Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Iranian Bloggers Awarded For “Brave” Election Coverage

Iranian bloggers won the 2009 Mohammad Amin Award on Friday, for their efforts to report the country’s disputed presidential election.

“Iranian bloggers redefined the concept of citizen journalism and social networking when they became the only source of news in post-election Iran.” Christopher Pleitgan, Head of Reuters News Agency media business, said in a statement.

Established in 1997, the annual award is named in honor of Mohammad Amin, an African cameraman who was killed in an airline hijacking. The award, which is sponsored by the Thomson Reuters media company, typically honors individuals who work behind the scenes.

Iranian journalist Delbar Tavakoli received the award on behalf of the bloggers “for their commitment, bravery and dedication under harrowing conditions and extraordinary pressures while covering the presidential election.”

Tavakoli, who fled Iran after losing her job, has worked as a journalist for the last 13 years. Prior to the election, she covered women’s issues and tourism for the Sarmayeh and Etemad-e Melli newspapers, and served as editor of the Shahr News Agency.

“I dedicate this prize to the Iranian journalists who worked hard to let the world know what is happening in Iran”, she said in Istanbul, where she accepted the award.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least seven bloggers were among the several dozen journalists arrested and jailed following the election.

“Iran is at the forefront of online repression in the Middle East, combining old-school tactics such as detention and harassment with newer techniques such as online blocking and monitoring,” the New York-based Press Freedom Organization said on 14 October.

Blogging has flourished in the Middle East, driven by the region’s high growth rate in Internet use and the exceedingly restrictive landscape for traditional media.

Tavakoli explained that the Iranian government’s censorship on the press made it hard to work as a journalist there.

“I want to go back to my country … I put down my pen unwillingly for the first time in 13 years,” she told Reuters.

At least 35 journalists have left Iran since the 12 June election, Reporters Without Borders said on Wednesday. “This is the biggest exodus of journalists since the 1979 [Islamic] revolution,” the Paris-based press freedom watchdog said.

“Describing news media as ‘means used in an attempt to overthrow the state’, the regime is ridding itself of undesired witnesses by jailing them or getting them to flee,” it added.
Reporters Without Borders has ranked Iran alongside China as the world’s biggest prison for journalists.

Iranian authorities have barred journalists for international news organizations from reporting on the streets and ordered them to stay in their offices. This report is based on the accounts of witnesses reached in Iran and official statements carried on Iranian media.

Iranian protesters sneak their cell phones onto the streets and hit record, frantically trying to evade being caught or beaten.
The shaky, grainy images are e-mailed to friends. Then they are uploaded to blogs, YouTube or social networking sites, offering the world some of the only firsthand glimpses of tensions following the disputed presidential elections on 12 June.
But the Internet window on Iran's upheaval is being increasingly blacked out in an information crackdown by authorities, who have restricted foreign media from the streets and restricted many Web sites considered sympathetic to opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and his claim that the election was stolen by fraud vote rigging.
It is a political cat-and-mouse game played out in the streets of a country Reporters Without Borders has labeled "the world's biggest media jail."
On Monday, only a few new videos that appeared to be days-old protests trickled onto the Web, along with clips of Sunday's protest outside a mosque in north Tehran. Other postings, including many set to music on sites such as YouTube, showed older photos of violence in Iran's streets
It's an apparent sign that Iranian authorities are increasingly choking off the ability of protesters to post messages and images.

Many Iranians who post messages on Twitter, or upload videos on YouTube, didn't want to be identified or speak with the media. One told The Associated Press in an e-mail he was afraid to e-mail further or talk on the phone, saying he was in a "very dangerous situation”.
Despite the dangers and the clampdowns - the government's ban on reporting on the crisis in country, its shutdown of text messaging, blocking Web sites, the threats of jail and possibly death -- the bloggers strive to stay one step ahead.
"We use land lines and e-mails now that we don't have SMS (text messaging), and while the Internet is now slow, it still works," Iranian blogger Mojtaba Samienejad told the AP.
Samienejad, a 28-year-old human rights activist, is one a small cadre of well-known bloggers willing to speak on record.
Since the elections, the Iranian government has been squeezing Web traffic -- blocking dozens of Web sites and slowing the speed of the Internet so much that many sites, including Gmail and Yahoo, are virtually inaccessible.
The activist Web site announced a fundraising campaign Monday to provide Iranians with speedier access. The group said it hopes to raise $75,000 to "scale up (bandwidth) massively."

Without anti-filtering software and use of Web proxy sites, Iranians can't browse YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and many Farsi-language news sites from inside Iran or abroad. The leadership is also jamming satellite television, which is technically illegal in Iran but is often tolerated, including the BBC’s Persian Service, Voice of America's Farsi channel and Los Angeles-based expatriate channels.Cell phone service is frequently down and text messaging hasn't worked since the protests began.

The country's Revolutionary Guard has vowed to crack down on Iranians who post these images or write messages on blogs and social networking sites.
The threats are an extension of the tight restrictions on journalists working for the foreign media, who have been banned from street reporting and can only conduct phone interviews or cite official sources such as state television. This has made it almost impossible to independently verify any reports about demonstrations and clashes. It is also difficult for news outlets to verify the amateur videos, photos and information posted by people on the Internet.

During widespread clashes between opposition supporters and police and militia, Samienejad, who lives in Tehran, sent out dozens of "Tweets" on Twitter to more than 5,000 followers.

On Monday:"One person was arrested... two people... three people... four people... we are all together!"

"Rumor is always very high in Iran, These days, worse than ever."

And on Sunday: "Streets of Tehran like a Garrison. People are depressed and angry."

Samienejad said he has relied on proxy sites to get around the filtering. He also changed the Web address of his blog after it was filtered.

"They can't control the Internet." said Samienejad, who was released in 2006 from an Iranian prison after being sentenced to nearly three years in jail for insulting the country's Supreme Leader.

About two dozen journalists, including several bloggers, who have been arrested since the election, remain in prison, according to Reporters Without Borders. The crackdown has intensified since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei earlier this month dismissed allegations of widespread voter fraud, and sternly warned Mousavi and his backers to call off demonstrations or risk being held responsible for "bloodshed, violence and rioting."

Saeed Valadbaygi, a 26-year-old Iranian blogger and activist, has uploaded dozens of videos to Facebook pages and blogs, where he keeps a running feed of information about protests and clashes in Iran.

He told the AP that his friend saw Neda Agha Soltan get shot and filmed one of the graphic videos that raced around the world after capturing her bloody death. Valadbaygi said his friend gave him the video and he uploaded it to his Facebook pages, where he has more than 25,000 friends. The video spread instantly over the Internet as others on Facebook, Twitter and bloggers linked it to their sites.

Others are not so daring. Witnesses say they have seen security forces beating people for having cell phones in their hands.

One 28-year-old Iranian, who declined to give his name because of fears for his safety, said he has sent some photos and videos of recent protests to his friends and family outside the country but not to blogs or YouTube.

Samienejad has been offering some tips to Iranians who are posting pictures.

In a recent blog post, he told them to make sure the people in their photos can't be identified so authorities will not pursue them.

"Our ability to pass information to the world is good these days, but what about our plan inside the country?" he asked.

Johnson reporting from Dubai, UAE in July 2009.

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