Unlock Iran is a new innovative visual storytelling platform featuring the stories of Iranian “prisoners of conscience,” or individuals who are detained for political, religious or other personal beliefs deemed a threat by the Iranian government. I connected with Gissou Nia via email about the project. Gissou is the Executive Director of The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), the organization behind Unlock Iran.

The featured prisoners of Unlock Iran
The featured prisoners of Unlock Iran

Sarah: Why did you decide that an interactive website would be the best format for your information?

Gissou: Our team at the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center decided we wanted to make a radical departure from the way we normally present information.  The Center has been around for more than a decade and in that time we have provided countless pages of documentation for UN bodies, asylum/refugee cases and government agencies.  While the reports, witness statements and legal commentaries we publish are useful in providing factual information on the current state of human rights in Iran, these formats are text heavy and don’t reach mass audiences.

We wanted to create a unique interactive experience that would take the user on a visual journey into the lives of Iranian “prisoners of rights.”  Rather than having a new user wade through 50-100 pages of text loaded with legal analysis and factual case studies, we wanted them to “live” the experience through a series of visual vignettes that provoke an immediate and intimate connection with the subject matter.

A post from one of the featured prisoner's timelines.
A post from one of the featured prisoner’s timelines.

S: What are the goals of the campaign? 

G: The campaign has two primary goals. The micro goal is to raise awareness about these “prisoners of rights” in Iran in the world of online advocacy. The macro goal is to elevate the discussion of human rights during the current period of renewed engagement between the new Iranian government and the international community. The new administration of President Hassan Rouhani has demonstrated a commitment to resolving the nuclear issue and improving Iran’s external image.

However, during his campaign President Rouhani made promises to improve the status of human rights in Iran, a commitment yet to be fulfilled eight months into his presidency. Unlock Iran hopes to sustain the focus on human rights and not allow our agenda to be pushed into the periphery.

S: Who is your target audience?

G: We are targeting individuals from all over the globe who are engaged, digitally-savvy, are ready to take action online. Citizens working for change and transparency are increasingly connected and innovative in their work—whether you have a blogger reporting on the use of chemical weapons in Syria from his home in the UK, or a French street artist working to raise the alarm on drone strikes in Pakistan.  There is an united emerging voice from a community of people that care about rights violations all over the world.  While increased rights for the Iranian people are first and foremost a demand from the Iranian people, Unlock Iran is creating a space for the global community to also play a positive and complementary role in bringing change about through this awareness-building platform.

S: How are you using social media as a tool in this campaign?

G: We have woven opportunities to engage on social media throughout the site. For example, after you navigate through each prisoner’s story on the Unlock Iran site, you can take action by directly tweeting at country representatives and other global decision makers with the #UnlockIran hashtag.  In the data portion of the site, we also keep a running updated list of the names and statistics on “prisoners of rights” currently incarcerated in Iran that can be tweeted out. In addition, Unlock Iran has its own social channels, including Facebook (we just hit 35,000 followers), Twitter and Instagram (@unlockIran), that we keep updated with infographics and “socialbites” that convey statistics about prisoners, prisons and other human rights issues in Iran.


S: One of the actions that you encourage people to take is to tweet at powerful global figures. What do you hope to achieve through this?

G: We wanted to harness that social power to draw attention to human rights issues for these decision makers.  We believe thus far we have been successful as global decision makers are already engaging with the platform via Twitter and have cited it in their messaging strategies on key foreign policy decisions (and sometimes even break news of those decisions on Twitter!). This is something that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.  Tweeting at a national leader is now the modern-day replacement for writing a letter to your congressman.

S: What has been the initial reaction to the project since you launched it in March?

G: The response has been positive and we’ve been really pleased.  Since the platform is aimed at a new target audience for the IHRDC, we weren’t sure if this would reach these individuals effectively, but fortunately we were proved wrong.  In addition, since launch the platform has been featured on Forbes, HuffPostLive, Upworthy, The Daily Beast, Fast Company’s Co.Exist, NPR, BBC World Service, and other mainstream media outlets.  And our online social community continues to grow each day.

A video made by "prisoner of rights," Bahareh Hedayat preceding her detention.
A video made by “prisoner of rights,” Bahareh Hedayat preceding her detention.

When we first started Unlock Iran, we were concerned to see that although there was a lot of talk about resolution of security and economic-related issues with Iran, human rights issues were largely missing from the dialogue, or did not factor as prominently into discussions.  However, since the campaign’s launch, we have been heartened by an increasing focus on human rights issues in the country, including the concerns about human rights that EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton expressed during a visit to Tehran last month, a report from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that calls attention to on-going abuses inside Iran, and a recent European Parliament resolution that mandates that human rights concerns factor into EU-Iran relations.

What’s been really special is that the families, friends and former cell mates of some of the prisoners of rights we profile on the site have gotten in touch to express their gratitude for including their loved ones in the project. Telling the stories of these individuals in a compelling and respectful way is very important to what we are trying to achieve.

S: What’s next for the project?

G: In the next phase of its activities, Unlock Iran will shift focus from the victims and survivors of human rights abuses to exposing the alleged perpetrators of these abuses, and presenting information on these offenders through an easily accessible visual platform. This next phase will likely launch this fall.

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