Iran’s Bloggers from Heaven

Dec 12, 20090 comments

Picture 75Several days before the traditional Students Day holiday on December 7 sparked a new wave of opposition in Iran, Fred Petrossians, On-line Editor in Chief for RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, spoke to an audience in the European Parliament about the role of citizen media in the protests that swept the country during the presidential elections last June. “The internet was a vital instrument for the green movement and the opposition in Iran during the June elections,” he said. “Social networking was like a gift from heaven.” Iranians used social networking tools to communicate with each other and to convey reports, photographs and films about the protests to the wider world and build international support. This “citizen media” was so important, Petrossians said, “that the Iranian judiciary named FaceBook, Twitter and even Google’s new Persian-to-English translation software as part of a vast conspiracy against the Islamic regime.” The regime of course retaliated against these “virtual writers,” then and now. They are “easy targets,” according to Petrossians, since most lack any institutional affiliation and, in some cases, experience in confronting the regime. Stressing the enormous risks that accompany the activism, panelist Kamran Ashtary, European coordinator for United4Iran, described the student movement as “active but desparate.” Petrossians told the audience that Iran is the first country to jail a blogger and the home of the first blogger to die in prison. At least six bloggers were counted in Iran’s jails before the December 7 crackdown, and other bloggers have reportedly been arrested in recent days. They and other journalists detained and jailed during the government crackdowns have been tortured, humiliated and vilified in mass show trials. Petrossians launched his March 18 Movement this year to raise awareness about persecuted bloggers around the world. Petrossians spoke of the Revolutionary Guards’ use of the internet to suppress dissent, describing the practice of “crowd sourcing,” whereby photographs of “offenders” and “spies” are posted on websites and users are exhorted to volunteer information about them. Ashtary acknowledged such tactics and said that the government is becoming increasingly “preemptive” in its response to challenges. Indeed, in the days leading up to this week’s protests, internet connections in Iran slowed down and mobile-phone networks experienced problems. Suggesting ways that the EU can support activists in Iran, the panelists pressed the audience to talk about arrests in the media, in public forums and directly with Iranian diplomats. “I have a friend who was in jail,” Petrossians said, ”who told me that when his interrogators found out that his name had been mentioned in the international press, they treated him differently – less brutally.” Such recognition also gives the victims enormous moral support. In addition, the EU should prevent sales of “tools of repression” – electronic filtering technology – to Iran; consider sanctions on Iranian officials; facilitate asylum procedures for Iranians at risk; and expand its contacts in Iran to include activists, not only officials. The panelists concluded with a call for greater support for protest events. “The Iranian opposition needs more media channels, more coverage,” Petrossians said. The panel was organized by the European Foundation for Democracy and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in cooperation with Boguslaw Sonik, a Member of the European Parliament and delegate to its Iran Caucus. Ladan Boroumand, Research Director for the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation and 2009 recipient of the Lech Walesa Award, also joined the panel.