BY ALISON GONDOSCH
Sitting at an outside café with the sun shining, sipping coffee nonchalantly, nobody would suspect that Diana Mojahed, a doctoral student at Columbia University, is any different from her classmates. She had just hustled from the Science and Engineering library and still had a lot of schoolwork to get done that day. What separates Mojahed from the crowd, apart from her academic acumen, is her family’s continual journey and the tenacity of her father to accomplish his dreams.
Mojahed’s paternal family is from Iran. Her grandfather, Muhammad Hussein Mojahed, ran the Bahar Iran, a successful newspaper in Shiraz. The Bahar Iran was founded in 1931 but was shut down in 1979 following the Iranian revolution. Muhammad Mojahed was a journalist for over 55 years and was never affiliated with any political party in Iran according to his son, Mahmoud Mojahed. He valued impartiality in journalism and respected the dedication towards pursuing the truth. “His (Muhammad’s) political philosophy was he wanted to only tell the truth, to be neutral and just to fight for freedom and democracy,” says his son who believes these ideals were reflected in the Bahar Iran.
After the 1979 Iranian revolution, dozens of independent media outlets were shuttered, including the Bahar Iran. When Islamists took power after ousting the shah, any media outlet found criticizing the new regime got shut down. The media environment in Iran remains repressive. According to the Freedom House, an independent organization committed to promoting the expansion of freedom worldwide, certain topics within Iran are harshly enforced through both online and offline censorship. In 2016, several Iranian publications were either closed or suspended along with the imprisonment of eight Iranian journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most of these journalists were charged with propaganda against the state.
According to a report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are at least 649 journalists from around the world who have been forced into exile over the past 15 years, most of whom are unable to return home.
Roozbeh Mirebrahimi worked for over a decade as a reporter and editor in Iran before being arrested and held in solitary confinement in 2004. Following his imprisonment, Mirebrahimi moved to New York in 2006 where he remains today. He began a news website in Farsi, Iran dar Jahan (Iran in the World), shortly before moving to New York. This publication promotes freedom of information by providing Iranians with news from around the world. It remains the only online daily publication that translates uncensored reports about Iran into Farsi. These reports are not edited or changed in any way. They are simply translated.
“The basic mission of this publication was because of that lack of the language and the censorship in Iran, we actually started this publication to fill this gap,” says Mirebrahimi. “The mission of this publication is only translation. We are mostly translating stories about Iran from several different languages such as English, French and Arabic, Our target is Iran, but right now the Iranian diaspora actually is our target too.”
The Iranian government severely limits its citizens’ access to independent reporting. According to the Word Bank, Iran had 28 million web users in 2009, the most in the Middle East. While the Iranian government attempts to block access to the Iran dar Jahan, many users gain access through proxy servers. Mirebrahimi’s site gets approximately 70,000 visitors in a typical month.
Mohammed Mojahed’s vision 40 years ago of maintaining a free and independent newspaper is coming to life on the Internet. His son, Mahmoud Mojahed, has created a website with the hopes of publishing all the Bahar Iran’s archives. Mahmoud Mojahed was born in Shiraz, but immigrated to the US during the revolution. The original plan for him was to return to Iran as a journalist to work for his father’s paper after getting an American education. He obtained a PhD in Political Science from UC-Berkeley. “He thought he could use this time of upheaval to get his education outside the country and come back home but the thing is when these sorts of things start is you don’t know what the outcome is at all,” Diana Mojahed says.
After Mahmoud Mojahed graduated in 1980 with a PhD, not many jobs were available for him in the United States. There was still a stigma associated with Iranians and the hostage crisis was still a fresh memory. He decided to become his own boss. “What he did was open small businesses. He eventually moved to Boston and opened a chain of dry cleaners,” says his daughter.
While he has become a successful small business owner, running three dry cleaning shops at one time with his brother and wife, he was never fully able to break into the world of journalism despite his extensive education and firsthand knowledge of the situation in Iran.
In Farsi, Bahar literally translates to the word spring. While the word in itself can be interpreted quite literally as the spring season, often another level of meaning associated with this word emerges. Spring is also when the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, takes place. Spring can be symbolic of a fresh start. Spring represents a certain level of freedom. This is only personified in the ideals of the newspaper.
Mojahed was never able to fully achieve his dream of taking over his father’s newspaper so the experience of starting this website has been a very cathartic one for him. “I think it’s very good for my dad to be doing this because his whole life he wanted to be a journalist in Iran continuing his dad’s newspaper. That was his dream. But he couldn’t achieve that because he couldn’t go back to Iran.”
Mojahed developed the idea of launching this website in early January, and made it happen by late March. Mojahed has initially focused mostly on cultural pieces and not politics. “At least for the beginning, what I have been trying to do is focus more culturally and more about the art and literature in Iran” he says. While he plans on focusing on politics in due time, he realizes that the government has the ability to filter, or even shut down his website if he doesn’t tread lightly. “The regime is so sensitive to anybody attacking them. They don’t tolerate any insults to the Islamic Regime, ” he says.
What continues to be difficult for journalists in Iran today is the murky and vaguely worded constitutional provisions and laws that remain in place. Article 24 of the Iranian Constitution technically guarantees freedom of the press but states that there cannot be any content considered to be “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”
Consequently, some Iranian media outlets risked being shut down by the government if they publish material that is judged to violate Article 24. According to Radio Free Europe, in 2014, the Daily Aseman, a reformist Iranian news outlet, was shut down, and its editor arrested, after publishing just six issues. A court in Tehran ruled the news outlet had violated Islamic principles and had also insulted religious sanctities. Specifically, the Daily Aseman had described the Islamic law of retribution, generally the principle of an eye for an eye, as inhumane.
Mojahed realizes there are risks to starting his news website. There is the possibility that the current Iranian government will decide to shut it down. Mojahed could then be banned from entering Iran and face the risk of being arrested should he ever attempt to go back.
While there are currently a lot of unknowns associated with the future of the website, Mojahed has become the journalist he always wanted to be after all these years of acting as a small business owner. Despite everything he has gone through to get to this point, he has finally been able to follow in his father’s footsteps, even if it is not the original route he had planned for.
“I always wanted to carry on my father’s legacy and even to go to Iran and continue his newspaper. But that option is closed. I said at least I could create the digital newspaper in this country.”