Iran's Blogging Boom Defies Media Control

Blogs have turned into part salon, part therapist's couch for the vast pool of educated, young, and computer-savvy Iranians.
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - Take one exasperated Iranian woman. Add a computer. Hook it up to the Internet.

"And you have a voice in a country where it's very hard to be heard," said Lady Sun, the online identity of one of the first Iranian women to start a blog--a freeform mix of news items, commentaries and whatever else comes to mind.

Initially created to defy the nation's tight control on media, these Web journals have turned into a cyber-sanctuary--part salon, part therapist's couch--for the vast pool of educated, young and computer-savvy Iranians.

As Friday's parliamentary elections approach, however, there's a distinct tone of worry that conservatives expected to regain control of parliament would step up pressure to censor the Internet.

"It will be the end of the blog era in Iran," said a Tehran-based blogger who operates, the name indicative of her love of Western music.

But thus far, the Internet has managed to avoid the hard-liners' choke hold on media, which has silenced dozens of pro-reform newspapers and publications since the late 1990s.

Thousands of Iranian blogs have cropped up since late 2001 when an Iranian emigre in Canada devised an easy way to use the free blogging service in Farsi. Though several English blogs outside Iran are read by Iranians, the most popular ones are in Farsi and operated inside the country.

Blogs offer a panorama of what's whispered in public and parleyed in private. People vent, flirt and tell jokes. They skewer the ruling clerics with satire and doctored photos--such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei donning a Western business suit instead of his usual turban and robes.

The anonymity of E-mail addresses and use of pseudonyms strip away any timidity.

The masks, however, stay on offline, and like many other bloggers interviewed, Lady Sun spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bloggers can get quite feisty, as one commented in Farsi on the ruling clerics: "It's very pleasant to have to talk with 18th century people in 2004."

Even the Iranian vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, has a blog, though hardly anti-establishment--it's mostly to gauge the sentiments of Iranians.

"Ordinary people read his thoughts and give him feedback--directly through E-mail," said Hossein Derakhshan, the Toronto-based blogger who devised the seminal guidelines for Farsi characters. "This is very rare for an Iranian politician."

Iranians are not alone in embracing blogs. A blogger in Iraq gained a worldwide following last year with his reports on life on the eve of war. In the United States, information and political junkies exchange items not easily found in mainstream media.

"You're basically avoiding the filter whether it's a nefarious government or an ignorant editor," said Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of new media at Columbia University in New York.

Bloggers in Iran have sidestepped censorship efforts, in part, by running sites through multiple servers and using foreign-based blogs as portals to Iranian ones whose locations may keep changing.

But more importantly, officials have not countered with their ultimate weapon: bringing all servers under government control.

Plans to outlaw privately run Internet service providers were announced last year but were never followed through. Some suspect officials feared too much public outrage. But a new parliament could change the dynamics.

"We have suffered under unjust press laws," said Issa Sahakhiz, member of the Iranian branch of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "We are afraid (of) more to come with this new parliament."

In a country full of paradox, the Internet has been one of the biggest.

Authorities allowed it to expand in the 1990s without any serious controls--even as they hunted for illegal satellite television dishes and Western movie videos. The huge online appetite has been fed by thousands of Internet cafes, low-cost computers from East Asia and a rush of entrepreneurs offering Internet accounts.

Other tightly run nations--such as Saudi Arabia and China--keep reins on the Internet. In Iran, almost anything is a click away. Beside blogging, Iranians spend time in chat rooms, download music, read poetry, visit any of the countless Farsi news sites or even surf the erotic offerings.

At its present course, Internet usage in Iran is expected to grow sevenfold to 15 million users by 2006, according to studies cited by the Middle East Economic Digest. More than half of Iran's 65 million are under 25 years old and hungry for the Web.

Pedram Moallemian, an Iranian who runs the English-language from San Diego, reaches many of those Iranians with observations on everything from the Iranian elections to U.S. news programs.

"The blog in Iran is truly an amazing phenomenon," Moallemian said. "It shows that Iranians are saying, 'Look, we're part of the world as well.'"