From Ashley Kindergan at NorthJersey.com:
From coffee shops in Ridgewood, his home in Wayne and anywhere there is cell service, a 28-year-old Iranian is broadcasting the ongoing uprising in his home country — one of a growing number of people intent on helping share with the world what happens on the streets of Tehran.
Mehdi Saharkhiz — known as "onlymehdi" on his blog, YouTube channel and Twitter feed — has been posting photographs and videos of opposition protests in Iran since the disputed Iranian presidential election last June sent thousands of protesters into the streets and triggered a brutal crackdown by the regime.
"For me, it's about getting the word out there," Saharkhiz said.
Videos and images like the ones Saharkhiz posts have become crucial to scholars, journalists and ordinary people who want to know what's going on inside an increasingly closed-off Iran.
"I think it's been critical, and we've seen what may in fact be a real birth of citizen journalism," said Gary Sick, an Iran scholar and adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. "The coverage basically after the initial demonstrations in June has been extremely sparse except for the things that people are sending out."
Indeed, much of the post-election media coverage has centered around Iran's military ambitions and the possibility of imposing more sanctions on the country. Just a few days ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned that Iran's armed forces were becoming increasingly important in the country's decision-making. And a recent report by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency accused Iranian leaders of having worked to produce a nuclear warhead.
But the story of the opposition movement continues, recorded and shared by an online community.
For example, on Feb. 11, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was largely successful at keeping demonstrators out of a main square in Tehran when he gave a major speech celebrating the regime's anniversary.
Satellite images available through Google — not television cameras — showed a square that wasn't filled and buses that brought in supporters from outside Tehran. Saharkhiz showed photos of the buses on his site, too.
Sick noted that the Iranian regime has closed down many newspapers, especially those affiliated with the opposition. There are 47 journalists — including Mehdi's father, noted reform writer Isa Saharkhiz — imprisoned in Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Getting information out of the country has also been made difficult by technological roadblocks and fears of government spying. And the fear reaches beyond Iran's borders, with Saharkhiz being careful about identifying his home and other North Jersey Iranians reluctant to even speak about communication with their home country.
The Iranian government recently blocked Gmail, Google's popular e-mail service. The regime has also frequently disrupted Internet service by slowing it to a crawl or shutting off some servers altogether, experts and Iranians here say. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are reportedly monitored by the government to track the opposition.
"They've been trying to effect another blackout where nobody knows what's going on," said Kelly Golnoush Niknejad, a Boston-based Iranian-American journalist who started a Web site, Tehran Bureau, as an independent source of in-depth Iran coverage. "[People] have to be really sophisticated and keep on top of everything to continue to surf the Web and occasionally access a Facebook page or whatever."
Niknejad and Saharkhiz were both reluctant to talk about the specific ways in which their sources got around cyber obstacles in order to communicate. They didn't want to put sources in danger or to risk getting the avenues of communication shut down. But both said that people seem to adjust to each new obstacle.
"Seventy percent of Iran's population is under 35 years of age," Niknejad said. "The young population came of age with the Internet. … They have just had to get more sophisticated."
A 'conduit' to Iran
Mana Mostatabi, an online community organizer with the San Francisco-based United4Iran.org, said Saharkhiz's videos have been critical to spreading information, even as she hears from her own friends and relatives about increasing difficulty accessing Web sites.
"Mehdi has been such a key figure in getting that footage in and out," Mostatabi said. "He's acting as a conduit to people who are just snapping it on their cellphones."
Saharkhiz said he was not interested in Iranian politics before the 2009 elections. But then he saw footage of a crackdown on university students.
"These are just normal students going to school," he said. "They went out and voted … and now they're being massively arrested. That's when I feel it's my duty as an Iranian citizen to get their word out."
Isa Saharkhiz, Mehdi's father, worked as a journalist for many years, bringing his family to the U.S. in 1994 when he headed the New York office of IRNA, the official Iranian news agency. Isa Saharkhiz served as head of domestic publications under former President Mohammad Khatami and later published a monthly reformist newspaper that was shuttered in 2004.
In 2009, Isa Saharkhiz was active in the presidential campaign of opposition candidate Mehdi Karroubi. He was arrested eight days after the election.
Mehdi Saharkhiz, who moved to the U.S. permanently in 2001, said his family suspects that his father was tracked down on his Nokia cellphone.
Hiding Internet use
People are working on solutions to make communication safer.
Austin Heap, executive director of the Censorship Research Center, has monitored the blocks placed on the Internet by the Iranian government. The center is now waiting for a license to distribute a technology called Haystack that would allow users inside Iran to hide their Internet use.
"Haystack does two things: First, it encrypts the data and, second, it coats the data to look like normal traffic," Heap said. "It just removes the middleman's ability to filter."
That would be a boon for Iranian-Americans in North Jersey who track the news. Several people interviewed said they read multiple news sources and keep in close touch with friends and family to hunt out credible information about Iran.
Still, getting information has been more and more difficult.
Mehdi Shahpar, a West Milford resident and president of the New Jersey-based Persian Cultural & Humanitarian Association, said he watches CNN and reads American newspapers, and also checks sites written largely by Iranians, such as Iranian.com. But the best sources are the firsthand ones, he said.
"The best sources of information are those videos that are coming out from individual people that are taken by cellphone cameras and smuggled out," Shahpar said. Friends and family "used to be able to talk more, but recently they're afraid of talking on the phone because of the phone tapping and checking everything."
Shahpar said he had no problem using e-mail when he visited Iran before the elections, but his sister had enormous trouble accessing the Internet on a recent visit.
Nahid Ahkami, a Clifton resident and co-founder of the Persian Cultural & Humanitarian Association, said she reads Tehran Bureau and her husband runs his own Web site that gathers Iranian news.
Ahkami said she believes the opposition movement will ultimately succeed.
"It's going to flourish," Ahkami said. "It's not going to go away. Iranian people are very resilient people and patient people."