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Iran has a thriving blogosphere and a large educated and Internet-savvy class of people. But because it’s a closed society, most journalism training does not address the importance of objectivity and balance in reporting, nor does it stress the importance of online journalism. The BBC World Service Trust has been quietly trying to change that, training 150 journalists in Iran via long distance mentoring, online learning modules and a Persian-language online magazine called ZigZag.

The goal of the program is to provide a safe environment for Iranian journalists and bloggers to learn about journalism ethics and online interactivity as practiced in the Western world. Through private and public forums on ZigZag, the trainees have been able to get help developing stories, while putting their work up for criticism and feedback online. Blogger/journalist Sina Motalebi is the editor of ZigZag, and told me the articles are “soft” features oriented toward a youthful audience. He said there are plenty of other media outlets, such as BBC Persian, that cover political news and views, leaving the entertainment realm more open for exploration.

“[ZigZag] covers a lot of social issues, cultural issues, lifestyle, entertainment,” Motalebi told me. “So far we haven’t dealt with sensitive political issues with a hard news approach…One of our priorities was providing a safe environment for the trainees to put their skills in practice. We tried not to deal directly with political issues. We had a soft news approach to political events, and will do so in the future with the elections coming up in Iran.”

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Sina Motalebi

Motalebi knows first-hand the dangers of writing about sensitive issues in Iran, as he was arrested in 2003 for writing on his personal weblog, jailed for 23 days, and eventually freed after the blogosphere and foreign press brought international attention to his case. He fled the country to the Netherlands, eventually working at BBC Persian in London before taking the job as editor of ZigZag. Now he wants to make sure that the trainees don’t come up against the same troubles he had.

Even though ZigZag doesn’t delve into controversial political issues, the site has been blocked in Iran for unknown reasons. Motalebi says the key to keeping trainees out of trouble with the government has been the distance learning — as long as students can get around the blocked sites. While some of the training has taken place face-to-face in Turkey, most of it has been online through the BBC’s iLearn modules as well as on the ZigZag site.

Earlier this year, three female Iranian journalists were arrested while trying to go to India for a workshop. And in another case in November 2006, 21 Iranian journalists were interrogated by authorities for three hours after returning from a workshop in the Netherlands.

“In some environments like Iran, where it’s hard to have face-to-face training for people, a good solution is to have a virtual newsroom for trainees to practice their skills and combine online learning tools. In a complex and paradoxical situation like Iran — where you have a closed society and at the same time there’s a good Internet infrastructure — if you can shift your structure from a traditional face-to-face workshop to the Net, you can find better access [to students].”

When the training first began in the summer of 2006, the BBC had 1,000 applicants for just 60 training slots. By the end of this year, the program will have 150 graduates, some of whom have gone on to become mentors to new trainees, online moderators of forums and sub-editors for the ZigZag site. Motalebi and the BBC have tried to keep the program under the radar but Iranian bloggers have written about it, making it more visible.

Since the ZigZag site launched in November 2006, it has received more than 800,000 visits and served up 2.4 million page views, according to Motalebi. Of those visitors, 58% were from Iran. Because the goal of the program is to train journalists, and not necessarily create a mainstream publication in Persian, the most important statistic is that 2,500 registered users of ZigZag have posted more than 4,500 comments to the site.

Praise and Problems

Probably the most heartening aspect of the site for Motalebi is the journalism debates that rage on the various forums on ZigZag. The site has a public forum where any registered user — not just trainees — can submit a story for editing and criticism from the audience. Plus, there’s a private forum where trainees get help from BBC mentors or each other. And below every single story that runs on ZigZag after being edited, there are threads for people to discuss the way a story was told. Was it balanced? Was it fair? Were the right sources interviewed and quoted correctly?

“There are multiple discussions under each article, and one thread once had 1,000 visitors,” Motalebi said. “The topic of the thread was about impartiality in the sourcing of the article. Some said yes, and some said no, and they discussed the rules and quoted textbooks. It was a lively discussion. When I saw all those people going to read the thread I realized that maybe our topic is light news and features, but some of [the readers] have become interested in journalism and media discussions also.”

