WASHINGTON – New media shaped both Iranian politics and the operations of traditional news organizations after Iran's disputed election results last month,journalists and technology experts said at a panel discussion Tuesday.
The discussion was sponsored by the Center for International Media Assistance,an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Huffington Post blogger Sam Sedaei described the aftermath of the election,which included widespread and sometimes bloody protests,as a public relations struggle between the Iranian government and the tech-savvy supporters of reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
“Each side tried to use every form of communication they had access to,to frame the story on their own terms,” he said.
As an example,Sedaei translated a headline from a state-owned news Web site that said,”The uprising in Tehran was managed by the CIA.” He said the Iranian government often claims civil liberties are intact when it shuts down social networking or news sites by shrugging off the service failures as the results of technical difficulties.
Governments of other closed societies are latching onto Iran's approach of attempting to maintain the appearance of transparency,said Andrew Lewman,executive director of the Tor Project.
The project,which provides free software that prevents Web sites from determining an Internet user's physical location,received thousands of new users from Iran during the June protests.
“China's actually doing a fairly smart thing in that they're inviting foreign journalists in,trying to do what Iran did with the spin,” Lehman said,referring to country's response to recent ethnic violence. “China was at the same time inviting journalists to hear their side of the story and firewalling new media to keep the opposition's voices from being heard.”
The difficulty of completely blocking Twitter made it a popular method of communication for protesters. But other methods may not have the same level of immunity,Lehman said.
Some Iranians fear that Yahoo! may be pressured by the government because the company's instant messaging service is so heavily used within the country.
“Will the Iranian government ask them,‘I want all your logs from June 12 through now,and from which IPs. Give it over now or get out of the country,'” Lehman said. “These are all valid concerns for people.”
Journalists on the panel described how they vetted firsthand accounts,photos and videos of the protests from Iranian citizens. With traditional media coverage hampered by censorship and the threat of arrest,a flood of communications poured in from Iran in the first few weeks after the election,said Setareh Derakhshesh,a news anchor for Voice of America's Persian News Network.
A VOA team monitored all incoming videos for authenticity,Derakhshesh said. When videos of the same event arrived from multiple sources,editors confirmed them against each other and through other news reports and e-mails.
On a day of mourning,Deraskhshesh said,”we wanted to make sure that in the videos we were receiving,everybody was wearing black.”
“We used a lot of common sense,but also cross-checking,” she said.
Derakhshesh and Sedaei said they wrestled with the graphic violence in much of the content they received.
“There've been lots of videos that have made me choke up,” Sedaei said. “Could not show it. Way too graphic. But I write about it and try to describe it without the image.”
He added that “there are videos a whole lot worse than Neda's video,” referring to the death of Iranian woman Neda Agha-Soltan,caught on tape and broadcast online.
When audience members questioned whether new media could replace traditional news outlets,the panelists said no.
They cited BBC Persia and VOA as continuing to play an important role in Iran.
“I remember when I was in Iran,[VOA] was our only source of news,and it still continues to be the only source that people really rely on,” said Sedaei,who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran in 1999. “Twitter is just an infant.”