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Speaking for themselves - the culture of blogging

By Antony Loewenstein - posted Thursday, 28 August 2008

Early last month, some Iranian members of parliament voted to debate a draft bill that aimed to "toughen punishment for disturbing mental security in society" by adding to the list of offences punishable by execution crimes such as "establishing websites and weblogs promoting corruption, prostitution and apostasy".

Nikahang, a Canadian-based Iranian online cartoonist and blogger, was defiant: "Only people who disturb people's mental security could support such a thing."

During a visit to the Islamic Republic in 2007 to research the blogging community, I found this attitude was common. With a population of 70 million, most of them under 30, Iran is home to one of the Middle East's largest online communities, which is thriving despite onerous censorship and risk of imprisonment.


The more than 100,000 active Iranian bloggers, writing mainly in Farsi, include hardline Islamists battling with reformists over religious dress, anti-Semitism, the war in Iraq and dating rituals.

The rise of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it seems, has only emboldened activists of all political persuasions.

I spent a day with the country's former vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a regular blogger. This chubby man, a frequent giggler, chastised me when I asked why it was impossible to criticise Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei publicly, just as Westerners routinely slam elected politicians. "One of the misunderstandings is that you try and compare the institutions of countries, which are not similar to each other," he instructed.

I quickly discovered that in a country such as Iran, the divide between conservative and moderate is far narrower than generally presumed. Iranian reformers are Islamists in less fundamentalist garb and most citizens appear to want an Islamic nation with a modern face.

Across the world, young generations are challenging tired state media by writing online about politics, sex, drugs, relationships, religion, popular culture and especially Angelina Jolie. From Egyptian activists opposed to female circumcision to outspoken, pro-Western women in Cuba, people are being empowered by new technology to create spaces away from the prying eyes of meddling authorities.

The rise of the online community means the relationship between the state and its people is shifting radically. Individuality is emerging in societies that routinely shun such behaviour and repressive regimes are not pleased.


A recent University of Washington report reveals that 64 people have been arrested for blogging since 2003. Iran, China and Egypt are the main offenders.

In the West, blogging has become an essential part of the media, with millions of internet users cataloguing their daily lives. The US-based Co-operative Congressional Election Study has found that although political blogging is popular, only a minority of web users regularly engage with political bloggers. The study's report confirms that readers "tend to visit blogs that share their viewpoint".

The need for alternative sources of information, voices not processed through a Western journalist's filter, became pronounced after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC. I shared the frustration of many with the mainstream media's lack of insight into nations deemed Western enemies or allies.

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The Blogging Revolution by Antony Loewenstein (Melbourne University Press) is published next week. Loewenstein will appear at the Melbourne Writers Festival, as well as at next month's Brisbane Writers Festival. First published in The Weekend Australian on August 23, 2008.

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About the Author

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist, author and blogger. He has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, Haaretz, The Guardian, Washington Post, Znet, Counterpunch and many other publications. He contributed a major chapter in the 2004 best seller, Not Happy, John!. He is author of the best-selling book My Israel Question, released in August 2006 by Melbourne University Publishing and re-published in 2009 in an updated edition. The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. His 2008 book is The Blogging Revolution on the internet in repressive regimes. His website is at and he can be contacted at

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