Charges against Iranian blogger sully an important global voice

Friday’s op-ed, “Harvard rewards Iranian propagandist,” by Roya Hakakian and Daniel Jafari, accusing Hossein Derakhshan of being an agent of the Iranian regime, was full of disinformation. Some of these accusations against Derakhshan have been circulating for almost 15 years, and I have no doubt that Hakakian and Jafari sincerely believe them. But the facts I know do not support their positions.

I have been friends with Derakhshan since 2004, when I invited him to an international conference for bloggers at Harvard University. He was already famous in Iran, as the “blogfather,” for starting a movement with his Persian-language blogging guide, helping tens of thousands of Iranian blogs, sharing everything from poetry to politics, both reformist and pro-regime. He explained to me that Iranian blogs could serve as bridges between people who move in different circles and cafes, where people with different points of view could connect and debate. Our conference at Harvard gave birth to Global Voices, an online citizen media community.

His trip to Israel to meet with bloggers there led in 2008 to his arrest and imprisonment by the Iranian government upon his return home. This is a critical fact Hakakian and Jafari failed to mention, as it undermines their narrative. Derakhshan survived eight months in solitary confinement, and was pressured to confess to being an Israeli spy. He was ultimately sentenced to 19½ years for “insulting the religion of Islam” and “cooperation with hostile states,” then pardoned and released after serving six years.


It’s ironic that Derakhshan was sentenced to prison based on his online writings, and Hakakian and Jafari propose exiling him from the United States based on similar selective misreadings.

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As Cardinal Richelieu wrote, “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” Hakakian and Jafari had almost a decade of online writing to choose from, and found a handful of quotes — some mistranslated, taken out of context, or with key words omitted — that they’ve sullied Derakhshan with.

Ethan Zuckerman


Center for Civic Media

Massachusetts Institute of Technology