LONDON — Iran’s hardline authorities are attempting to suppress news coverage of the country’s hotly disputed presidential election, but they can’t quash the Twitter brigades.
Foreign media outlets have found themselves coming under attack as they attempt to report on protests ever since the official announcement that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a resounding victory in Friday’s poll. But Iran’s youthful and Web-savvy population has proven adept at using Twitter, blogs, mobile phones and social networks to spread the word about the post-election discord.
The main opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, has claimed that the election result, which saw Ahmadinejad garner a surprisingly high 62% of the vote, has been mired by widespread fraud and vote-rigging.
All the major international networks have filled their coverage with frequently astounding footage of the protests, demonstrations and scuffles between government and opposition forces. Much of that footage has been shot on mobile phones and allowed Iranians to get their message out even if more traditional methods of communication have been shut off.
“We’re managing to keep the show going largely thanks to this user-generated content from people in Iran calling us, sending video footage and photos,” said Sina Motalebi, editor of BBC Persian TV Interactive. “The amazing thing has been that even with all the obstacles, the volume of footage we have been receiving has actually been increasing in recent days.”
Foreign reporters in the country are finding that the normally calm streets of Tehran resemble something more akin to a battleground as the Iranian government wheels out tough measures to stifle coverage of opposition protesters.
Journos for Italian pubcaster RAI and news agency Reuters were reportedly beaten by riot police in the capital. A CNN producer was hit by a police baton, BBC journo John Simpson was briefly arrested after filming some of the protests and a Sky News team reputedly had a gun pointed in its direction.
Arab newscaster Al-Arabiya had its Tehran offices closed down Sunday afternoon with no explanation from Iranian officials.
“We’re worried about being banned from the chance to cover an important country like Iran during an important event like the election and its aftermath without explaining the reason behind that decision,” Nabil Khatib, Al-Arabiya’s executive news director, said.
Reporters from Spain’s pubcaster RTVE complained they also had been asked to leave the country by the Iranian government after filming protests.
Press freedom org Reporters Without Borders has claimed that a number of Iranian journalists have been arrested, while the offices of Moussavi’s newspaper have been ransacked and its computers destroyed by Ahmadinejad supporters.
The intervention hasn’t been just physical.
BBC Persian TV’s signal into Iran has been electronically jammed. Access to the news org’s popular Farsi-language website and the U.S. government-funded Voice of America have also been partially blocked.
Another major issue for Western media outlets has been the difficulty of communicating with their Iran-based reporters. Mobile phone lines are not connecting in large parts of the country, while the Internet has been uncommonly slow.
Some have accused the government of deliberately degrading the phone lines to prevent opposition supporters and journalists from communicating with each other and the outside world, while some commentators have blamed the slow connections on massive demand.
“We’re getting through about once every 100 calls, and even then we have to patch the calls through the U.S.,” Chris Birkett, Sky News’ executive editor, said. “It makes it very difficult to know what’s going on in the streets, which is why we’re using social networking sites like Twitter. We got 30,000 hits on our site just on Monday. It’s been very handy.”
The use of Twitter, blogs and other user-generated content have proved hugely important in bypassing the government’s attempted crackdown. Internet usage is very popular in Iran, with its large youthful population. The country was recently estimated to have more than 100,000 blogs.
In the U.S., CNN took a drubbing from Twitter users, bloggers and other media critics, who charged that the network didn’t devote enough airtime to the protests over the weekend. The volume was so strong it even sparked the creation of the Twitter hashtag, or subject listing, “#CNNfail.”