the blogger said.
The blogger expressed concern that "many people are not aware of ... how one can write anonymously, how to go around the IP issue, how to go around filtering."
But one place for beginners to start learning is through organizations like Reporters Without Borders. (See the blog entry "The handbook oppressive regimes don't want you to read.")
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