Iran: In Praise of Citizen Journalists
Prof. Scott Lucas
23 February 2010
Yesterday a prominent Iran correspondent for an international news agency wrote, as an afterthought on a post about the “Iranian Cyber Army”, “The authorities have become much more organised and effective in their policing of the web recently. Their own way of puncturing some of the hot air that surrounds the so-called ‘Twitter revolution’.”
Once again, a snipe at social media — whether from a lack of information or context, an ill-considered reaction, or the jealousy of a “professional” journalist on guard against those he sees as pretenders — put me in a foul mood. It’s one thing for the Iranian regime to try to snuff out an opposition movement by cutting off its communications, another for a well-respected journalist to assist them by belittling those who are maintain a flow of information in spite of those restrictions and repressions.
But, as I have made this opinion clear, I hit the Delete key and moved on.
Fortunately, I later read Brian Stelter’s article in The New York Times, “Honoring Citizen Journalists”. Stelter picks up the story, noted on EA, of the George Polk Award given to the “anonymous” people who filmed and distributed the images of the death of Neda Agha Soltan.
It’s a useful reminder that the issue is not a “Twitter revolution”. It is how Twitter — and Facebook and YouTube and websites — are used that makes a difference. Without the people in Iran who dared to put out the video of Neda, without the media to make that possible, without those outside Iran who further disseminated the story, a 26-year-old woman may have become “just a death” in the record of events set down by a mainstream media who had effectively been blinded by the authorities in the weeks after the Presidential election.
And it’s not just Neda. Hers is an important story but so are the hundreds, thousands of others that have unfolded in the last eight months. Not only each political manoeuvre but each political prisoner escapes attempted silencing, not only each Ahmadinejad or Khamenei announcement but also each wielding of baton, each slogan, each whisper or shout of fear and hope is heard because, in the words of Mir Hossein Mousavi, each one of us is “the media”.
If that is hot air, long may it circulate.
Anonymity is a privilege in journalism extended to sources and sometimes even to award winners.
Last week, a George Polk Award was given for an image of the violent death of an Iranian woman during protests last year. The man who first uploaded the video is anonymous, as are the man who captured the footage on a camera phone and the doctor who sent the video clip by e-mail with the message “please let the world know.” The uploader learned only last week that he had played a role in one of the highest honors in journalism, by reading an article about it on the Internet.
The 37-second video of the death of the woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, became a symbol of the Iranian opposition movement after the country’s disputed presidential election in June. It was first uploaded to the Internet by a 36-year-old native of Iranwho lives in the Netherlands. After hearing about the award last week, the man said he was proud that the video had “concentrated the world’s attention to Iran and the Iranians, to their protest and their ways for expressing.”
The panel that administers the George Polk Awards, based at Long Island University, said it wanted to acknowledge the role of ordinary citizens in disseminating images and news, especially in times of tumult when professional reporters face restrictions, as they do in Iran. The university said it had never bestowed an award on an anonymous work before.
“It became such an important news element in and of itself,” said John Darnton, the curator of the Polk awards and a former reporter and editor for The New York Times.
The award in a new category, videography, recognizes “the efforts of the people responsible for recording” the death of Ms. Agha-Soltan, who collapsed on the street on June 20, apparently the victim of a sniper.
A chain of people aided in getting the video to the world, illustrating how the Internet erodes many traditional borders. The doctor sent the video clip by e-mail to several acquaintances outside of Iran, hoping they would be able to bypass the country’s Internet filters by uploading it to Web sites like YouTube.
The first person to do so, according to a Web search last June, was the Iranian man in the Netherlands, who requested anonymity to protect friends and family in Iran. The uploader spoke via telephone and e-mail, and provided The New York Times a copy of the doctor’s original e-mail message. That message was sent to five other people, and two of them confirmed that they had also received it.
One of those recipients, a British woman who asked that her name not be published, said she shared the video on Facebook, and watched as friends on the social networking site reposted it. The common theme of the Facebook postings was, “It’s shocking but please watch,” she said.
Steve Grove, head of news and politics for YouTube, said the video of Ms. Agha-Soltan was “pretty instantly fragmented into hundreds of other re-uploads.”
A shorter video clip of Ms. Agha-Soltan’s death was recorded by a second person and later uploaded by a Canadian YouTube user, who in June asked not to be identified and who did not respond to a request for comment last week. Within hours, copies of the two videos were viewed by millions of people.
The man who posted the clip in the Netherlands said the doctor and the man with the camera phone were aware of the world’s reaction. They have not sent any video clips since June.
The uploader is active in the online community that supports the Iranian opposition movement, and 10 days ago, he posted a link on Facebook to a video showing someone in riot gear beating and choking a person who appeared to be a protester.
“This procedure needs time and we have time,” the man said about the opposition movement. “It is fire under the ash. It will flare up and this time is not far away, even if it is not so close.”
He added, “I wish for the outcome to be a regime where there is no violence, where there is freedom of expression and freedom after expression.”
Mr. Grove said hundreds of protest videos from Iran are posted to YouTube each month.
“There’s an element of documentation here — just documenting what takes place. But there’s also an element of communication,” he said. “These videos are almost like moving e-mails, from Iran to other countries.”
Richard Pérez-Peña contributed reporting.