[R-G] Times Are Hard for Iran's Online Free-speech Pioneer

Yoshie Furuhashi critical.montages at gmail.com
Wed Nov 7 11:49:12 MST 2007


<http://www.canada.com/components/print.aspx?id=83f9c3fd-dd92-4cef-8028-4e458a5721b2>
The Blogfather
Times are hard for Iran's online free-speech pioneer

Don Butler
The Ottawa Citizen

Friday, November 02, 2007

These are trying times for the Blogfather of Iran.

Beset by legal troubles, abandoned by former allies and angered by the
West's hostile characterization of his native land, Hossein Derakhshan
could be forgiven if the topic he is to address in Ottawa today -- the
role of the media in democratic development -- isn't top of mind.

The 32-year-old Iranian Canadian, known as the Blogfather for his role
in kickstarting Iran's blogging revolution, flew in from Britain for a
panel discussion this afternoon sponsored by the International
Development Research Centre.

But Mr. Derakhshan has more pressing matters to attend to while in
Canada. Mehdi Khalaji, a visiting Iranian scholar at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, has just filed a $2-million defamation
suit for critical comments about him on Mr. Derakhshan's
groundbreaking blog, Editor: Myself. So now the Blogfather needs a
lawyer.

"It would cost me so much money to find a lawyer, and so much time,"
Mr. Derakhshan moaned this week from London, where he has just begun
an MA program in media studies. "It's really devastating."

After Mr. Khalaji's lawyers filed notice of libel in August, the
Florida-based firm that was hosting Mr. Derakhshan's blog terminated
his account, forcing him to migrate to a new Internet provider.

That Mr. Derakhshan's blog was shut down by an American company is
more than a little ironic. It is, after all, the same blog that Iran's
regime, so reviled in the West, has been blocking since 2004. (It
still reaches a limited number of Iranians by e-mail or other
roundabout means.)

And because he visited Israel last year in a high-profile effort to
foster better understanding between Israelis and Iranians, Mr.
Derakhshan can no longer return to his homeland without risking
arrest.

But that's how things have been going lately for Mr. Derakhshan, whose
former friends have cut him loose for his outspoken opposition to
western attempts to portray Iran as a threat to global security.

So worried is he about the demonization of Iran that he has ceased all
criticism of his homeland in English. (He still offers critiques, but
only in his Persian blog.) "We should keep our internal problems to
ourselves for a while until the threat is gone," he argues.

This summer, he shut down a website documenting censorship in Iran
because he feared it would add fuel to the anti-Iranian campaign,
though he says he may revive it later, in Persian only.

He has criticized NGOs such as Reporters Without Borders and Human
Rights Watch, saying their campaigns against censorship and human
rights violations in Iran are often counter-productive and serve
American interests more than those of Iranians.

He has even defended Iran's right to possess nuclear weapons for
defensive purposes, and has publicly declared that he will return to
defend his native land if the West attacks.

All this has left him isolated from the community of politically
active expatriate Iranians who formerly supported him. Some bloggers
have removed links to his blog. Others have actively urged readers to
boycott him. Interview requests from western-based Iranian media have
dried up, as have invitations to ex-pat events and panel discussions.

It's quite a change for someone once widely viewed as a free-speech
techno-hero. The darkly handsome Mr. Derakhshan has been
sympathetically profiled in such diverse publications as Wired and the
Israeli newspaper Haaretz. More than 7,700 people have watched his
interview on CBC's The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos on YouTube.

Mr. Derakhshan arrived in Canada in December 2000 with his
Iranian-Canadian wife (the two have since split) keen to experience
the West's vaunted economic and political freedoms.

Within nine months, writing from the kitchen table of his Toronto
apartment, he had started his blog, using the nom-de-blog Hoder, a
contraction of his first and last names.

Mr. Derakhshan, who wrote about the Internet and digital culture for
newspapers in Iran, was attracted to blogging by the freedom it
offered. "I didn't want to be censored by the publishers and editors
in Iran."

At the time, blogging was unknown in Iran. But Mr. Derakhshan soon
sent it into overdrive by writing simple instructions that let
Iranians blog in their own Persian language.

He also promoted new tools and technologies, linked to other blogs and
bugged his journalist friends in Iran "to use this amazing technology
to bypass the local editors and the limiting structure of the Iranian
press."

When he started out, he hoped there would be 100 Iranian bloggers
within a year. Instead, there were thousands. "I was very
pessimistic," he acknowledges.

Today, Iran is one of the world's top blogging nations, with an
estimated 800,000 blogs, though not all are active.

Though some bloggers have been arrested or harassed, the vast majority
are left in peace, Mr. Derakhshan says. Even President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad has a blog.

The regime tolerates blogging, Mr. Derakhshan says, because unlike
technologies such as satellite TV, it is not primarily associated with
secular, anti-government forces.

Most Iranian bloggers are neither secular nor opponents of the regime,
he says. "That's why the government embraced it rather than rejecting
it. They don't see blogs as a destabilizing medium or technology."

Blogging has helped expand Iranian civil society, he believes, at
least among the country's wealthier, more educated urban residents.

"Within this small fraction of the whole population, the effect has
been quite significant, because it has opened up a whole new space for
public debate. It has significantly affected public intellectuals
because it has helped them engage with a different sort of audience in
a much more interactive and lively way."

Though Mr. Derakhshan initially blogged only in Persian, he added an
English blog about a year later, in part to show the world how swiftly
blogging was catching on in Iran.

But even as acclaim for his pioneering work poured in, Mr.
Derakhshan's enthusiasm for his new western home was waning.

