Denise Hassanzade Ajiri: RFE/RL, MJ Bear Fellow


Denise Hassanzade Ajiri, 29, was one of three journalists under-30 selected for the prestigious 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship that is sponsored by the Online News Association (ONA).  Originally from Tehran and born to an open-minded family with an Azeri Muslim father and Assyrian Christian mother, Ajiri felt drawn to the art of journalism and free press.  She now resides in Prague where she works as a Web Writer for Radio Farda, a Persian-language news service operated by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).  With the 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship opportunity, Ajiri hopes to find new ways to encourage other Iranian journalists, in particular, to cover international styles of art, music, film, and performance to encourage a new generation of open-minded, global-thinkers—or, people who will be open to observe events around the world without being judgmental.


Ajiri received her undergraduate degree in Anthropology at Tehran University in Iran and received her graduate degree in Professional Communication and Public Relations at La Salle University in the Czech Republic.  She first fell in love with writing fiction and satire, but then likely realized that the journalism of our generation did not fall far from the fiction and satire tree in some respects.  With that notion, she found a passion for pursuing a career of reporting facts and supporting the notion free press—things not readily supported in Iran.


She’s Setting the Bar High

Last week, I called Ajiri for an interview while she was on her way home from work.  After a few brief minutes of speaking, I could completely picture why she was selected for the 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship: her voice was happy and full of excitement when talking about the goals she was preparing to achieve with her fellowship mentor, Asli Yerdekalmazlar (Executive Producer for MEA (Middle East and Africa) as part of the MSN CEEMEA team in Turkey).  Ajiri was hoping for a digital online news mentor who specializes in cultural issues.  “Iran can be an insular environment, and the society can be close-minded on topics such as art and lifestyles,” explained Ajiri in her application for the fellowship, “In my own journalism, I hope to contribute to making Iran’s cultural life more fertile.”

“Since the Iranian government is an Islamic one,” Ajiri explained, “(art) that uses the female body in a sexual form (is) totally banned in Iran. …  I believe a country’s culture will not be fertile if it is not in contact with other cultures’ (way of doing things).”  Using this type of alternative art as an example, Ajiri points out the necessity of at least exposing people to things that may make them uncomfortable, even if they do not partake in it, so that ignorance cannot be an excuse for judgment.

A particular example she provided is Documenta–an exhibition of modern and contemporary art that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany.  Ajiri noted that Iranian people are not generally aware of these types of cultural events, nor why they are so important to our generation, due to censorship or disinterest in non-Persian art.


She’s All About Media For the People, By the People

Ajiri said, in particular, she would like to work with her MJ Bear Fellowship mentor to explore new ways of creating more engaging online content for specific audiences (Iranian and international), develop a closer relationship with her readers, and how to develop synergies with other news providers to boost Web traffic.

“(Media’s) whole existence depends on the audience.  Therefore, I think keeping (a) connection with (the) audience is necessary,” Ajiri explained about her desire to work with the MJ Bear Fellow mentor on new forms of audience engagement.  However, she noted that Radio Farda is a banned news organization within Iran, so “keeping the connection with our audience within Iran is more difficult.”

Many Iranians still try to access information on non-Iranian government-approved websites, however.  “Iranian media is a very protected media which filters most of the news,” continued Ajiri, but the anti-censorship filters become outdated “almost daily”, so “it is an exhausting process for the audience within Iran.”


She’s Up Against Challenges That Few Truly Understand

By accepting her position at Radio Farda and the MJ Bear Fellowship, Ajiri is bravely taking on a massive challenge that is both career-oriented and very personal.  Iran has been known to harass or threaten Iranian journalists (and their families in Iran) who accept positions within US International Media (USIM).

Looking ahead, Ajiri sees a bright future in journalism—especially as it relates to expanding coverage of lesser-understood topics.  “We have an expression in Persian: ‘you have to gather all the drops to finally have a sea,’” wrote Ajiri in her application for the MJ Bear Fellowship, “this captures what we have journalistically accomplished and what we hope to accomplish in the years ahead.”  She also hopes to be an example to other Iranian journalists.  “News is inseparable part of an Iranian daily life…therefore, I think the need for preparing the news professionally is indeed essential,” Ajiri points out, “This, I think comes from not only following other journalists’ works, but by being in contact with other non-Iranian journalists.”


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Examples of Ajiri’s work (in Farsi):

Iran Intelligence Minister Says They Have Diffused a Cyber Attack (a June 22 piece written about Iranian Intelligence Minister claiming that Iran has defused a cyber attack against Iranian nuclear sites) and Panetta Says No Time To Arm Syrians (another June 22 piece written about Panetta saying that the US is not going to arm the Syrian opposition).  She also produces a cultural podcast, called Podhang, when time at work allows.

More about the MJ Bear Fellowship:

According to ONA, “the MJ Bear Fellowships identify and celebrate young digital journalists, working independently or for a company or organization, who have demonstrated — through professional experimentation, research or other projects — that they deserve support for their efforts and/or vision.”  Ajiri will be provided with a mentor to help her develop her goals into reality, an all-expense-paid trip to the 2012 Online News Association Conference & Awards Banquet (ONA12) in San Francisco (Sept. 20-22), recognition at the conference, and a three year ONA membership.
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(Thank you Denise Hassanzade Ajiri for her contributions to this post.  To contact her:

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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April Deibert

April Deibert

April Deibert is the Multimedia Blogger/Producer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow her on Twitter: @BBGinnovate and @AprilDeibert.

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