On Derakhshan, blogs, and freedom

The Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, once based in Toronto and arguably the father of Farsi-language blogging, escaped a death sentence, at least. Slim consolation for him.

Ottawa is ratcheting up pressure on the Iranian government to release Hossein Derakhshan, the controversial Iranian-Canadian “blogfather” who was sentenced to 19½ years in prison by a revolutionary court.

“If true, this is completely unacceptable and unjustifiable,” Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon said in a statement.

[. . .]

Mr. Derakhshan, 35, is widely known by his online name “Hoder.” He was born in Iran, but moved to Canada and became a Canadian citizen in early adulthood. He is a staunch advocate of free expression in Iran, and became known as the “blogfather” of Iran’s on-line community for training pro-democracy advocates to blog and podcast in the late nineties. Later, he apologized for his dissenting views, and emerged as an unlikely supporter of the regime, at one point comparing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a modern-day Che Guevara.

So when the Iranian government invited him to travel to Iran in 2008, he accepted, thinking he would help his country reach out to the world, according to friends and family. Upon his arrival, however, another branch of the government arrested him.

On Tuesday, he was convicted of insulting Islamic thought and religious figures, managing obscene websites and co-operating with “enemy states” because he visited Israel five years ago. He was also ordered to pay the equivalent of approximately $45,000 in fines.

PEN Canada is honouring him.

At the annual PEN benefit that kicks off the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Wednesday, a chair will sit empty for Derakhshan, who was sentenced last month to 19 years in an Iranian prison.

The empty chair, which sits on stage during festival readings, is a symbol of the absence of an imprisoned writer and the need to protect freedom of speech around the world.

Iranian blogging has really taken off over the past decade, among other things becoming a vital vehicle for dissidence. During the recent political tumult following the contested election, blogs and social networking services like Twitter helped coordinate the opposition, lending it a particular coherence. It didn’t lead to the overthrow of the Iranian government, true, and it was certainly manipulated and controlled once the government got its act together, but it created something.

In the past, I’ve blogged a bit about how Iran, despite having significant cultural influence on its neighbours through their shared use of Farsi and the similarities of cultural share, is somewhat isolated. Talk of creating a Farsi-language television channel including Afghanistan and Tajikistan has remained talk, stuck by different countries’ demands for different restrictions (or lack thereof). Iran’s blogosphere, decentralized by necessity and (as Derakhshan’s own opinions indicate) ideologically quite diverse, has so far escaped that. Blogs and social networking can’t overthrown governments, but I think–I certainly hope–it can help undermine them, creating new spaces for discourse that may be colonized and exploited in any number of ways. Clearly, Iran’s government knows this.

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