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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Coming Home

A week later, Niknejad is settling into her new office at WGBH headquarters in Boston. The walls and shelves are still bare, her scarf is draped over an empty file holder, a cardboard lunch container sits on the desk. Within reach, as usual, are her BlackBerry and laptop.

“It feels great,” she says, leaning back in her chair. “For a long time, I was saving time by not having to commute or comb my hair. But it’s been so nice to come here and be focused, without the interruptions of home life.”

In 2007, Niknejad worked as a freelance associate producer on an Iran documentary that Frontline was producing in London. This past September Frontline began hosting Tehran Bureau and posting its own video documentaries on Iran to the site. While they might collaborate on projects, Niknejad says that Tehran Bureau remains independent and that neither outfit holds editorial sway over the other.

As Niknejad was unpacking at WGBH, the Iranian government was commemorating the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. In the days leading up to it, several protesters from the summer’s presidential election were hanged and others were sentenced to death. Opposition figures, journalists, and human rights workers were summoned for questioning.

“The intimidation seems to have been very effective,” Niknejad says. “Some of it is just random, and that’s when it becomes scary. The Internet slowdown has already started, and people are having trouble logging onto their e-mails.”

Niknejad says she has developed a following inside Iran, with Tehran Bureau pieces being translated and circulated, and sometimes ending up back in her inbox. Many comments on the site are posted by Iranians, and one of the top ten countries logging onto PBS is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Niknejad wants to add more video content to the site and would eventually like to publish pieces in Farsi, too. But there’s only so much she can do. When she recently posted a controversial wartime letter written in 1988 by the late Khomeini, several readers demanded to know why it wasn’t translated into English. When she commented that she lacked the resources, they apologized.

“The expectations are very high,” Niknejad says. “I take it as a compliment that they think Tehran Bureau is this well-funded organization, dripping with money and resources. But right now, it’s just me.”

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