As Iran blocks media, press improvises

Media outlets use citizen reporters, new technology

The coverage of the Iranian election has proven a dual challenge for TV journos: Those in the country are coping with ever-increasing restrictions on the press; those outside are learning how to trust and verify the streams of footage coming from citizen reporters.

ABC correspondent Jim Sciutto realized his cameraman was going to get plenty of grief the day after the disputed election results — showing a victory by incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — were announced. By Saturday, supporters of challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi had taken to the streets in protest, claiming that the opposition had rigged the vote. Soon, they were beaten back by Iranian police and the government’s off-the-books militia, the Basij.”They started cracking down pretty much right from the beginning,” Sciutto said. “Once we started to have questions on Saturday night, they got wise to us and didn’t want us filming it.”

So Sciutto and his crew put away their shoulder-mounted cameras and started taking pictures with their cell phones and with their phone-sized FlipVideos — high-def camcorders the reporters could travel with quickly and conceal easily.

“We were always moving,” Sciutto recalled. “You’d do an interview, and then you’d move to the next block, trying to talk to the camera on the fly as much as you could. A few times we had people come up and say, ‘We’ve seen plainclothesmen looking at you, making phone calls,’ and then we’d have to move again.”

Sciutto had to leave the country after his visa expired last Wednesday, but he says the omnipresent citizen coverage seems to have had a real and positive effect. “The Basij were very careful not to touch women last night,” said Sciutto. “And any time they did get close to them, the crowd screamed at them to get away — and they did.”

The reporter, who covered the last Iranian election as well, credited the Basij’s newfound skittishness to the “Neda” video posted on YouTube on June 21. The 40-second long clip shows 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan dying, allegedly of a gunshot wound to the chest inflicted by a Basij sniper.

Elizabeth Palmer, the main Iran correspondent for CBS (who was recently forced out of the country), said that the glut of information has been inspiring to dissidents and their supporters, but that it has also created problems.

“It looked to world youth to be a great triumphant, romantic story, and I think the reaction overwhelmed the reality pretty quickly,” Palmer said. “Most people in Iran have no access to facts — it’s a country that runs on rumor. People were saying all kinds of things, mostly untrue. Mousavi sightings became like Elvis sightings.”

“The real problem for the reporter is making sense of the video, because the blogosphere is full of rubbish, not to mention the Twitterosphere and the YouTubeosphere,” Palmer said. “The journalistic challenge became verifying the context.”

NBC’s Richard Engel agreed with that assessment. “If you only read the Twitter feed, you’d think, ‘The revolution has come! Tomorrow there’ll be a general strike, and it’ll all be over!’ ”

Engel says that a nation of cell phone users can provide an eager news media with vital images that they might not otherwise be able to publish or broadcast. But that’s not the end of the story.

“You see a video of a clash or a protest, and it could be five days old or it could be a video of a protest you’ve already seen from a different angle. It’s not ideal, but every conflict has its limitations. We should be able to leverage this change in information technology, but you have to be very suspicious.”

For Iran, social networking sites and user-generated content have become key parts of the social and political discourse in a country without a free media.

“I think certainly YouTube and Twitter are much more valuable tools than the state-run media,” said “Daily Show” correspondent Jason Jones, who returned from Iran just before the election.

Unfortunately, Jones said that the flood of vocal support for Mousavi may have blinded foreign observers to the fact that Tehran is the most liberal part of the nation while also the place where most of the news is being generated. “Here’s one thing that’s not really reported on — all the reporters go straight to Tehran,” Jones observed. “We went to Qom and to other rural places, and they were almost exclusively Ahmadinejad territory.”

Jones said he still believes that the election was rigged, but he says the country is not as liberal as it appears to be from the footage Americans are watching.

“The Daily Show” represents another interesting wrinkle in the international news cycle: The program, ostensibly a comedy show, has become a source for thoughtful coverage to many Americans. Jones, who visited Iran to create a series of humor pieces involving interviews with moderate Iranian pundits and politicians, found himself at the eye of the storm after three of his sources were arrested — politician Ebrahim Yazdi, moderate cleric Mohammad Ali Abtahi and Canadian-Iranian Newsweek journo Maziar Bahari.

Cable newser CNN has become increasingly reliant on information filed to its user-generated content site, iReport. Parisa Khosravi, who runs the net’s international newsgathering operation, says that she and a team of Farsi speakers go over each clip with a fine-tooth comb in an effort to figure out when, where and of whom each shot was taken.

“We’re in email and phone communication with forces on the ground — locals, people we know there,” said Khosravi, who is Iranian-American. “We wait until we get two or three or four consistent reports on a story, and then we put it up.”

Palmer noted that the citizens who help create this kind of coverage, mostly the young, are far more savvy with various forms of communication than others have been during similar crises. “The situation showed me how adept Iranians have become at using proxy servers and various kinds of hacking technology to get stuff onto the Web,” she said “I was confined to one of the hotels, and people were coming in and out with little USB keys — there’s a whole generation that’s totally comfortable with technology.”