Dateline: Iran

There have been no Western news bureaus in Tehran in a generation, so Kelly Niknejad opened one. Virtually.

by Caleb Daniloff Published Spring 2010
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Kelly Niknejad / Photo: Vernon DoucetteK

elly Golnoush Niknejad is ignoring her BlackBerry. No small task. The message light glows every few minutes. The 43-year-old pulls one of her bare feet up on her parents’ living-room couch in Newton, Massachusetts, a well-to-do suburb of Boston. In the dim light, her face looks pale beneath a mop of thick dark hair. When she finally turns over her device, a half hour later, she has 10 new messages.

“That’s not bad,” says Niknejad ’05JRN, ’06JRN. “Some Google alerts on Iran and Tehran, some people forwarding me things. There’s always something interesting.”

The curtains are drawn; outside, snow is falling. For more than a year, this room, adorned with a few framed black-and-white photos of Italian village scenes and a watercolor landscape, has served as headquarters for Tehran Bureau, the must-click-to news source for everything Iran. Here, you can read the latest posts from native Farsi speakers who report from inside the Islamic Republic of Iran — contacts that Niknejad made while conducting academic research and working as a reporter for the English-language daily The National in the United Arab Emirates.

The Web site, which logged 130,000 hits in January, has drawn the attention of journalists, academics, dissidents, and intelligence analysts. The site’s rapid growth has been dizzying. After little more than a year, Niknejad is moving her news operation out of her parents’ living room and into an office at WGBH, Boston’s PBS member station, where she has formed a partnership with Frontline, the investigative program, which now hosts tehranbureau.com on the PBS server.

“I wasn’t expecting it to get this big, this fast,” Niknejad says of the enterprise. She shuts her Apple laptop and sets it on a nearby chair to let it cool.

Source Material

What set Tehran Bureau apart from the beginning was Niknejad’s pool of sources on the ground, an ever-shifting group of professionals who have included academics, scientists, and journalists. When the site posted a reaction piece from inside Iran to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential win, for example, ABC News and BBC World Service got wind of it and cited it in reports. Ready or not, Tehran Bureau — at the time a blog and barely a week old — was out of the gate, even as its proprietor was still trying to figure out her free blogging software.

Fortunately, Niknejad already had two experienced writers on board. Muhammad Sahimi, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Southern California, agreed to write exclusive pieces for Niknejad. An Iranian immigrant and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, Sahimi has published extensively on Iran’s nuclear program. He recognized that Niknejad had in her sights a nuanced portrait of an often-misunderstood society, and launched a five-part series, among other pieces, on the upcoming Iranian presidential election.

“I wanted to help Kelly create a Web site about Iran in which things are done objectively, rationally, and away from slogans, hollow analysis, and propaganda,” says Sahimi, who also blogs for Antiwar.com. “I wanted to help to give the correct information to people about Iran, good or bad.”

Former Financial Times Tehran correspondent Gareth Smyth started filing reports, too, attracted to Niknejad’s balanced editorial agenda. A veteran Middle East reporter, Smyth was stationed in Iran from 2003 to 2007 and has contributed articles to Tehran Bureau on hard-line political strategy and U.S.-Iran relations. He says journalists covering the Islamic Republic face editorial pressure, and not just from Iranian government censors.

“At the Financial Times, the Middle East editor often made it clear I should not be writing certain things,” says Smyth. “For example, in 2005, the editor was convinced that [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani would win the election, and I, more or less alone of the Western media in Tehran, was analyzing the situation in a different way.” The editor often told Smyth that he was seen as being “pro-conservative” because he spent as much time talking to hard-liners as he did to reformists. “Too often,” he says, “there is a line imposed from London or Washington, and this is why so much Iran reporting has been inaccurate and misleading.”

In Iran, says Niknejad, the hard-line regime rules the information stream, with opposition Web sites waxing and waning. Foreign journalists are subject to minders and censors, and are routinely expelled. The BBC and Voice of America have added television and Web sites to complement their Farsi-service radio broadcasts, but because Tehran Bureau is not opposition press and reaches out to conservatives and reformers alike, Niknejad says the Web site has become known for its impartiality. “We do our job fairly, and that’s probably one reason we’re not being filtered by the government.”

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