Bloggers Give Voice to Iranian Protests; Weblogs and Chatrooms in the UK Are a Haven for Frivolous Chatter and Mindless Talk. but as Ryan Harrison Discovered, They Are Helping to Liberate One of the Most Repressed Nations on Earth

Article excerpt

Byline: Ryan Harrison

This week an Iraqi female blogger grabbed the headlines for being the first blog author to be nominated for a major literary prize.

The 26-year-old university graduate, known only by her pseudonym Riverbend, was longlisted for BBC Four's pounds 30,000 Samuel Jonson award - the world's richest non-fiction award.

The author's recognition in mainstream press is a major leap forward for Middle East webloggers but Iraqis are light years behind their web-savvy neighbours in Iran, where blogging has revolutionised a generation and is now a powerful tool of political activism.

Today, Persian, the language of Iran, is the fourth most frequently used language for keeping online journals - there are more Iranian blogs than Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese and Russian.

And a recent blog census found that there are more than 700,000 blogs written in Persian, compared with about 50 in neighbouring Iraq.

This phenomenon of starting a website and airing your views has developed in the UK as a gateway for meaningless babble. There's nothing secretive or dangerous in the blogs of a nation that enjoys freedom of expression and operates according to democratic principles.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Morality Police roam the streets and stoning is still an accepted punishment for adultery, things are a little different.

Weblogs there offer Iranians, for the first time, the chance to have their private opinions published in a public forum.

To young educated Iranians, the introduction of the Internet and blogs has revolutionised a generation that is constantly battling with Western globalisation and Islamic tradition.

One entry on the blog, python.persianblog.com, provides some clues to answering why blogs have taken hold in Iran.

July 20 2003: "Has everyone noticed the spooky absence of graffiti in our public toilets since the arrival of weblogs? Remember the toilets at university we used to call our 'Freedom Columns'?"

Blogs give young Iranians a free space to express themselves, that they've never experienced before.

During the elections in Iran last June, Hossein Derakhshan, a 31-year old Iranian journalist and weblogger, was interrogated for four hours by government officials at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport.

A self-exiled Iranian, who has lived in Canada since 2000, Hossein was reporting events for his blog.

Authorities familiar with his website stopped Derakhshan at the border and took him in for questioning. He was told that a government-imposed filter on his site would be lifted and he would be allowed free travel to and from Iran if he removed antigovernment entries from his blog and wrote a letter of apology to the government. He wrote the letter and left Iran a few days later.

Derakhshan worked with BBC's Persian service and as a freelance journalist, but considers himself a full-time weblogger. His controversial blog, Editor: Myself, is written in Persian and English, but has been blocked in Iran.

Tales such as Hossein's are not uncommon in a country where the government is struggling to control the final means of social and political expression. As journalist human rights group, Reporters Sans Frontieres, puts it: "In a country where independent press has to fight for survival daily, on-line publications and weblogs are the last media to fall into the authorities' clutches. …