YouTube, Neda and the Revolution

YouTube appeared to play a major role in yesterday’s protests in Iran. After all, it was the the horrific YouTube video of Neda’s death that led to yesterday’s public mourning and protests, and it was also the platform where, more than anywhere else, we followed events throughout the day, including the defiant chants of protest into the night. They were sometimes loud, but also powerfully silent, and far more relevant than the under 140 character tweets (although there were many of those, as well). To be sure, yesterday’s public mourning of Neda and others who have been killed following the election was significant for a number of reasons, not least because Iranians turned out in large numbers even though they had been threatened, denied a permit to protest and then beaten and tear gassed when they showed up anyway – all while recording shaky images for the rest of us ( but also, I suspect, for each other). Hamid has a nice summary of the days events here, noting as many others did, that YouTube served as important proof of what the official media in Iran barely acknowledged – that significant numbers of Iranians turned out despite their threats and occasional violence to break up even small gatherings of citizens, including those trying to return to the scene of the crime.

This seems to me an important moment for citizen journalism, for we’d surely be even more clueless about what was happening in Iran if it wasn’t for YouTube, Twitter and the Internet more generally. Yesterday, I watched LA Times reporter Borzou Daragahi (who’s reporting on Iran from Beirut) say on the Newshour:

Well, we’re not exactly sure what happened here. But from one thing that we understand, not only in terms of eyewitness accounts, but YouTube video that I’ve seen, although there were some reports of clashes between the security forces and the mourners at Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran’s greatest and largest cemetery, there were also reports that they were getting along quite amicably, the mourners and the police, at some point. (my italics).

And the Lede, which had probably the best coverage throughout the day, relied heavily on video accounts shared from trusted sources. Seeing it seems, is key to believing.

It may still be that the Internet is more important in getting the news out about what is happening in Iran than organizing protesters inside the country, but I can’t help but wonder if by recording and sharing with others video proof of peaceful protests, despite the government threats and virtual silence on government controlled media, that this medium hasn’t helped galvanize the opposition to turn out again next week, and the week after that…and the week after that. While Susan Sontag wrote critically about the desensitizing effect of images of death and suffering in the Balkan wars, it seems that in Neda’s case, the opposite happened. Hers was an unnecessary and gruesome death that is not easy to watch, but perhaps because it was not scrubbed clean of its brutality for network news, but instead seen more often than not in all its powerful reality on YouTube, that Iranians were mobilized again to turn out against the government that killed her.

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Iranians Attempt to Mourn Neda; Mousavi Turned Back

News is starting to trickle out about the planned public mourning of Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death during election protests 40 days ago was broadcast around world on YouTube, turning her into an international symbol for the protest movement and the government’s heavy-handed response. Twitter’s #iranelection tag is the top trending topic. The LA Times reports that although Mousavi was turned back by security forces at Neda’s grave, that thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of mourners have overwhelmed security forces who initially beat and arrested mourners at the cemetery. From the LA Times:

At first mourners were confronted by the security forces, who struck them with truncheons and arrested some in an attempt to bar them from gathering at Tehran’s Behesht Zahra cemetery, the country’s largest. The tree-lined streets leading to the graves of Agha-Soltan and others were blocked by riot police, the witness said.

The witness said the mourners also identified and violently confronted several plainclothes Basiji militiamen.

“Police, police, support us,” the mourners chanted. “God is great!”

But as the numbers mourners poured out of the nearby subway station and taxis along the highway, security forces retreated. One witness said police released detainees and began cooperating with the mourners, directing them to section 257 of the cemetery, where Agha-Soltan and others were buried. Mourners have been denied a permit to hold a ceremony in the city’s Grand Mossala mosque later today, but protesters have said they will try to come together near the site of the mosque anyway, and march along nearby streets if they are prevented from entering the site.

This recently tweeted video of mourners chanting, “Oh, Hossein! Mir-Hossein,” has been posted on YouTube.

Obviously a developing story and lots of conflicting information out there; hopefully events will become more clear throughout the morning.

Update: Andrew Sullivan is tracking events and reliable Twitterers, and the NY Times Lede blog is also routinely updating Times coverage.

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Web Publicizes Torture of Iranian Protesters

Opposition Web sites are reporting on the torture and even death of hundreds of Iranian protesters arrested after last month’s election. According to the New York Times (which called the following ‘abuse’ – apparently they don’t call anything torture anymore):

Some prisoners say they watched fellow detainees being beaten to
death by guards in overcrowded, stinking holding pens. Others say they had their fingernails ripped off or were forced to lick filthy toilet bowls.

