How to Cover a Paranoid Regime from Your Laptop

The inside story of TehranBureau.com.


I was a student at Columbia Journalism School in 2005 when David Remnick of The New Yorker visited our class one evening. In response to a question about his magazine’s Iran coverage, he unwittingly gave me an idea that led to the launch of TehranBureau.com late last year.

"No one has a bureau in Tehran," he said, explaining why he thought there was a dearth of in-depth reporting from my motherland. "No one has a full-fledged bureau in Iran."

So it was that a classmate and I set out to create one. But the more we looked into it, the more it made sense not to actually be there — not initially anyway, even if we could. To be based in Tehran, even to travel there as a journalist, you have to play politics. Playing politics means you have to constantly censor yourself. You have to be careful what issues you choose to cover and what you say about any subject you do cover because you don’t want to lose your access, or land in jail. You are likely to have to work with a semiofficial minder or show your articles to an agent from the intelligence ministry before it is published. I was once offered access to any official I wanted, if I were willing to submit. I declined.

Nothing new there, of course. But as we saw in the post-election unrest, factions of the same government are fiercely at war. The tension has been palatable for quite some time, but now Iran’s internal political war is being waged in the open.

In setting up Tehran Bureau, it was important to me that we not become an opposition magazine. From the very beginning, we reached out to hard-liners and reformists alike. We sought out accreditation from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Lacking a track record, however, or a budget to print a newspaper or a magazine, we did not fall under its purview.

Stateside, my efforts to raise funds met with resistance all around. Even as Iranian-Americans poured millions and millions of dollars into public relations firms, so-called civic and philanthropic organizations, and more satellite television stations, no one was willing to help us launch an independent news site. So, as the Iranian election drew nearer (a watershed moment for the Islamic Republic, I thought), I took the advice of a family friend who said not to wait around for money. To get started, he suggested I turn to free tools available online. And in November I set up a blog, not to blog, but to publish fully realized stories.

Our blog-style magazine quickly amassed a sophisticated following.

Because we were journalists, not a dissident group set out to topple the Iranian regime, Tehran Bureau gained the trust of many, including those in Iran. Many of them have rushed to my aid, especially in the last few months.

Then, as our virtual bureau covered the fallout of the June 12 presidential election, our Web site was hacked on a massive scale. The government could have just filtered our Web site inside Iran, but because we were getting out the story the government was trying fiercely to suppress, we became a target. So when firsthand accounts from protests, beatings, and chaos continued to pour in, I turned to Twitter to get the word out. It had always struck me as a modern-day telex machine. And so that’s how I used it.

Twitter’s 140-character limit was its charm, and not really all that limiting, as it turned out: I started sending out paragraphs a sentence, and sometimes a half-sentence, at a time. Bloggers and journalists following us on the network stitched these together and began to quote these accounts on their blogs and in their publications. Our audience mushroomed at this point.

As we continued to struggle with our besieged Web site, a company called midPhase swooped in and got us back up and running again. Today, it continues to care for and monitor our servers. Like any other news organization covering Iran, many of our sources in the country have dried up. From the outset, however, the very idea of Tehran Bureau was not to be dependent on a stringer or a super correspondent roaming the Middle East. Because we are a bureau — albeit a virtual one — we pull together.

Our staff of about 20 volunteer reporters and editors, many of whom speak the language or have some familiarity with Iran, are an incredible resource. Speaking Farsi helps expand our ability to gather news, even during an information blackout, because we can tap into a more extensive network and speak with more Iranians, despite not being based in Tehran.

Nothing beats being there. No one disputes that. But the many social networking tools at our disposal help put us in touch with people who are. And because this is our specialization, we have the privilege of working with people and sources we trust.

It’s relatively easy to go anonymous online. From switching to untraceable e-mail addresses to arming oneself with the latest proxies, Iranians were savvy about getting around online monitoring and censorship long before the June 12 election.

Paranoia still runs deep, but those who have stopped writing have more often cited depression than fear as the reason. Covering a story in which we feel so emotionally invested has its downside. Writing in the first person is one way of giving readers a more honest assessment about where the writer stands. And we do that often.

Another difficult aspect of covering the story is the fact that so much of it has gone underground. Even many people in Tehran don’t know what’s going on. And depending on what neighborhood they happen to work or live in, the picture looks different. In the past few weeks, many of us have turned to the domestic Iranian press to piece it all together.

Iranian politics may be opaque and the official press replete with propaganda, but more and more keeps floating to the surface as the new generation of revolutionaries — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies — tries to unseat the old guard, which includes not just the flailing reformists, but conservatives and so-called principalists such as Ali Larijani, the current speaker of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament. The headlines that appear in our press roundups are selected and translated in Tehran, so readers get a sense of what Iranians themselves are reading and paying attention to. We are also putting together a media guide highlighting the figures and organizations behind the publications to help readers put articles and columns in perspective.

Despite the clampdown, interesting exchanges are taking place in the press, and different points of view are being put forward. Working online allows us to be flexible in format, in what we cover, and how we cover it. We can shape ourselves to the story, rather than the other way around.

Kelly Golnoush Niknejad is the founder and editor of Tehran Bureau.