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New Media Sites in Iran Blur Lines Between Citizen Journo, Professional Journo, & Activist

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, July 16 2014

A screenshot of the amateur video capturing Neda Agha-Soltan's death. The video won a prestigious Polk award.

In 2010, Newsweek declared Iran the “birthplace of citizen journalism.” Iranian bloggers were hailed by Westerners as “brave” for their coverage of the aftermath of the disputed 2009 election. A 40-second video of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan during an anti-government protest won a prestigious George Polk Award, the first anonymously-produced work to be so honored. And then came the 2013 study “Whither Blogestan,” which sought to explain Iran's shrinking blogosphere. Of nearly 25,000 highly active and connected blogs in 2008 and 2009, only 20 percent were still online in September 2013.

Although Blogestan—the “province of the blogs”—is no longer what it once was, citizen journalism is still being practiced. IranWire, an independent news site launched a little more than a year ago, publishes both professional and citizen journalists. Another new website, Iran Voices, seeks to be both a news source and a kind of reporting mechanism. On these sites, the lines between professional journalist, citizen journalist, and activist are increasingly blurred.

IranWire and the Professional Citizen Journalist

“IranWire was designed and put together to introduce the concept of citizen journalism to young Iranians, many of whom were already practicing but did not realize it had a prescriptive identity,” Azadeh Moaveni, an Iranian-American journalist and the editor of the English version of IranWire, told techPresident.

IranWire publishes material in both English and Persian, although the English site has only a fraction of the articles as the Persian. Natasha Schmidt, the deputy editor of IranWire, says that the English site focuses on Iran and bordering countries, whereas the Persian site publishes both local and international news.

IranWire homepage (Screenshot)

In addition to publishing citizen journalists, IranWire also instructs them in journalistic best practices. Moaveni says they “teach [contributors] things about structure, reporting, rumor versus fact, basic principles. . . and working and reporting more professionally in Persian.”

Many of IranWire's contributors are part of the Iranian diaspora, and so face additional challenges trying to report from abroad.

Maziar Bahari, the founder and editor of IranWire, says he was one of a number of professional Iranian journalists who saw a need for “modern independent professional journalism [in] the Iranian websphere.”

Bahari elaborated:

By independent, I mean irreverent yet respectful journalism that has no allegiance except to the facts. Professional basically means the kind of journalism that adheres to recognized, well-established journalism practices, and relies more on reporting than interpreting the news. And modern means using the newest journalism techniques both in terms of content, such as new ways of story-telling and using statistics, and format such as multimedia, video, graphs, etc.

Although IranWire has well-known, professional contributors in addition to Bahari and Moaveni, including journalist and blogger Omid Memarian and the cartoonist Mana Neyestani, they also seek to elevate the submissions from citizen journalists (or should we say fledgling journalists?) to a comparable level through training and mentorship.

On top of that, Bahari says IranWire also aims “to educate the Iranian public about their rights as citizens and make the people in power accountable for their actions.”

Iran Voices and the Citizen Watchdog

If IranWire emphasizes the journalist part of 'citizen journalism,' then Iran Voices emphasizes the citizen. Built on the Ushahidi crowdmapping platform, anyone can contribute reports.


Iran Voices homepage (Screenshot)

The entire site is in Persian, so techPresident reached out to Iran Voices to get a better idea of what they do.

A representative who wishes to remain anonymous wrote to techPresident:

We have multiple editors, who dig out news from lesser known cities across the country and repost them on Iran Voices. We also get both leads and full reports from citizens. Additionally, we get great feedback on our Facebook page in form of likes, comments and shares.

[The submissions] are either interesting stories that they found about their cities on different websites and newspapers, or their personal observations of what is going on in their neighborhood.

It appears as if there have been 863 reports to date, from every corner of the country. Highlighting and expanding media coverage of parts of Iran other than Tehran is one of the driving ideas of Iran Voices.

“There are millions of topics about Iran which circulate on social media in Farsi on a daily basis, however most of these topics are focused on general policies and capital-related events,” the director told Deutsche Welle [translation by Global Voices.]

“At Iran Voices we believe that issues and events happening in other provinces, cities and villages are no less important than what is going on in Tehran. Therefore our website took a step forward in order to cover these local issues.”

(IranWire also makes local news a priority, and has a section of their site called OstanWire—or ProvinceWire—dedicated to news from all 31 provinces.)

In addition to aggregating local news, Iran Voices also polls citizens about their cities and local government and then shares the reports with city officials and the media. Iran Voices has partnered with IranWire on this project, which has already published the first two reports: on the city of Ahvaz [English] and Mashhad [Persian].

The survey probed citizens' main concerns about their city; asked them to rate different government and public services, like banks and hospitals, and whether they tried to engage city representatives on important issues.

Only 52 people participated, but Iran Voices wrote:

Although the relatively low number of people sampled means the survey cannot fully reflect the public opinion of all people in Ahvaz, it’s important to deliver the information we were able to gather to the relevant authorities. All voices must be heard so that government officials are accountable to all citizens; this survey is a good start.

When IranWire published the Ahvaz report in English five months ago (the survey was conducted in October 2013), the post stated that the two websites would deliver monthly polls from different provinces. This has not come to pass, at least not at that (possibly ambitious) pace.

The representative from Iran Voices wrote techPresident that three more cities are currently in the pipeline.

The Hazards of Citizen Journalism

Although the people behind Iran Voices prefer to remain anonymous for now, their representative writes that the team of journalists and cyber activists will soon “come out of [the] shadows.”

“We want people [to] know with whom they deal,” she explained, “and it makes contact easier.”

Their anonymity is understandable. In 2009 and 2010, at least 50 bloggers were arrested. Once imprisoned, they might endure torture, which has in at least one case led to death. Just this month, eight Facebook page administrators were convicted of plotting against national security, spreading propaganda and insulting officials. Their sentences range from eight to 21 years.

Azadeh Moaveni spoke to the difficulty of producing citizen journalism in that kind of political clime:

To be frank, it's harder to nurture it than we thought it would be, the state is very repressive and young people feel very monitored. I think the climate in Iran today is such that people across the board feel very vulnerable being critical or forthright online—that's been a challenge. . . It takes some time to gain trust, [for them] to see what this online platform is, what this project is.

The face of citizen journalism in Iran has certainly changed from the heyday of Blogestan, when every blog was a unique snowflake. Sites like IranWire and Iran Voices impose some order to the form, and increasing social media use has changed the way posts are shared and ideas are spread.

(Even if social media had a hand in bringing down Blogestan, as the authors of “Whither Blogestan” argue, it helps new citizen media outlets spread stories—IranWire, for example, has more than 76,600 Facebook likes—and makes possible online protests like “My Stealthy Freedom,” where Iranian women posted pictures of themselves to Facebook without the hijab. It was started by an Iranian journalist living in London.

The most recent story to go viral is that of a nursery teacher who force fed a child and was filmed in the act. After seeing the video, which was eventually posted online, the parents sued the nursery. The teacher and boss have since been arrested and the nursery closed. According to Natasha Schmidt, it's all anyone in Iran has talked about for the past few days, and has started some important conversations about education issues.)

Although the West's infatuation with Iranian bloggers and citizen journalists has cooled, their work continues to be influential and illuminating, in some ways more sophisticated (on IranWire) and more politically engaged (on Iran Voices) than ever before.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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