Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Iranian authorities are seeking to exercise a stranglehold on press coverage of mass unrest after the disputed election results there, but they're having trouble stopping a combination of old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism and new social media platforms.
On Tuesday, officials ordered journalists in Tehran from foreign outlets, including NPR, to stay away from protests. They could file stories only from their homes or offices.
"When we go to our reporter on the ground, we talk the audience through what the restrictions are," says Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing director of CNN International. He oversees all the networks' foreign channels and its coverage abroad.
CNN's most well-known international reporter, Christiane Amanpour, had to leave the country Tuesday as her visa was expiring. The regime is refusing to renew visas for those reporters who arrived ahead of last week's elections.
Farnaz Fassihi, the Iranian-American senior foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, says Iranian news agencies with links to the ruling regime are seeking to whip up support by blaming foreign media for the unrest. And, she says, many of her sources are being arrested.
Yet because she spent much of her childhood in Iran and speaks Farsi fluently, Fassihi has been able to slip out and witness rioting and protests firsthand.
There's another aid to her reporting:
"Thankfully, due to technology, what's happening in Iran is being documented by Iranians," she says by phone from Tehran. Iranians equipped with digital cameras or even just camera phones are creating and sharing footage of developments. Social media sites such as Flickr, Twitter and Facebook have become saturated with material from Iran.
"Information is flowing very quickly, and I don't think they can really seriously censor it in any way," Fassihi says.
Not that the authorities aren't trying. The BBC's satellite Persian TV channel is among those being jammed inside Iran, for example. The Voice of America's rival Persian News Network took steps to avoid that, according to the channel's acting managing director, Alex Belida, by beaming its programming from two additional satellites.
But VOA reporters were not allowed in Iran to report on the elections. So the channel, like CNN and other outlets, has relied a lot on people inside Iran and Iranians abroad to provide pictures and videos for its programs and Web sites.
But here again, government officials have tried to cut off access — in this instance, to the social media sites. They've also slowed the speed of Internet access to a crawl, making the spread of video much tougher.
"Even though many people fear the repercussions of what they view, what they post or what they send, via e-mail or their Web sites, but at the same time you see how they aggressively post comments and post videos and photos on what's going on, on their Web sites and blogs," says Omid Memarian, a journalist who left Iran and now writes from Berkeley, Calif., for the Inter Press Service, a European news agency.
Twitter has served as a vehicle for mobilizing protesters as well as getting out the news — but people who log onto the site couldn't possibly keep up with all the Iran-related postings, nor can they fully sort out firsthand witnesses from posers or government provocateurs. But the Twitter updates — up to 140 characters — provide insight into plans for future rallies, strategies for avoiding censors, and links to photos and videos of new developments such as clashes with police. (Some Twitter users also pushed CNN to devote more of its airtime to coverage of the tumult in Iran.) Twitter even delayed a much-needed technical fix in recognition of the role it's playing in Iran.
Journalists such as CNN's Maddox say they have to sift through such material carefully to ensure its authenticity as best they can before putting it on the air. He says that CNN still offers caveats to viewers, but the mixture of professional and amateur material is invigorating.
"It reminds me of what got us all into journalism in the first place — which is that voices need to be heard," he says. "The idea that governments or whomever tried to stop people being heard and they still find a way of being heard — I find that enormously liberating."