The accounts of prison abuse in Iran’s postelection crackdown — relayed by relatives and on opposition Web sites — have set off growing outrage among Iranians, including some prominent conservatives. More bruised corpses have been returned to families in recent days, and some hospital officials have told human rights workers that they have seen evidence that well over 100 protesters have died since the vote.

Rooz online and gooya.com have served as platforms where relatives have come forward to describe the return of bruised bodies by the government and testimonials by those held at the Kahrizak prison, which Global Voices reported yesterday was shut down by the government. The government also released 140 prisoners as another conciliatory gesture, but the revelations have the potential to foment further outrage in the opposition movement, as well as within conservative circles since the son of a key adviser to conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai was beaten to death in prison.

The Times relayed a number of postings from previously detained protesters that were posted online:

“We were all standing so close to each other that no one could move,” he wrote in a narrative posted online. “The plainclothes guards came into the room and broke all the light bulbs, and in the pitch dark started beating us, whoever they could.” By morning, at least four detainees were dead, he added.

In another account posted online, a former detainee describes being made to lie facedown on the floor of a police station bathroom, where an officer would step on his neck and force him to lick the toilet bowl as the officer cursed reformist politicians.

A woman described having her hair pulled as interrogators demanded that she confess to having sex with political figures. When she was finally released, she was forced — like many others — to sign a paper saying she had never been mistreated.

While the government has rejected the application of the opposition to publicly mourn the death of Neda that I wrote about yesterday, Mousavi apparently wants to go forward with it anyway, saying in response to the torture and death of protesters in detention:

They cannot turn this nation into a prison of 70 million people….The more people they arrest, the more widespread the movement will become.

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A Marathon, Not a Sprint In Iran

It has now been nearly seven weeks since the disputed election in Iran, and it seems clear that the opposition has settled in for a long, slow fight. This must be of serious concern for Ahmadinejad and his supporters. The opposition movement has found a major anniversary or milestone to commemorate roughly once a week since large scale protests were forcefully put down by the government. A little over a week ago it was Rafsanjani leading Friday prayers, before that the 10 year anniversary of student protests over the closing of reformist newspapers, and this week, the 40 day anniversary of the death of Neda Agah-Soltan, whose death was captured on video and shared around the world via YouTube. As the New York Times reports:

Mr. Moussavi and other opposition leaders have asked permission to hold a public mourning ceremony for the dead on Thursday. That day has great symbolic importance, because it is 40 days after the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose death ignited widespread outrage in Iran and beyond.

Commemorating the 40th day after a person’s death is an important mourning ritual in Shiite Islam; similar anniversaries for dead protesters were essential in the demonstrations that led to the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

It would be surprised if both sides are not also priming for next week, when Ahmadinejad is expected to be formally inaugurated.

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Obama’s YouTube Diplomacy Redux

Ben Smith at Politico has followed up on last week’s news that Obama’s Nowruz message to the Iranian people is one of the White House’s most popular YouTube videos. (Unfortunately for George Bush, we can’t count the clip of him serving as the target for a reporter’s loafers, which we found to be the second most popular video in the Arabic blogosphere, as an official White House video.) Smith quotes our own John Kelly who confirms the popularity of the online overture to the Iranian people:

Within a week, Obama’s Nowruz message (if you total several different versions of it – the official White House one was just one, others were posted to YouTube from different sources, with different subtitles,
etc.) was cited (linked to) by more Iranian bloggers than any other video from the entire year prior – which is a remarkably fast rise.

The timing of the video around Nowruz was also wise since any message directly before – and most certainly after – the election would have been cited by Iranian conservatives as meddling in Iranian politics. As Smith writes in his original post about the video’s popularity:

That’s a remarkable success for public diplomacy, and an end-run around state-controlled media.

You can learn more about the White House video stats here, as well as on TechPresident.

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Iran Moves to Enforce New Cyber Law

Al Jazeera is reporting that disputed President Ahmadinejad is moving to enforce a new Internet law that would force ISPs in the country to retain information created by their users for up to three months. According to government-backed Press TV, the law requiring capture of user content will make users “more safe.” However, given the role of the Internet in sharing information about formal and informal protests of the unresolved election results, it is hard to see how this law is anything but another way for the government to limit speech within the country. Our own Rob Faris is quoted on this count:

Rob Faris, a research director at the Harvard University’s Berkman Centre, told Al Jazeera that the new law could serve as an additional tool for the authorities to keep an eye on cyberspace.