As a student in Iran, he says, "I never understood or had any kind of
interest in Marxist theories. As soon as I arrived in Canada, after
maybe six months and maybe three months of working full time in a
company, I realized what he was saying."

As his critiques of western society have become more pointed, he has
been heartened by supportive messages from some non-political ex-pats
that echo his own journey. "They left Iran with the same hopes and
dreams that when they came to Canada or the U.S., everything would be
perfect there," he says. "You would have such a happy life.

"When they see the nuances and realities of things in the West, they
realize it's not like what they were thinking. They start to question
many of these presumptions and presuppositions."

Since emigrating to Canada, Mr. Derakhshan has returned to Iran only
once, during the 2005 elections that chose Mr. Ahmadinejad as
president.

As he was leaving the country, he was detained and interrogated by
officials from the ministry of intelligence about things he had
written in his blog.

Their concerns included disrespectful comments about Iran's supreme
leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, opinions about Iran's nuclear program
that were "out of the government's line," and his irreligious views.
His interrogators were also unhappy with him for helping Iranians
bypass Internet censorship.

Officials ultimately forced him to sign an apology before allowing him to leave.

His trip to Israel in January 2006 appears to have cemented his status
as persona non grata. When he appeared on an Iranian news channel
recently, the producers received a call from Tehran "asking why did
you invite this guy and please do not do it again," he says.

"This is very frustrating to me. They are so paranoid that they can't
distinguish their friends from their enemies.

"The fact that I have been to Israel is just enough for them to rule
out any possibility that I could be genuinely defending my people and
the legitimacy of my government."

While he's a critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad, that doesn't mean he condones
the way he's treated in the West.

"It's really, really unfair and wrong and unethical the way they treat
him. At the end of the day, he's elected by my people and he
represents Iran, for better or for worse."

Mr. Derakhshan's inability to visit his homeland gnaws at him. "I can
never have the experience of talking to ordinary Iranians on the
street," he laments.

He thinks the West is missing a golden opportunity to build bridges to
the Muslim world by isolating and demonizing the Iranian regime, which
he insists is not a threat to others.

If the West removed its existential threat to Iran, he's convinced its
political discourse would broaden. Iran, he says, could be "an amazing
role model for the whole Muslim world to stop being reactionary toward
the West and start some sort of positive interaction."

Iran's Islamic republic is still a very new concept and remains a work
in progress, he says. Given the chance, "the major force that could
democratize the region is a successful Islamic republic rather than an
oppressive, colonizing United States."

A year ago, Mr. Derakhshan was convinced an attack on Iran was likely.
Now, he thinks the risk is minimal, mainly because western nations
have invested so much time and energy in economic sanctions.

Western politicians also realize a military attack would be
"counterproductive by any calculation," he says. "Even the most
ideologically driven ones, like Cheney, have realized that they
wouldn't gain anything from any kind of military clash with Iran at
the moment."

As Iran's Blogfather struggles to gain purchase in a time of trouble,
that, at least, is something to hold on to.

- - -

FAST FACTS

The Event: A roundtable discussion on media and democratic government
features Iranian-Canadian Hossein Derakhshan, known as the Blogfather
for his role in kickstarting Iran's blogging revolution.

The Lawsuit: Mr. Derakhshan needs a lawyer, as he is being sued for $2
million by Iranian scholar Mehdi Khalaji, who accuses Mr. Derakhshan
of defaming him.

The Context: Despite acclaim from human rights groups, and being
unwelcome in Iran thanks to a 2006 trip he made to Israel, Mr.
Derakhshan finds his enthusiasm for the West waning.

- - -

BLOGFATHER BASICS

Bio: Hossein Derakhshan, a.k.a. Hoder. Born in 1975 in Iran to a
religious family. Emigrated to Canada with his former wife in 2000.
Settled in Toronto, where he started a Persian-language blog,
Sardabir:khodam ("Editor: Myself") in 2001. Added an English-language
version in 2002. Dual citizen of Canada and Iran. Now pursuing MA in
media studies at University of London's School of Oriental and African
Studies.

Claim to fame: One of the first people to blog in Farsi, the Persian
language. Credited with sparking the blogging revolution in Iran by
disseminating simple instructions on how to adapt free online tools to
handle Persian characters.

Blogging in Iran: Estimates of the number of blogs range upwards of
800,000, though not all are actively maintained. Relatively few are
political. Blogs about culture, the arts and technology are popular.

Prominent blogger: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Harassment: Iranian regime has blocked Mr. Derakhshan's blog since
2004. During visit to Iran in 2005, was detained, questioned about the
blog's content and forced to sign an apology. Because he visited
Israel in January 2006, can no longer enter Iran.

Shifting views: Has ceased external criticism of Iranian regime
because of concern over western efforts to demonize Iran. Believes
reform debate should continue, but internally. Outspoken opponent of
military action against Iran; supports Iranian nuclear weapons for
defensive purposes.

Legal troubles: Served with $2-million defamation suit by Mehdi
Khalaji, an Iranian fellow at U.S. think-tank, the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, for critical comments posted on his
blog.

Appearance in Ottawa: Hossein Derakhshan will take part in a
roundtable discussion on the media and democratic development from 1
to 3 p.m. today at IDRC's head office, 150 Kent St. Other panellists
are Chilean journalist Alejandra Matus, South African journalist
Mathatha Tsedu and Humaira Habib, who runs a women's community radio
station in Afghanistan. Registration to the event is closed. For
information, call 613-236-6163, ext. 2244.

--
Yoshie
<http://montages.blogspot.com/>




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