This story was originally published on May 7, 2008
"My faulty thermometer is running again," was the message on Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad's weblog last Saturday. Any reader following the fate of this troubled young writer would have understood immediately, even without the attached explanation: "Against the wishes of my lovely colleagues at neighboring media," she wrote with irony, "my article was published in Etemad-e Melli today."
Thus ended a nerve-racking period for Alinejad, during which conservatives accused her of insulting the Iranian people and President Ahmadinejad, and she faced allegations of working for "anti-revolutionary elements." Saturday's up-beat message signaled her intention to continue her popular column for the reformist newspaper, despite a report in the conservative media predicting her dismissal.
The controversy began more than two weeks ago when Alinejad's piece "The Song of Dolphins" was published in Etemad-e Melli, a daily financed by former parliament speaker and reformist heavyweight Mehdi Karroubi. In the piece, the petite 31-year old compared the crowds of people that gather around Ahmadinejad during his trademark provincial visits to starved dolphins swarming around the boy that feeds them and performing a "hungry symphony of stretched necks and tears."
The response was immediate and so furious that Karroubi himself published an apology the following day, writing of Alinejad's analogy that some people didn't know "the difference between criticism and insult." Still, the head of parliament's media commission said the apology was not enough, and "she should be dealt with legally."
The same parliament had kicked out the former news agency reporter three years ago after she had disclosed the handsome paychecks of legislators elected on populist platforms. At the time, one representative said in Alinejad's defense that "reporters functioned as the thermometers of society and shouldn't be broken." Another parliamentarian countered that this particular thermometer was "faulty."
Although Iran's reformist press kept silent on Alinejad's travails, many journalists privately criticized Karroubi's apology for compounding the weakness of the reformists. "Perhaps some feared that the paper may be shut down," explained Vahid Pourostad, an editor at Etemad-e Melli."Her column has for the past two years continuously criticized Ahmadinejad's government." Still, he said, "this piece will go down as one of the most memorable pieces in recent Iranian journalism."
"All I was saying in that column is that people are hungry," Alinejad, whose first name is also the popular Iranian term for "Jesus," told TIME. "They may like the president, but the reason they swarm around him is, first and foremost, because they have financial difficulties and want to give him their hand-written requests."
Amid Iran's high inflation, unemployment and rising food prices, Ahmadinejad has developed a reputation for actually responding to people's personal requests. Legend has it, for example, that a young boy in a poor village was given a ribboned bicycle after personally petitioning the president.
Market analyst Mansoor Ehsani, an avid reader of Alinejad, says the reason for the controversy is that she struck a nerve: "With this piece she's basically hit hard at the center of the image they've carefully crafted for Ahmadinejad, namely the image of a populist president that the people love. She's saying it's not him they love; it's his handouts they come for."
Despite having garnered plenty of support in the Iranian blogosphere, Alinejad and her fellow journalists in the reformist media face tough times in stark contrast to the heyday of the reform movement, when its newspapers had circulation numbers of up to 1 million. The despair that followed the reformists' failure, in the face of conservative clerical opposition, to deliver the changes they promised, saw a drastic fall in public interest in a press that substantially censors itself lest it be shut down. Many young and critical minds have simply opted for exile, while those who remain work under great economic and political pressures. Late last year, three journalists below the age of 40 died of heart attacks. That led Alinejad to start a writing competition in memory of one of those journalists, Mehran Ghasemi, who was a close friend.
"The least we can do is to make sure that young and aspiring writers pick up the pens that are dropped by emigrating or passing journalists," she explained last year in London, from where she had launched the online-competition.
The fact that she spent much of 2007 in London studying English prompted a widespread belief that she, too, had emigrated. But she returned, and insists she's committed to being in Iran. "If our house is crumbling," she asks rhetorically, "what should we do? Should we run away?"
Her own answer, is "for each person to stay, pick up a stone, and start rebuilding the house." Still, after the ordeal of the past two weeks, she admits she does sometimes wonder about the wisdom of her choice. Then, she adds quickly and defiantly, "But that's exactly what they want. It's easier for them if people like me leave. But I'm not giving into that. This is my home, too."