Media

    Last exit: Internet
    The Iranian Opposition, the Media, and the Diaspora

    Young woman chatting online. Internet Café Mogadam, Tajrish Square, Tehran. Photo: Markus Kirchgessner Recently I visited Iranian friends who have lived in a small German town for decades now. When they met me at the station they were wearing black and their faces were serious. They told me that they had participated in religious mourning for a youngster from a family they knew in Iran who had died – a young demonstrator who didn't belong to any political grouping but had gone onto the streets to defend his rights. An Iranian prison had phoned the family to say that this young man had had an accident and they should fetch the corpse. The family was threatened too. If the news were made public the authorities wouldn't allow any public mourning or tombstone – and his relations would face imprisonment.

    Alongside the sadness I felt on hearing this I was overtaken by rage and impotence. I wanted to scream this news from the rooftops, but it was as if my hands had been tied and my mouth gagged. I cannot make known the name of the murdered man, or say anything about his family; no recordings, no photos, no sound: ‘Please don’t – our lives are also at risk’. Nine months after the Iranian presidential elections the picture I give Germans of Iran is more nebulous than it used to be. My ‘informers’, those on the street and those behind desks, are frightened. Many of their blogs have been abandoned, some of their mailboxes closed. Does that mean an end to media euphoria, and the anticipation of democratisation?

    Grandmother watches YouTube

    Retrospectively the flood of images, voices, and reports during those troubled days and weeks after the presidential elections seems all the more astonishing. On the screen of my laptop at home I discover what happened during a July weekend in a street off Tehran’s Bolvar Keshavarz: how many youngsters there shouted ‘Death to the dictator’, and how the Basij militia clubbed them down. I see more than the inhabitants of a parallel street in Tehran may have seen. 

    When my grandmother from Iran visited me last autumn she was curious to watch the ‘internet videos’. She wanted me to show her ‘films’ plucked from the depths of YouTube. She’s astonished, her eyes smile, but then she looks nervously at the screen and murmurs something like: ‘It’s all so familiar. 1979.’  I finally put on a video obscured by white haze and we hear a woman whimpering – the mother of Sohrab Arabi, a murdered demonstrator. When my grandmother experiences the lamentation and anger of a mother at her son’s grave she starts to cry. My grandmother, who for thirty years was a faithful viewer of official television in the Iranian Islamic Republic, has changed her programme. Now she watches the Voice of America’s Persian-language service: ‘because it shows our videos’, thanks be to God and the hidden satellite dish.

    Recording the moment seems to have become a minor Persian obsession. Nowhere else in the Middle East have I seen so many people using their mobile phones and little digital cameras, almost excessively, to film, store, and exchange images of themselves, their friends, everyday occurrences. During my most recent journey through Iran in summer 2008 the people in my film proudly showed me their elaborate portraits and birthday and travel videos on a mobile phone. I got used to seeing them constantly filming the passing landscape from a bus or car and texting stories about these images.

    ‘Disconnecting people’

    Later, when my young women friends from Iran visit me in Germany, they spend hours on my old laptop every night, copying and moving around hundreds of photos of their trip, their Facebook accounts constantly on screen. Every day they update the appearance of their homepage, enjoying the high speed of the German internet. They explain to me how they download hacked software and anti-filter tools, and how persistence results in penetration into forbidden areas. On their Facebook pages I watch the most recent videos on disturbances in Tehran, and they send me chainmails with Iranian political caricatures and satire about the election results. Sometimes I can follow the information trail from my mailbox, watching news travel from Tehran to friends and relations in exile, to California, and then back home again to Shahrestan in the provinces, until it ends up once again in the diaspora. I’m sent caustic cartoons and revealing photos of the ‘vote-robbers’. There’s a poster with a triumphantly smiling Ahmadinejad holding a Nokia mobile phone in his hand, and below that a manipulated slogan reads ‘Disconnecting people’, a reference to the bugging technology for mobile phones supplied to the regime by Nokia-Siemens. Iranian State Television is satirised showing cooking programmes while people are shot on the streets. Another photo presents a religious leader close to Ahmadinejad hypocritically praying in a mosque. There are also shots of a high functionary who loves going shopping in London, while in Tehran he has youngsters beaten.

    My friends tell me: ‘We did so much filming during the demos, on our little cameras, for hours. But we couldn’t bring the pictures; that would have been too dangerous. They might have searched our luggage at the airport. You never know.’ What wouldn’t I give to show their footage here. They ask me how I gathered my information in the first days after the election and where it originated. We compare notes. The day after Neda was murdered I cautiously spoke of ‘thousands of demonstrators’. No, they say, there were hundreds of thousands: ‘We were there, we saw it.’ If only we could have phoned one another that day, but the lines were dead and I couldn’t get through to Tehran. I remember their e-mails were written in green, the colour of the Opposition. They told of fellow students who had been arrested and left prison broken. They wrote with bitter cynicism of alienated young men and women who on return from Evin prison were rejected by their own families because in taking action ‘they had gone too far’.

