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From Blog To Telegram, Iranian Citizen Journalist Keeps Challenging Regime

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

Amir started his publishing career lampooning Iranian life.

Amir started his publishing career lampooning Iranian life.

By day, Amir pores over data on nuclear safety at a European research institute in pursuit of his doctorate in neutron imaging.

But by night, he becomes a witty, tech-savvy citizen journalist who floods the Persian-language cyberspace with news and information about his native Iran with "a twist of humor." It keeps him up to speed with the country he loves but dares not return to, Amir says, for fear of arrest over his web activism.

"I try to cover issues that cannot be reported by domestic media" because of censorship efforts by Tehran's clerically dominated postrevolutionary leadership, says the 30-something grad student, who left Iran around seven years ago to study abroad and posts under the pseudonym Mamlekate.

In one recent post to Telegram, the de rigueur messaging app these days for privacy-minded Iranians, Amir shared a poignant window on modern Iran. Contributed by an unnamed contact in Iran, the snapshot shows a group of people trying to push a marked police van across a sandy beach in northern Iran.

"The morality police van came to the beach and arrested a number of people. After getting stuck in the sand, everyone had to come out to push it out. It's the story of Iran," Amir captioned the photo, which has been shared and viewed thousands of times.

Frustrated by a culture that has been subject to "red lines" and other strict checks on public expression since Islamic revolutionaries swept to power in 1979-80, Amir has made it his moonlight mission to seize on memes, images, and other postings on politically sensitive issues that are making the rounds on social media and elsewhere on the Internet.

He does it by exploiting areas that continue to frustrate Iranian officials because they are seemingly beyond their technological reach, despite Tehran's best efforts at "smart filtering" and other methods to block entire swaths of the World Wide Web.

Amir has moved on from a successful "entertainment" blog called So Just What Kind Of Country Is This That We Live In?, which routinely lampooned aspects of official Iranian life, to launch a public channel on the Telegram mobile messaging app that has attracted some 130,000 followers.

20 Million Users

Telegram is among the few social-networking platforms that has not been blocked by Iranian authorities, despite criticism by some hard-liners who have denounced it as a tool used by Iran's enemies.

As a result, it is thought to have become Iran's most popular social-media application, used by some 20 million Iranians, according to an estimate published in a semiofficial Iranian news agency.

Amir's recent posts include tweets and pictures poking fun at the newly launched undercover morality police and calls for the release of a jailed physician who was recently hospitalized for surgery.

Telegram has not been blocked yet by the Iranian authorities.

Telegram has not been blocked yet by the Iranian authorities.

Another mocks the ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan newspaper with a picture of editor Hossein Shariatmadari lying in a hospital bed and speaking by phone with Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of archrival Israel, and assuring him that he's doing well.

"Come over for dinner," Shariatmadari tells Netanyahu.

Iranian activists have ridiculed the two men as de facto allies over their opposition to last year's atomic accord with world powers, under which Iran significantly limited its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

"We call [Shariatmadari] 'Israel's interest section in Iran,'" says Amir.

Amir earned his Internet nickname (Mamlekate) while administrating and contributing to the popular "So Just What Kind Of Country..." collective blog -- Mamlekate Darim, in Persian. That blog won top prize in 2010 in the Farsi category of the Best Of Online Activism awards created by Germany's Deutsche Welle.

The concept was simple: Each post included a short, often funny observation about the paradoxes of life in the Islamic republic, followed by the question: So just what kind of country is this that we're living in?

One post observed, for instance: "I study music at the university. For six terms I have to take a course on Islamic science that says music is haram. So just what kind of country is this that we're living in?"

The blog is no longer active.

On the Telegram channel he launched around six months ago, Amir has reposted pictures from Iran, information, and opinions, while also poking fun at state policies, including the strict Islamic dress, or hijab, that became compulsory following the 1979 revolution and state propaganda surrounding it. Users can view, share, and download the heavily encrypted Telegram content on their cellphones. Official surveys suggest that about half of Iran's 80 million people have smartphones.

"We act as an extra pair of eyes, we try to expose false claims and discriminatory policies and nonsensical statements as best as we can," Amir says.

When an Iranian lawmaker said parliament was "not a place for women" or "donkeys," Amir published the lawmaker's telephone number and asked followers to text the legislator to protest against his comments. He said he received dozens of screenshots of texts his followers had sent to the lawmaker, who eventually apologized for his controversial statement.

Journalist Omid Memarian says Amir's Telegram feed is "a good example of a strong grassroots campaign."

"He creates a public conversation about key subjects while also challenging the state narrative on issues such as elections, forced hijab, or for example Iran's role in Syria," Memarian says.

Amir recently asked followers to express their demands from Iranian President Hassan Rohani. He received dozens of short recorded messages that he shared on his channel, some of which were used by the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights In Iran, which included them in a video that has been viewed more than 300,000 times. In one, a man urges Iranian authorities, "Please end the jamming of satellite channels."

Another asked Rohani -- who has Twitter feeds in both Persian (260,000 followers) and English (477,000 followers) -- whether "it isn't unjust that you can use Twitter but the people who voted for you can't." Twitter is filtered in Iran, although many Iranians access it through antifiltering tools.

When a friend and fellow administrator at "So Just What Kind Of Country..." was arrested years ago, Amir says the blogging colleague later told him he was a main topic of questioning by the interrogators.

Amir says he fears arrest if he returned to Iran, and he stayed away when his father passed away earlier this year.

"I feel I've become the media and also the voice of some [people inside Iran]. They wouldn't let me go," he says.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at EsfandiariG@rferl.org

     

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