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Sanam Dolatshahi

Sanam Dolatshahi was one of the first female bloggers in Iran, and is now a graduate student in journalism and women’s studies at the University of Florida. Dolatshahi started an online magazine similar to ZigZag in 2002 called Cappuccino, and had Motalebi as a mentor. However, she didn’t have access to the BBC iLearn modules, nor help from the BBC World Service Trust, and after the site was blocked in Iran, the readership died out. Dolatshahi is impressed with the feature writing and research put into the stories at ZigZag, as well as its lively forums.

“The comment section is also like a training workshop where people can discuss the way the story is written,” she said via email. “I’ve seen so many constructive discussions going on in the [forums]. Questions ranging from the choice of words in the headlines to the use of photos take place there. Even the positionality of the reporter is challenged sometimes. The editor and the writers, as well as the audience, share what they think about the stories in the comment section, and I think everybody learns something out of that in the end.”

ZigZag also has a radio component, with a two-hour radio show produced each week by trainees and an experienced BBC producer. But Dolatshahi thinks the site could stretch out into more formats.

“ZigZag could have used more web platforms, such as slideshows, soundslides, audio, or short videos,” she said. “The multimedia section of the site is offered through the main website of the BBC, which I don’t think will help the learners. I hope ZigZag will later provide more chances for the trainees to learn and produce multimedia stories as well.”

Dolatshahi points to Jadid Online as an example of a media site that is training Iranians to do more multimedia work. While she does heap a lot of praise on ZigZag, she doesn’t think it will have a revolutionary effect on Iranian journalism because it’s being blocked in Iran. She’s not sure how many people in Iran can access the site, which could limit its influence. Motalebi doesn’t think the block is having as profound of an effect, telling me that most tech-savvy people in Iran know how to use proxies or caches to view the site and get around the government’s blockade.

Old Habits Die Hard

Despite all the learning and training at ZigZag, it’s often difficult to break the traditional style of journalism education in Iran. Omid Memarian, a fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley and a journalist for the IPS news service, told me ZigZag showed promise but the trainees were still a bit rough around the edges.

“I can see some mild changes in the style and language but still many of the stories which are covered by the magazine have a long way to get to international standards,” Memarian said via email. “However, this [varies] among the contributors — a few are more engaged with the training and a few less. These limitations show themselves when it comes to observation, quotes and providing background information and setting up the message of the piece. Overall this effort is a step forward to produce quality work among Iranian journalists, but [in some cases] the editing process should be taken more seriously.”

Despite the lack of consistent quality, ZigZag still holds potential to help change Iranian journalism, Memarian says.

“I get excited sometimes when I see some interesting sparks and moves toward in-depth and accurate research,” he said. “I think the number of journalists [being trained] is not very important because if it shows a new kind of quality journalism, that will quickly be adopted by the other journalists [in Iran].”

Motalebi is confident the training program will continue to get funding from the Dutch Foreign Ministry, and hopes to launch more sites, including one tentatively called Media Watch. The site would let anyone do media criticism after they complete online journalism training modules and get the OK from mentors who would edit their work. While the site might be initially in Persian, it could eventually become multi-lingual with the help of the internationally focused BBC World Trust. Imagine citizen media critics all over the world writing critiques of news stories coming out of various countries in a variety of languages.

You could also imagine such a site devolving into a mess of polemic and rhetoric. But if ZigZag is any indication, moderated forums and the professional mentor/amateur trainee combination might make for an ideal learning environment. Motalebi says the trainees are now experiencing an autonomy on ZigZag that they’ve never known before. The trainees who have graduated through the program are now making decisions on how to run the site themselves.

“You might find these types of [online] discussions in the English-speaking world, but to have this type of discussion without the traditional hierarchy with a teacher telling you what to do is totally new for Iranians,” said Motalebi. “In less than a year, they now have total control of the classroom. Now the level of participation from their end is very high.”

What do you think about the BBC training Iranian journalists? Do you think the program has a chance to make a difference, or that it will have a tough road with all the challenges of Iran’s closed society and traditional training? Share your thoughts in the comments below.