Underground Internet ‘newspapers’ emerge in Iran following media crackdown

The Iranian authorities have continued to tighten its grip on the media, jailing journalists, shutting down reformist newspapers, and filtering websites since June’s disputed presidential poll. As a result, opposition activists have increasingly turned to web-based news publications as a tool to get their message out. MENASSAT spoke with Hamid Tehrani, Iran editor at the international blog community Global Voices, about his research on the phenomenon.
Iran underground internet newspapers
Breaking the barriers of silence - underground newspapers provide alternatives to the state control of media in Iran. How DO they do it?

BEIRUT, July 21, 2009 (MENASSAT) — Since the contested Iranian presidential election, a number of Internet newspapers have sprung up, providing a new communication tool for Iranians in the wake of the recent media clampdowns.

The newspapers have provided readers a rare glimpse into the divergent paths of the Iranian opposition movement – a movement that is not easily classified as somehow championing pro-western values.

At the end of June, two web-based publications began circulating their messages among Iranian readers in cyberspace. The first, Khyaboon, or “street” in Farsi, is available only by email in pdf format whereas the second, Kalam Sabz, Farsi for the ”Green Word," has its own website that readers can download pdf copies of the publication.

Hamid Tehrani, editor of the Iran section at the blog community Global Voices, says the rise of the web-based newspapers symbolizes a new way for the Iranians to get their message out amid the increasing restraints on free speech in the country.

The birth of these kinds of publications, he explains, is a direct response to the repression. “These Internet newspapers is a new phenomenon and has become a way to pass on the message. As the pressure rises, many things tend to go underground. Many journalists and photographers have been arrested lately. It’s like the democratization of repression,” Tehrani told MENASSAT in a phone interview.

The radical “street” and the soft “green word”

Khyaboon and Kalam Sabz share in common their stance against Ahmadenejad and both publications believe it was faulty of Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to break longstanding but informal political protocols by declaring Ahmadinejad winner in the presidential election. Other than those two positions, Tehrani says the two publications remain strongly divided in their content and ideologies. 

As Tehrani himself puts it in a post about the underground news outlets on Global Voices, “By reading Internet newspapers we learn that the Iranian protest movement is as diverse as Iranian society and its blogosphere.”

Khyaboon, according to Tehrani, can be characterized more as a radical-left journal that grew out of the protest movement formed around the disputed election poll. In this publication we find the poems of Said Soltani, a prominent Marxist poet who was executed in the 1980's during the reign of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The paper features staunch criticism of Iran’s main opposition figure, Mir Hussein Mousavi, labeling him as “too soft” with the authorities because of what the paper believes was his inaction in the immediate aftermath of the poll results.

Headlines appearing in Khyaboon such as “While the blood drops from the regime's hands, Mousavi only writes a letter”, “War breaks out in the streets”, and “A campaign to defend imprisoned protesters has begun”, echo Tehrani’s description of the newspaper.

And the fact that the Khyaboon is mailed out to a by an unknown sender via an obscure list serve, gives the paper the “ultimate scent of underground”, adds Tehrani.

Kalam Sabz, or the ”Green Word”, is – yes, you guessed it- a mouthpiece of Mousavi supporters and carries more of a mainstream reformist message to its readers. In this publication, you are less likely to find revolutionary leftist poems but instead the latest statements and opinions expressed by Iran’s reformist leaders.

When Khyaboon features images depicting violent street protests in Teheran, Kalam Sabz will put up a still of Mousavi or a prominent reformist leader on its front page.

Importantly, Tehrani points out, Kalam Sabz tends to not question the Islamic republic in contrast to Khyaboon. On a number of occasions, the latter has featured cartoons directly targeting the Supreme leader of the Islamic republic.

Iran has imposed tough restraints on media workers and has over the past weeks arrested scores of journalists and bloggers. The number of media workers behind bars in Iran has dramatically increased to the extent that the Islamic republic has replaced China as the world’s worst jailer of journalists, according to a recent report issued by press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

With these statistics in mind, shouldn’t the writers and publishers of the underground newspapers be quite worried about their safety?

Tehrani points out that while there is the risk of them being “trapped” or “set up” by the authorities, he believes underground newspapers are still safer to be involved in than having a well-known blog or a website- especially if the person’s real name is mentioned.

Most of the writers in the underground newspapers, however, tend to not reveal their true identities and use pen names which increases their safety, concludes Tehrani.