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Iran: Radio Zamaneh, a “radio for bloggers”

Radio Zamaneh (Persian: رادیو زمانه) is an Amsterdam-based Persian language radio. “Zamaneh” is the Persian literary term for “time”. Radio Zamaneh (RZ) is an independent broadcasting organisation, registered as a non-profit organisation in the Netherlands, with headquarters and a studio in Amsterdam. The coordinator of the radio is the Dutch NGO Press Now. It launched about two years ago and calls itself a ‘radio for bloggers’.

Kamran Ashtary, blogger, photographer and Zamnaeh's director of Communication & Development shares Zamaneh's challenges, hopes, achievements and Iranian citizen media.

RZ has called itself a radio for bloggers. Why such a slogan? How much influence have bloggers had at RZ ?

In Iran many journalists have turned to blogging to communicate since many newspapers are continually harassed and shut down. Most of Radio Zamaneh's contributors were, and still are, bloggers. Our director, Mehdi Jami, started blogging several years before joining Radio Zamaneh.
As Radio Zamaneh has based its media policy on Citizen Journalism, reaching out to bloggers is natural. Since August 2006, when Radio Zamaneh started, we have actively promoted bloggers on our site and in our radio programs. Many were involved in the development of RZ.

Radio Zamaneh in many ways is connected to bloggers and blogging. Just take a look at our extensive blogroll. Radio Zamaneh aims for two-way communication. This is something that blogs are known for. This is why our site is working like a set of blogs. Each regular contributor has their own page/blog and readers can comment on every page.

There are several news sites, outside of Iran, such as Deutsche Welle (DW) Perisan site, covering Iranian blogs. Is there a difference between RZ's approach toward blogging and theirs?

We don't just cover bloggers, we are bloggers and our style is bloggish: friendly, informal, different, personalized, and diverse. Blogging is a part of our daily life. We are talking on blogs and quoting blogs. We see them as a source of information about how people think about politics and social issues. We see Iranian youth culture as a culture promoted by blogs and we are working to make the informality of blogging a trend in media making. Radio Zamaneh is derived from and inspired by blogging. That is very different from just covering blogs by other media outlets.

How have Iranian bloggers reacted to RZ? Collaborating or criticizing?

A search at Technorati, will show you that there are more than 30,000 links to the items we publish on our site.

In addition, Canada-based Iranian blogger, Arash Kamangir‘s Didish Report, which searches Iranian site feeds for links to other sites, consistently shows that we are at the top of the list for receiving links. These show that many bloggers are interested in RZ and referring to us. Many of them work with us in different ways and some are critical too. Bloggers are not ignoring what we publish.

We welcome both collaboration and criticism. In fact, one of our contributors thinks we could use more people poking fun at us.

We invite criticism of Radio Zamaneh and even sponsored a competition with a review of the site as its focus. This competition helped us discover some of our current colleagues. Radio Zamaneh has a solid record of publishing differing opinions.

RZ has a list of bloggers in its first page. Some have criticized RZ for only listing “politically correct” blogs, and not ones that are against the Islamic Republic. How do you answer them?

The Berkman Center at Harvard University reports that more than 60,000 blogs in Iran are continually updated. Obviously, we cannot link to all of them.

Radio Zamaneh does not promote bloggers based on their political views. While we try to remain independent, we link to blogs with strong political points of view, including those that can be seen as *for* or *against* the regime. We read many blogs and do not limit our list to a select group. That said, Radio Zamaneh tries not to link to blogs with strong affiliations to political groups or extremists.

Some news sites are afraid to give more voices to citizen media because they consider them as unreliable sources of information. What do you think?

It's hard to give up control. Fortunately, most of us have been bloggers ourselves, so we see both sides. What we normally get from blogs are views, not news. Any news from blogs must be checked against other sources. Blogs may be a starting point for a news story, but we do not rely on them as a source. At the same time, we try to do training and work with citizen journalists so that they can provide reliable information. In fact, we are currently working on a special training site for citizen journalism which will be for our network and for registered users.

Outside of Iran many Persian sites covering politics, such as DW or Gozarr, have blog sections. Inside Iran very, very few mainstream news sites have such a section. Why the difference?

Inside Iran, they want to have more control over what people read. They just don't have the habit of presenting points of view that they cannot control. To be fair, major Western news sources have been slow to embrace bloggers as well. It's not normal for a news organization to link to competing sources of information.

What has been RZ's most important added value to Iranian media?

RZ has proven that it is possible to present an independent take on Iran and the news. It provides a voice for the unheard, and highlights marginalized groups in Iran: writers, Sunnis, women, bloggers, Armenians, Zoroastrians, and other ethnic and religious minorities. Radio Zamaneh republishes, highlights, and links to articles written on the web by domestic critics of Iranian politics, which are ignored by domestic media in Iran.

In addition we run programming that challenges the taboos of Iranian society such as relationships and sex. Sometimes, the challenge is with the official reading of politics and news; sometimes it is with the dogmatic views held by many inside and outside Iran.

What are the most important challenges?

If we want to stay on top of the game and hold on to our audience, we constantly need to stay in communication with them. You have to have an open communication channel. We need to encourage more reader and listener participation. We need to keep our ears open. We have to stay fresh and be our own harshest critic, and we have to work hard to remain fair and independent.

A lot of people would like us to take sides, whether it's against the government in Iran or for them, but we work hard to remain independent despite whatever personal beliefs we have.

The other major challenge for us is how to survive and make a sustainable media. We believe that for a sustainable civil society in Iran we need sustainable democratic media in and for Iran.

How does RZ deal with filtering?

It's a cat and mouse game. We have to continually find new holes to hide in. We have changed our domain name 5 times! We send our newsletters every day to many people who want to read RZ and have no direct access. But we cannot say that we can evade filtering. Many pages are blocked. Despite that, more than 60% of our readers are from Iran.

Sometimes a piece gets published from provincial or local bloggers. Are there any sharp differences between what Tehran-based bloggers write and provincial ones?
In many ways those who live outside the capital feel isolated and ignored. For many, Iran means Tehran. Tehran is very important, but we do not ignore cities in Kurdistan, Khorasan, Azarbayjan, Khuzistan, Fars, and the rest of the country. We try to see them all and give them voice and confidence and support.

We have a program designed to find good provincial blogs and promote them by quoting from them and talking to them. We always welcome contributions from provincial areas even though we cannot spend as much time covering them as we do major cities.

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