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Website Shed Light On Iran Elections Process, Players

Denise Ajiri--June, 2013. Photo by Ahmad Wadiei RFE/FL
Denise Ajiri--June, 2013. Photo by Ahmad Wadiei RFE/FL
What do 16th-century English statesman Sir Thomas More and recently disqualified Iranian presidential candidate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have in common? Their ability to be seen simultaneously as both establishment insiders and maverick reformers, according to Denise Ajiri, web writer for Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Persian-language service, and co-founder of IranElectionWatch, a website dedicated to analysis of the June 14 presidential election in Iran.

The comparison of a contemporary Iranian politician to a famous functionary of the Renaissance era is just one of the ways IranElectionWatch (IEW) renders the nuances of Iranian politics more intelligible for non-Farsi speaking readers. Through blogs, infographics, candidate profiles, election law primers, and statistical analysis of the ten past presidential elections in Iran, IEW makes the intricacies of interests, issues and stakeholders in this year’s election accessible for everyone.

“We hope at least the website can give a better view of the elections to non-Farsi speakers, because it’s very confusing to understand what’s going on there,” said Ajiri, who got the idea for a website focused on the elections while at an online news conference in San Francisco, where she attended a lecture by one of the founders of Homicide Watch, a website that similarly uses original reporting and primary source documents to provide a public service.

Ajiri, who reports on topics censored by Iranian media and contributes to a weekly foreign cultural issues program for Radio Farda, was one of just three journalists under the age of 30 selected by the Online News Association (ONA) for the 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship.

Making sense of the system

The presidential elections in Iran have indeed proven to be a bit of a puzzle this year. In stark contrast to the last election in 2009, which was marked by controversy and the wave of popular uprising unleashed by the Green Movement, this year the regime has decided to take no chances. Only eight of the hundreds of potential replacements for current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who put their hat in the ring for the position were selected by the Guardian Council, the body which vets would-be presidents.

Two popular candidates, Ahmadinejad's close ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a candidate with significant, though lukewarm, opposition backing, were conspicuously absent from the final list. Ajiri and her fellow journalists at IEW explain the power jockeying and legal pretext behind this decision and put it in context, though, as Ajiri explains, this was no easy task, as official sources of information are often unreliable.

“We try to cover the most important issues about the elections, but it can take hours to confirm things,” said Ajiri. “We deal with this even when we’re reporting news in Farsi. We always have to consider, is it credible or not?”

Investigative reporting turns heads

One bit of suspicious information Ajiri came across while researching candidate profiles was a claim on the website of a think tank run by candidate Hassan Rohani that he holds a PhD in law from the prestigious University of Glasgow. When Ajiri checked with the University of Glasgow, however, they said they had never heard of such a person. IEW’s investigation lead to a correction on the think tank’s website stating that Rowhani had graduated from the less well known Glasgow Caledonian University.

The think tank, Iran’s Center for Strategic Research, later contacted Ajiri and demanded she take the story down, which she refused to do, but the impact was clear. Ajiri says Iranian politicians usually don’t notice stories published about them outside of Iran, and especially in English, but this one got their attention.

Ajiri plans to update IEW with the latest information and analysis on the elections with her colleagues until the new Iranian government is formed, at which point she says she’ll look for a new investigative website project.

“This is a small project,” said Ajiri. “But if people can really take this as an example and if they have the people and the budget to do such a thing, I think it is even maybe more helpful than writing something in Persian.”

--Emily Thompson