    Citizen journalism

    As correspondent for ARD [First German Television] in Cairo I discovered how important citizen journalism can be in repressive states. In 2006, when scarcely any correspondents could report directly from Baghdad and the city was just one big death zone, I came across the ‘Alive in Baghdad’ video blog, an award-winning American-Iraqi project. Iraqis filmed their neighbourhood and their everyday family life; this was close-up in a way no correspondent could ever be. I was present when houses were searched, when people were screaming with fear, or when citizen defence squads were being formed in no-go parts of the city. Once I had been informed by phone who the film-makers were I used their recordings in television news reports. On another occasion some explosive mobile phone videos shocked the Egyptian public. Police had used their mobiles to film themselves torturing prisoners and these videos had fallen into the hands of Egyptian human rights activists and bloggers. Al Jazeera TV took up the topic, and the Arab public at last started talking about police and state torture. I contacted Egyptian bloggers who downloaded their videos for me. I remember how at that time they admired the Iranian blogger scene, saying, ‘We haven’t got that far yet, but we will.’ That was the moment when I began to be fascinated by the internet and the possibilities it offered for my reporting.

    June 2009. As an editor with ARD’s Morgenmagazin [Morning Magazine] I collate news from Iran which our correspondent on the spot can only follow to a limited extent, or not at all. In fact, we editors should really always say before any live interview or before any report from correspondents in authoritarian states like Iran that independent on-the-spot journalistic assessment is considered undesirable by the censors. The picture presented by a correspondent must be complemented – and I now regard that as my task. I have many different sources. On the net I read such Persian news portals as IranPressNews or Balatarin; I rummage through diaspora English-Persian online magazines such as Payvand and Iranian; I read statements on Ayatollah Montazeri’s homepage, or on opposition leader Mussawi’s party organ kalameh, and I study Mussawi’s Facebook page; I read blogs, discover channels on YouTube such as ‘Citizen Journalism’, and in the early days of the election crisis I read scraps of Twitter news. I compare the video links there with those on astreetjournalist.com, I telephone and Skype, and time and again compare my findings with the news which the Persian Services on Britain’s BBC and the Voice of America present to their listeners. There Iranians, both opponents and supporters of the regime, make their views known on call-in programmes and by e-mail, and during the election crisis they sent their own phone videos to editors in London and Washington. I spend hours comparing and verifying news.

    Doubt and arrogance

    Talking to German editors I quickly realise that someone who has never been to Iran and does not speak Persian can hardly understand, let alone assess, the Iranian citizen videos now available on the internet. For many, these videos were baffling. The stone-throwing demonstrators could just as well have come from the Occupied Territories in the Middle East; the fires in the streets could have been burning in Pakistan. In any case: ‘What can we actually see on these blurred images? Aren’t they faked? Did Neda really die like that?’ Sometimes justified doubt about my sources is accompanied by the unquestioned view that German public service media cannot trust ‘street journalists’. From time to time arrogance is also involved: TV journalists feel threatened by their civilian counterparts. So my initial task was to explain the all-powerful Iranian censorship and propaganda machine to my colleagues, and then an ever more apparent trend in Iran since the late Nineties towards the creation and utilisation of new media. The third step is to analyse these videos: where is this, what are these people shouting about, who’s who in the picture, and when were these picture taken? I was thus able every morning to produce news summarising events of the previous day.

    The flood of news from the citizen network causes problems for the Ahmadinejad system. On a laptop in the television studio I also show German viewers how the regime is responding to the cyber-war, using the internet to identify demonstrators’ faces on photos and videos and promising rewards to surfers of police-state websites. The tools that make democratic participation and truthful eye-witness accounts possible in authoritarian states can also be deployed by the state itself for repression. 

    Assembling and comparing the news is a prolonged and difficult process that would be enough to keep at least five colleagues busy. I struggle with dead telephone connections and the ever-slower internet in Iran, I despair of Iranian colleagues outside their home country who are over-precipitate in selling rumours as news, and I question the motives of German journalists who claimed that the mobile phone video of the dying Neda was faked and staged and initially didn’t even want to show excerpts of it. When I tell acquaintances I’m calling in Iran how cautious Germans are about these citizens’ videos, and how often they use footage by State Television in their reporting, these Iranians are completely bewildered. 

    Today, retrospectively, I am happy that my work as an ‘online reporter in the TV studio’ contributed towards the increasing differentiation of the German image of Iran and Iranians, and towards strengthening the significance of new media for the old media. Perhaps the new media will soon be accepted and used in our system as much as they are on Anglo-American news channels.

    Soon it will be spring; in Iran the New Year will get under way, and I am sitting in Germany preparing a German-Iranian New Year celebration. I would like to convey to my guests what moves the generation of Iranians born after the Revolution. Firstly because I sense that Iranians who have been in exile for many years, preoccupied with political skirmishing, are very far removed from this new generation in Iran. Secondly, because it is precisely these youngsters whose publicly-demonstrated cultural contradictions and unconventional interpretations of Islam seem to impress Germans. I have asked two friends in Iran to write a letter for me: How much does spring promise in the way of new awakenings? With what painful memories do you look ahead to the New Year? Mail me your experiences, your wishes, your disappointments! While looking for suitable music to accompany the programme I struck lucky – where else – in the internet, and downloaded the current number one on the Iranian hiphop chart; ‘forbidden’ uncensored music produced secretly in cellars by an Iranian woman rapper. The title of my programme is Sabz shodim dar in khak: ‘We germinated in this earth, we blossomed in this land’.
    Golineh Atai
    comes from Iran and works for the Morgenmagazin programme on ARD [First German Television].

    Translated by Tim Nevill
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2010

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