‘For blogs that include restricted content, this legislation could give authorities one more way to go after them, though this doesn’t seem needed. The government has not been constrained in the past by a lack of legal instruments.’

Not everyone in the country appears overly concerned, since Iranian users have grown adept at getting around existing censorship and filtering efforts by the government. As Iranian blogger Potkin Azarmehr told Al Jazeera:

Given how internet savvy the young Iranians are and the help they are getting from Iranian expats, whatever law Ahmadinejad passes, there will be a way round it.

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Internet Newspapers Blossom in Iran

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Hamid Tehrani has an excellent post on the emergence of underground, online newspapers that have sprung up since the disputed Iranian election. He argues that these newspaper allow Iranians to communicate in the face of increased repression. Hamid writes:

Dozens of journalists and bloggers have been imprisoned, pro-reformist websites have been filtered and a few not-yet-banned reformist journals such as Etemad Meli are under intensified surveillance. Under such difficult circumstances for the media, we are witnessing a new phenomenon inside Iran: the emergence of “underground” Internet newspapers.

At the end of June, at least two such newspapers were launched: Khyaboon (”Street”) and Kalam Sabz (”Green Word”) where the word “green” is a reference to Mir Hussein Mousavi’s campaign colors. So far, Khyaboon has published 13 issues and Kalam Sabz has published 10. Khyaboon is available only by email and the paper has no website or blog. Kalam Sabz also uses email, but has a website. Both journals are distributed in PDF file format.

Both Khyaboon and Kalam Sabz are firmly against Ahmadinejad and Khamenei’s decision to accept the election results, as well as suppression of the protest movement. This is demonstrated in recent headlines from the two papers:

“What is going on in the silence of Evin prison;”
“Stop forcing confessions;”
“Khatami: It was a velvet Coup against people.”

Hamid’s analysis of political trends in the two papers shows that Kalam Sabz “largely reflects the opinions and statements of reformist leaders and parties” while Khayaboon is more of a “radical-left journal, which criticizes even Mousavi for his inaction.”

Check out the full story on Global Voices; it’s well worth the read.

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Iranian Protesters Return to Streets, Everyone Else to Twitter

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Photo: Daily Dish

The LA Times and other media outlets are reporting that a resilient group of Iranians has defied the government by publicly protesting the nearly month old election results. The opposition chose today to commemorate the 10th anniversary of student-led protests against the closing of reformists newspapers by conservatives during the Khatami presidency. Andrew Sullivan and others are back to relying on Twitter for updates. According to the LA Times, over a thousand protesters turned out in Tehran, and they have been met with violence by the Basij and regular security forces. In an attempt to thwart protest organizers, the government has cut off cell phone access for the last few days, although they apparently released 2,000 who had been arrested after earlier protests. On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad called the election, the “freest ever,” which alone was probably enough to push the opposition back into the streets.

How Russia Can Influence Speech in Iran

Not (or not only) through sharing information on censorship tactics. Instead, as a mapping of the .ir domain by the firm Lumeta found, “one router in the .ir domain that passes the most traffic is physically located in Russia. Iran is apparently outsourcing a significant portion of its routed infrastructure.” This implies that Russia could also cut off that information, through that ‘choke point,’ if it wanted. According to Information Week, Lumeta also found that only about 10% of US-based traffic into Iran is blocked.
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Lumeta also has a map of the Internet in the Middle East.

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Which you can compare to our map and study of the Arabic blogosphere.

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Hat Tip: Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH)

Iranian Blogs Dynamic During Election Protests

By John Kelly and Bruce Etling

While Twitter is getting a lot of attention in the current Iranian crisis, it’s good to know that the robust Iranian blogosphere also remains active in the face of the government’s interference with the Internet. The figure below shows new blog posts on blogfa.com, the dominant Iranian blogging platform, over the past three weeks. While some Blogfa users are outside Iran, the vast majority are inside. We can see significant, through sporadic, disruption of Iranian blogging for a period of about two and a half days beginning a day after the disputed election. After that, posting returns to roughly pre-election levels.

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What are bloggers talking about? A scan of text reveals high levels of discussion about politics. Many bloggers continue to link to websites supporting Mousavi (such as mirhussein.com), whereas linking to the main site supporting Ahmadinejad  emtedadmehr.com) has nearly stopped, including among conservative political bloggers.

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