Thursday, June 25, 2009

For Iran, citizen journalism is the only journalism

Twitter has courted its fair share of news headlines since the turn of the year – many for its novelty factor, in truth – but this time it was different. When online news sources began reporting that Twitter had rescheduled technical maintenance to its service in order to allow a crucial daytime period for Iranian users to go uninterrupted, it highlighted not only that Government restrictions are clearly oppressing communication from within the state, but also the very real power that sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook now possess.

It is without doubt the most telling example of the increased significance of ‘citizen journalism’ to date. With official channels stifled and doctored, and censorship clamping down on internet usage in Iran, sites like Twitter and YouTube don’t just offer an outlet for the Iranian people but a view in for the world outside. The importance of these two-way flows of information cannot be underestimated, as proven by Twitter’s decision to delay its technical work last week, but more potently in one of the most landmark internet videos in the web’s history.

The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, shot in the street of a Tehran suburb, was captured by a civilian with a mobile phone camera, chillingly recording the last moments of the young girl’s life. It was uploaded to YouTube and Facebook within minutes. Its amateurish but unmistakable footage is disturbing, but the content itself is hardly shocking by the net’s standards. What sets it apart is that this video is being shared by everyday people worldwide, and broadcast by international news sources too: YouTube is allowing multiple versions of the footage to sit on its site attracting millions of views; CNN replayed the whole film in its news broadcasts; in the UK, the video made the front page of the Guardian. An unknown citizen journalist has created the single most iconic image of the 2009 Iranian Election: the girl lying prostrate in the street, blood streaming from her mouth, her eyes rolling back into her head.

More than a mile from the main demonstrations, this moment would have been missed by the world’s media, and would have been smothered by the Iran regime if they’d caught hold of it first. But instead the power of citizen journalism is fully realised; clearly it no longer reflects upon the news (unlike this blog does), but now creates and shapes it.

At the same time, the fallout from the Iran election is being given a platform that can no longer be ignored. The words and images emanating from the protests in Iran have a global stage on which they are communicated, and importantly, a global audience too. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have given the Iranian people a voice, an escape for an otherwise hidden version of events to rival the official controlled reporting, and that this is resonating with people around the world is overwhelmingly evident.

The events in Iran have further blurred the rapidly decreasing boundary between traditional and new media, and called into question the truth and validity of ‘official’ reporting. The reaction across social media sites has mobilised worldwide outrage and sympathy, and the issue is now unavoidable. The tools of the web have shed light on what the Iranian people see as the real truth, and for Iran, citizen journalism has been the only outlet to do it.