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Diffusing Censorship: Blogging in Iran

By Negar Rachel Treister | July 28, 2006

Internet cafe with Linux-style penguin in Khotan, an oasis city in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. Photo by Colegota, 09/10/2005. Creative Commons (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Spain).

If a word could describe how Iranians feel about their revolution that replaced a repressive shah with a repressive theocracy, it would be disillusionment. But the second word would probably be isolation.

The 1979 Islamic revolution and subsequent takeover of the U.S embassy in Tehran isolated Iran from many countries politically and economically, but government censorship of the press and the arts cut off Iran socially as well. Censorship is a linchpin of post-1979 Iranian politics; journalists are routinely arrested and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is tasked to ensure all music and films conform to the tenets of Shi’a Islam, often rejects creative forms with Western roots. But in recent years, Iranians have been able to use technological advances—from satellite television to the Internet—to join global networks and diffuse the effects of censorship in the region.

For example, Iran had a lively music scene that was stifled by the revolution, but now, it also has a burgeoning music culture that has grown in spite of the Ministry’s regulations. Using the Internet to hear and share new tunes, many young musicians have created a distinctly new Iranian music form—in some cases, putting the words of the 14th century Sufi mystic and philosopher Hafez to a blend of Middle Eastern and Western melodies. The film Sounds of Silence, which was recently featured at the Tribeca Film festival, documents this trend.

For years after the revolution, Iranians were cut off not only from Western television and music—but also from its news reports, an important consideration given the country’s strict press restrictions. But the advent of satellite television—which is ubiquitous in the upper-class homes of North Tehran—has allowed Iranians to have access to global reports on Iran and the rest of the world, in spite of the government restrictions.

While satellites have allowed Iranians to be more connected with foreign cultures, the Internet has allowed Iranians to export their ideas to other countries. This has had the greatest implications for Iran’s vibrant but often-silenced press. Since the revolution, Iran has clamped down on journalists—killing and imprisoning those who don’t write reports that are in line with the government’s conservative hardliners. Even during the reign of the Shah, who ruled Iran before the revolution, journalists were arrested and killed for writing politically scathing reports. As a result, the press was limited in what it could accomplish.

Blogs have changed this. Through their unique format, blogs have given Iranian journalists a new, safer forum to report on the events in the country and to broadcast those views not only to others within the country, but to the rest of the world as well. While Iran’s hardliners have recently tried to clamp down on the blogs—a strong, globally connected blogging community, with readers in Europe and the United States, has already been established.

The importance of blogs is not unique to Iran. Some people believe the South Korean blog OhmyNews was instrumental in determining the 2002 elections there. Even in China, where the press and Internet are tightly regulated, blogs are on the rise. One in particular allows children to blog about unfair practices in their families—leading some analysts to speculate that speaking out against family authority today could lead to protesting government authority in the future.

Related Resources

We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs, by Nasrin Alavi (pseudonym)

Camelia: A Memoir, by Camelia Entekhabifard, Seven Stories Press, 2006
The story of an Iranian journalist and of her imprisonment in Iran for reporting on women’s rights.

Targeting Tehran
Mariah Blake, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, November 2004, Volume 43, Issue 4.

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Read More: Communication, Culture, Democracy, Globalization, Technology, Iran, Middle East

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