The current political crisis in Iran and the ban on foreign media has proved that modern technology is challenging the monopoly of information management by the state.
Today, modern technology is acting as an alternative instrument to expose what the regime prefers to hide from the outside world. Personal cameras and mobile phones have enabled ordinary citizens to act as correspondents within fields where media access is denied. As censorship continues to undermine freedom of expression, the internet plays a vital role to voice the “silent majority and mobilize the opposition.
Since the presidential election in mid-June, Iran has been in turmoil. Some people have gone as far as claiming that a coup d’état has taken place. In a climate where almost all foreign correspondents were ordered to leave or stay silent in their offices, there have been difficulties accessing reliable news.
Saturday June 20 was the height of the political crisis so far. It was also the first day that I gave up on professional news agencies since they had no one in the field covering events. Instead, I relied on messages and images directly reaching me through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Later that afternoon, I decided to consult some of the mainstream media to see if I could get any further information and was stunned to see even the professional news agencies themselves have been relying on the very material I had been receiving all day.
I was also astonished to see how promptly iconic images recorded by ordinary people, have reached the global audience. Short videos showing the heavy crackdown on protesters, beating people, smashing cars and breaking windows, have galvanized millions all over the world. Although, they are all spur-of-the-moment and are badly filmed, they’ve shed light on the existing political dynamics in the Islamic State.
The petrifying image of the teenage girl Neda who was shot in the heart. She was on the floor, covered in blood and her distressed friend was helplessly crying by her side. She died in front of a camera. Two hours later, these painful images reached the global media. The clip was shown in many major news agencies and soon she became the “symbol of struggle, in many weblogs, she was called “the angel of Iran.
Initially, the Western states were conservative about commenting on the political crisis in Tehran. After all, the new administration in America has been determined to stick to its new policy of engaging Iran diplomatically.
Hence, they did not want to anger the Islamic Republic by criticizing their internal politics. Nevertheless, once those first hand images reached western citizens, western leaders had no option but to react to public opinion. In that light, on Saturday night, their statements went further than before and finally the American president spoke more firmly and expressed serious concern about the violation of human rights in Iran.
From the beginning of the electoral crisis, the Iranian government tried to cut most communication instruments in the country. “Unfriendly news websites were filtered and for a while telephone lines were cut and text messaging services were completely dismantled. But people found ways to break the filters and to work around restrictions. The state unsuccessfully attempted to prevent people receiving news from satellite channels such as the Persian BBC and Voice Of America, but as usual people found ways to receive signals from these mediums.
News channels were relying on “citizen correspondents inside Iran. Ordinary people were calling them, sometimes from the crowded streets with chaotic background noise, describing the scenes and reporting the violence. Most people throughout the country saw the images and received their news from the Persian BBC for the first time. No wonder the Iranian government has criticized Britain for “orchestrating the riots and “interfering in Iranian domestic politics.
Apart from providing information, alternative media and new technology have been mobilizing and organizing people in Iran. Although, the mainstream media in the country was under heavy censorship, people have been finding ways to communicate with and, more importantly, inform the outside world about the violation of human rights in their country. Of course many of these so-called “citizen correspondents may not be as impartial as a professional news agency nor they are fully unbiased in the way they record and report the events. But in the vacuum of information where access to independent media is denied there are no other options. Without them, the world could not witness the ongoing violation of human rights in Iran.
For example, the image of that teenage girl dying in her friend’s arms has become a powerful image to increase the global pressure on the Islamic state to reconsider its policies.
In this situation, one could only hope that the Iranian government would be attentive to some of these pressures, so they could maintain some legitimacy in the international community.
Although the regime has proven that it has the upper hand in suppressing the unarmed protesters, it has lost the war of public opinion, inside and outside the country. This was only possible through circulation of restricted information, which only became possible with the blessing of new technology.
Afshin Shahi is a researcher at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He can be reached at [email protected]