This is one of the most interesting things about reading blogs over a long period of time. You can watch people’s interests, opinions, and working methods change as they progress. One of the great features of a blog is the ability to go back to the archives and see what an author was saying one, two, sometimes five years ago.
If you were reading Hossein Derakhshan‘s English-language weblog five years ago, you’d find a wealth of posts about Iran’s fear of the blogosphere and online censorship practices. Derakhshan became prominent as an advocate of blogging for social change in Iran, writing a Persian-language guide to blogging, and was being discovered by academics, politicians and activists in North America and Europe as an advocate for free speech in repressive environments.
Fast-forward five years and you’ll be hard pressed to find criticism of Iran on Derakhshan’s weblog… despite the fact that Derakhshan had been a prominent suporter of reformist Mostafa Moeen in the 2005 Iranian presidential elections and a critic of current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Most of Derakhshan’s current writing focuses on threats to Iran from US neoconservatives who have been suggesting the invasion of that country due to percieved threats to Israel, Iraq and the US.
Most recently, Derakhshan’s blog has focused on a defamation lawsuit brought by Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian fellow at a US thinktank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In a Persian-language blog post, Derakhshan criticized Khalaji for his work with a thinktank advised by some of the prominent authors of US policy in Iraq, and accused Khalaji of being “a traitor to his people and his country.” Khalaji responded with letters to Derakhshan’s webhost and domain name provider, demanding removal of the allegedly defamatory posts, and suing him for defamation in an Ontario court. Derakhshan’s ISP quickly caved, and he moved his posts to another server – the Ontario lawsuit is still pending. (My colleagues at the Citizen Media Law Project are maintaining a page tracking the case which has a careful and balanced description of the issues in the case.)
Even if the suit is dismissed, fighting it in Canadian court is likely to be very expensive and beyond Derakhshan’s means. And, as Don Butler noted in a recent article in the Ottawa Citizen, many of his old allies are unlikely to support him in his current fight. Some Iranians who oppose the Ahmedinejad government are put off by Derakhshan’s move from a stance critiquing Iran to one critiquing US foreign policy. Others found his high-profile trip to Israel in 2006 hard to understand. And some – including me – are put off by his critiques of human rights organizations like Reporters Without Borders.
I’m not in a position to argue the veracity of many of the criticisms of Derakhshan by Iranian bloggers – I don’t read Persian, and I don’t have all the facts. And I will happily admit that Derakhshan can be abrasive and difficult, and that I disagree with much of what he’s currently been writing about on his English blog. But that’s not a reason to ignore the legal harrassment he’s facing from Khalaji. One of the major functions of blogs, for better or for worse, is to allow people to express their opinions – positive and negative – about the people and institutions. This function is deeply undermined if it becomes common practice to seek sympathetic venues to launch libel suits when people are offended by how they’re characterized online. (Derakhshan was residing in Europe when the posts in question were posted; his webhost was in the US. It’s possible that the suit is being brought in Canada, where Derakshan previously resided, because it’s a venue more sympathetic to libel claims than the US.)
A few years ago, Derakhshan was widely considered a pioneer for free speech in Iran. While that may not be the best way to describe his current work, it would be a huge loss for free speech online if the suit by Khalaji goes through or if the costs of defending that suit drives Derakhshan offline. Derakhshan may have changed in the past five years, but the issues at stake in this case don’t ever change – freedom of speech applies even to speech we find offensive, and it’s important to defend all speech that’s under threat.