BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Six former hostages from the 1979 siege of the American Embassy in Iran were stunned this week by pictures of the newly-elected president of that country. They had little doubt that President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was one of their former captors. Other hostages weren't so sure, and former leaders of the Iranian Revolution flat out denied it. But the story provided one more surprise in an election that has been full of surprises, not least for Western media. In the weeks leading up to the vote, most of their coverage granted front runner status to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who ran as a moderate reformer, and predicted a second place finish by the more liberal candidate, Mustafa Moin. But Moin came in fifth. Ahmadinejad, the hard line conservative mayor of Tehran, came seemingly out of nowhere to take second place, force a runoff, and ultimately win in a landslide. Now, many observers are reconsidering what they thought they knew, including Nema Milaninia, author of one of the many Iranian blogs that have cropped up in recent years. Nema, welcome to the show.
NEMA MILANINIA: Oh, thank you very much. It's nice to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you describe the story you saw being told in the English language press?
NEMA MILANINIA: Absolutely. I mean actually, one of the reasons I began blogging in the first place is because we thought that the English language coverage of Iran in general was very limited, and all those limiting characteristics, the exclusive focus on nuclear weapons, terrorism and Iraq began to pervade how they were viewing the elections, that is what was the stance of the candidates on these issues. And that, to me, was very ironic, because amongst Iranians, the issues that we are really concerned with are socio-economic issues. You know, social freedoms and economic conditions. And in fact, if you look at what happened in the election itself, those eventually ended up the deciding factors, and also what candidates spent most of their time discussing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It wasn't just the issues, though, that the English language press coverage may have focused wrongly on. It was also the candidates. There was a real focus on Rafsanjani.
NEMA MILANINIA: Exactly. The focus on Hashemi Rafsanjani and, and Mustafa Moin - I mean everyone really thought that those were the two individuals who the battle was going to be between, because one, Mustafa Moin, was a reformist, and obviously a reformist has always dominated in the popular vote; but then Rafsanjani was also interesting, because you know, he was a former president. He was talking about economic reforms, and there seemed to be a lot of grassroots support for Rafsanjani.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why do you think the foreign press was so far off the mark in its predictions?
NEMA MILANINIA: If you look at the way in which the English media covers Iran, they go into Tehran and they interview the key figures, but they don't really go into the countryside to view what kind of reactions there are amongst the average Iranian, particularly the average working class or poor Iranian. One of the major ideals of the revolution was to get the money that Iran was making off of its oil industry directly into the hands of the average Iranian, and that's something that Ahmadinejad was appealing to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how reliant do you think that the foreign journalists were on the Iranian blogs that have cropped up in recent years, yours included? And do you think they were capable of giving the foreign press a broad-based notion of what Iranians felt?
NEMA MILANINIA: What I do know is that the attention bloggers got during this election was significant in the foreign press, so clearly that demonstrates that foreign press was to a certain extent looking at what bloggers were saying, and in fact, if you look at this election alone, they've been very influential in terms of framing the issues. I mean the reformist candidate, Mustafa Moin, met with bloggers; he had his own blog. I mean you had almost every candidate talking about social rights. You had Rafsanjani even saying that he was going to put women back into politics. I mean this is something almost that's unheard of. At the same time, however, because only 10 percent of Iranians use the internet on a daily basis, it still reaches a very limited constituency. It only displays a very limited demographic group. But there's many bloggers who are journalists. That was the only way in which to be able to relay information and not be censored by the Iranian government. So yes, they do represent a very small demographic group, but if you look at statistics, Iranians themselves state that the most reliable source of news now is from the internet, and not from television and not from print.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think the election of Ahmadinejad means for the blogging community there, for freedom of the press in general? Do you expect a crackdown now?
NEMA MILANINIA: You know, no one knows. I mean he came out of nowhere, and so really people didn't have the time to figure out what kind of policies he has. I don't think that he's going to implement any legislation which may restrict our current freedom. What I do think is that, because he is likely to pick conservative and hard liners for cabinet positions, that you'll have a trickle down effect on the bureaucracies, which will ultimately become more repressive to bloggers and the press. And that's interesting, because Hoder kind of said the same thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hoder, the prominent Iranian blogger.
NEMA MILANINIA: Exactly. He said listen, now when I come into the airport, you know, before, I would face a person who would listen to me, maybe for 3 hours we would have a conversation, and then he would let me go. Now, I'm probably going to be faced with someone who's going to ask me one question, and then maybe beat the rest out of me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's take that worst case scenario - what do you think will happen if bloggers who, as you say, have done so much to craft the reformist position in Iran, what happens if they get wiped off the internet?
NEMA MILANINIA: Well, I don't think it's capable of wiping off the internet. Because bloggers for some reason are the most resilient individuals in Iran. But you're right, I think there's a concern that their numbers will dwindle. I mean there is a concern right now that ultimately what is being developed in Iran is an intra-net - that is an internet that is controlled very exclusively inside of Iran and, in fact, China I believe is also developing such a problem, and that through an intra-net, that basically they're capable of censoring out any type of information which they don't want the Iranian public to have access to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nema, thank you very much.
NEMA MILANINIA: Oh, thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nema Milaninia is executive director of the International Students Journal in Tehran and editor of the blog IranianTruth.com. [MUSIC]