Iran: Interview with Omid Memarian, Blogger and Human Rights Activist

Omid Memarian is a journalist and blogger, well known in Iran for his news analysis, regular columns and blogs in English and Persian.

In October 2004 Omid was arrested, along with two dozen other bloggers and journalists, and detained for two months. And in 2005 “Human Rights Watch” honored Omid Memarian’s courage with the esteemedHuman Rights Defender Award.

Omid is a freelance writer for the IPS news agency (Inter Press Service), Roozonline Daily, and BBC Persian. He is frequently invited to participate as a guest on panels dealing with Iran and he has had op-ed pieces published in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Contra Costa Times.Omid was a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2005.

I talked with Omid about different subjects including filtering and the difference between Iranian blogs inside country and abroad.

HT: Please tell us about yourself and your blogs – why do you have several blogs?

OM: I have a Farsi and an English blog. I started blogging in Farsi in 2002 and began the other one in 2003. In my opinion each one has its own function. In my English blog I consider that the readers would perceive my blog as a source. So I care more about check and balance and language. But on the Farsi one sometimes it is very informal and also contains casual topics.

In my English blog I have to explain more about the things that for Farsi speakers are very obvious. For instance when I talk about the “Friday prayer” ceremony, I have to add what the Friday prayer is and how it works and why Muslims do it. However I think sometime there are topics that I can not really talk about. The Farsi language blog is full of social and political considerations, unlike the English. Perhaps that’s a matter of cultural taboos that is combined with the language.

Since, I moved to the United States for study I have found many topics which are hard to cover. For example, last semester when I was studying at UC Berkeley library I heard that, as has been a sort of tradition for many years, naked students will show up after midnight and run through the library. I was there at that time. I took many pictures and also shot a few short videos. Then I made a short clip of that. But just a few hours before posting this piece, I asked some of my friends to tell me how appropriate it was. In my opinion, it was an amazing event, which doesn’t happen very often and literally is a Berkeley tradition. They said “if you put it on you blog, your readers in Iran and also your friends would say that Omid has gone to the US to make sexy videos” which was, of course, completely not the case. But I heeded their advice and I didn’t put it on my blog.

Personal life is another taboo. We are trained under the Islamic Republic to breathe with two different kind of oxygen in private and public life. In general, when I write in English, I feel that I have more freedom.

HT: You as a journalist are involved with different journals such as IPS news agency (Inter Press Service), BBC Persian, Roozonline daily or WashingtonPrism. What is your blog's added value compared to your articles in journals?

OM: In my articles in Farsi or English I should meet the journalistic standard. I have to consider check and balance and coherency of the language I use. I use quotations, accurate background information and whenever I write an Op-Ed piece, I ask some other people’s opinion about it, just to make is more precise and to the point. Also, there are some topics that are appropriate to cover in a long type of writings. Barely have I written something on blog with more than 500 words. Readers also can connect to the writer they know closely through reading my entries in my blog. They find more information about my daily life, my interests and also my pains and happiness. At the time, they know that as a journalist I never ignore the standards or at least I try to keep them in my mind. I write about my profession and my achievements and most of my involvements which for many of readers is interesting.

HT: In your opinion is the content of political blogs written in Iran different from political blogs written by Iranians outside the country?

OM: In Iran we can see how blogging has become a way around limitations, restrictions and lack of freedom of speech. In the United States, for example, we are not facing this issue. In Iran, political bloggers are at risk of prosecution, torture and jail. But in the United States, bloggers don’t feel that by writing about the politics they can change their lives in a terrible way. Blogging in Iran is not recognized as a serious medium by organizations and newspapers. But in this country there are many bloggers who professionally do blogging as a project. They are paid and they are committed to meet a set of standards. And some famous bloggers are also journalists.

In Iran the restrictions in the political atmosphere mean bloggers, like journalists, suffer from self censorship and also many consideration and fear of being prosecuted. Although many of them bravely talk under these circumstances their writing style is sometimes like poetry. Readers should know how to interpret it. When I first started studying journalism at UC Berkeley journalism school it was very hard for me to change my style to be clear, direct, summarized and to the point. Now it has gotten better because of all the classes I took and mostly because I am really passionately keen to write in English and journalism school was the best field to develop my skills in writing.

Compared with the American blogs, many of the Iranian political blogs deal with domestic issues but not global events. The main concerns of the blogs are topics about the internal politics. However it reflects another characteristic of many political journalists who use the local factors in the analysis and comments.

HT: How you see filtering effecting blogs and sites in Iran?

OM: Filtering definitely affects the matter of access to material produced on the web, but it is not clear exactly how effective it is. People who really follow the news and internet fans ultimately find a way to go beyond the filters by proxy servers and the other software. Also they use email as a tool to disseminate information among the blogger community and internet fans in general. In the short term it limits access and makes it a nuisance to get information. But in a long term perspective whatever has been published on internet is easily accessed by different tool and it makes it hard to stop the flow of information – what remains at the end is just wasting time and money by the Islamic Government. In my opinion the Iranian authorities have no idea about the side affects of the Information Society which bring new settlements, arrangement and orders in the world. That’s why governments have to be honest with distribution of information and let their people to speak, not to put filters on their speaking channels. It makes people skeptical about the function of the government and increases the gap between the people and the state, which is already so big in case of Iran. It just wastes money and in term of human costs, put many of the people into danger with no reason. History is the best teacher for governments. There is no government which can resist against the flow of information. Filtering is a very naive and serves no constructive function.

The government has also tried to create a network of its fans in the blog sphere which is really artificial and in fact has not had a big impact among the Farsi readers. However Islamic government officials want to acknowledge the blogging phenomenon, but at the same time they just want to give credit to their fans. The government’s interference in blogging geography has brought more harm than help to bloggers. As many of them have no idea about the whole thing, they always choose the worst way to do it.

HT: Any advice for Blog Bridge projects such as Global Voices?

OM: It is an amazing effort, something very extraordinary. Using people like you to run different parts of this website, who are not biased about these societies, is very vital for the rest of the road. Covering the different range of interests and voices in any society despite our personal views and the accuracy of thoughts needs a certain amount of tolerance and understating. I regularly visit your website and I get a coherent, diverse and at the same time strong information which comes through in a concise way. It is also valuable in terms of the literature which has been produced since the beginning of this project. Now, the wealth of all human beings has been increased by all the issues which have been shared with all the readers who care about others all over the world.


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