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Talking to Golnaz Esfandiari, English-Language Journalism's ‘Bridge’ to Iran

Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to us about her experiences reporting Iran. Photo was taken at the Sixt Al Jazeera Forum in March, 2011. Used with permission from Golnaz.

Golnaz Esfandiari at the Sixth Al Jazeera Forum in March, 2011. Photo used with her permission.

Based in Washington, DC, Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and one of the few journalists based outside of Iran writing in English about the nuances and intricacies of Iranian society and politics. If you're an Iran watcher, you're probably already following Golnaz on Twitter. You might also know her blog, Persian Letters, one of the few English-language, Persian-speaker-led news sources on Iran. Having worked at RFE/RL’s Persian service as well as for the English-language newsroom, Golnaz thinks of herself a “bridge” between the two offices.

Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman has defined “bridge figures” as people who are passionate about explaining their home cultures to people from other societies. As Golnaz's work is very much in the spirit of the Global Voices ethos, we spoke to her about her unique role as a bridge between Iran and the English-speaking world.

Global Voices: In terms of digital journalism, you are among the more visible figures. Your Twitter account has been ranked one of the top 10 accounts to follow on Iran by The Guardian. Your blog Persian Letters has been a finalist for the Online Journalism Award. Can you tell me a bit about your experience in this new media landscape?

Golnaz Esfandiari: Social media has allowed me to access unique information about Iran and Iranians. It allows me to access a wider audience and bring more voices in my reports. Social networking sites and applications have made it a lot easier for me to reach people on the ground, to speak to my sources. I’ve also acquired new sources and have been able to get a better understanding of, for example, hardliners who are usually not open to an interview with us. I’ve managed to break a few stories over the years only by reading and verifying information on blogs and content on social media carefully.

GV: You were one of the first people to criticise the notion of a “Twitter Revolution” in 2009, when many were citing Twitter as the tool for mobilizing and bringing protesters together in opposition to the fraudulent election results. You explained in one article that you “shattered [your friends’] dream of a “Twitter Revolution” when you pointed out that most users covering the protest were in fact outside of the country. Looking back, six years later, what do you think the role of social media is in Iran?

GE: I think the use of social media in Iran and its significance is increasing. Government officials admit that and I also see more people inside the country using social media sites and apps. I actually think that since 2009, the use of social media has increased considerably. Some Iranians told me they joined Twitter after reading about the allegations about a “Twitter Revolution” in Iran. Social networking sites have facilitated conversation and the sharing of content that is banned or considered sensitive, people can discuss taboo subjects relatively openly. They also challenge state policies and stances on social media quite regularly.

The latest case is when a state media ban on former President Mohammad Khatami was announced publicly, many started sharing his images on social media. Or I still see people sharing their concern over the house arrest of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi on social media, four years after they were put under arrest and their ties with the outside world  cut. There are many such examples. As you know, there are few platforms where Iranians can express themselves freely. Social media allows for relatively free discussions and exchanges of views for people inside the country. It has also created more ties between Iranians inside and outside the country.

But it’s not all good. Social media facilitates the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories, which are quite popular among some segments of the society. And of course the Iranian regime also uses social media extensively for propaganda purposes. There is an increasing number of Iranian officials on social media, and also Iran analysts who comment regularly on the nuclear issue, some of whom have ties to the government and  basically repeat the official line.

GV: You mainly write and report in English, yet you started your career in Persian-language journalism. Is there a reason for this transition? And can you describe if these experiences are at all different (better or worse)?

GE: I’ve been with RFE/RL for more than ten years and over the years I’ve been back and forth between our Persian service and the newsroom where I currently work. I sometimes work as a bridge between the two, trying to incorporate reporting from our Radio Farda colleagues in our coverage for the English website and other services. Working in the newsroom has been very different from my working experience in our Persian service. While I’ve enjoyed my work in both services, I feel I’ve learned more in the newsroom and grown professionally. I’ve had the privilege to work with very professional and experienced journalists who have taught me a lot.

GV: A lot of Persian-language media is run and written in the diaspora for agencies such as RFE/RL and BBC Persian. These agencies report news about Iran in Persian for both audiences inside and outside of Iran, whereas when you write in English, you are covering Iran for mainly Western audiences. Have you noticed a difference in the journalism styles? And is it easy to jump between the two?

GE: Sometimes stories written for Iranian news sites are longer and less focused, information is not delivered concisely. A straight news lede is missing, the sourcing can be weak. There isn’t much storytelling. Regarding my audience, I’ve noticed that I also have readers inside the country, and of course expats, so it’s not really just a Western audience. I haven’t had problem switching, although for a strictly Iranian audience I write a bit differently in terms of the background I give.

GV: Iran is one of those complex countries with many contradictions and layers that are often hard for an outsider to grasp easily. Do you think that with more professional journalists like yourself in the field, Iran is becoming a little bit less of an alien entity in the west?

GE: I certainly hope so, although every now and then there are still misleading reports based on a lack of understanding of Iran and the Iranian people—there are still lots of simplifications, exaggeration, or misperceptions. Knowing the language is key for good reporting; it is important to be able to read the Iranian press—not only Western media reports—and talk to the people in their own language. I think Iranians on social media are also playing a role in explaining to the world that their country is more than a number of nuclear facilities and mean clerics who make controversial statements.

GV: One last question: if you weren’t a journalist reporting on Iran, what would you be doing?

GE: That’s a question I sometimes ask myself…. I would probably be using my degree in psychology and working with refugees from Syria or other countries. Over the years, my respect and admiration for medical workers has increased significantly. So in another life that could have been a career I would have pursued.

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