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IRAN: Twitter under scrutiny as government continues media crackdown

June 18, 2009 |  1:14 pm

The fallout from the contested Iranian elections is entering its sixth day, and the stream of news coming out of the country has slowed to a trickle as more and more foreign press credentials  are revoked and journalist visas expire.

Since the Iranian government has made it nearly impossible for traditional media outlets to report from the streets of Tehran, let alone outlying provinces and cities, journalists, analysts and observers have been forced to rely on amateur video and information gleaned from micro-blogging service Twitter and blogs, which is often unverifiable.

The media crackdown is taking such a toll that even the State Department admitted on Tuesday to having asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance that would have cut its service in Iran, and the U.S.-subsidized Voice of America satellite channel has been broadcasting instructions on how Iranians can bypass government Internet restrictions.

Twitter has been hailed by some as an invaluable weapon for protesters, but now voices from both the blogosphere and traditional media are asking if Twitter’s role in the wave of protests sweeping the country has been exaggerated and whether young, tech-savvy members of the opposition might be giving a lopsided impression of the current struggle between pro- and anti-government camps.

In a post translated by the activist blog Global Voices, Iranian blogger Hamed Talebi writes: “This is not a war between Ahmadinejad and Mir Hussein and we should not let it become a war between the voters of both sides either. It is a war between a majority of people who have no access to media and a radical movement. … Mousavi, in the most optimistic scenario, is merely a victim of this deceiving movement.”

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, an Iranian ex-pat living in Brazil who writes the popular blog South/South, told Babylon and Beyond she is frustrated by both the hypocrisy of traditional Western media, which remains silent on rigged elections that favor U.S. ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the unreliable nature of citizen journalism.

"[T]here has been a saturation of rumors on Twitter and Facebook, some of them flying off the handle (e.g. Mousavi was never under house arrest, the protests did not reach 3 million over the weekend, etc.). My friends and family in Iran are still able to get through using filter proxies, so I rely on their eyes and ears as well. I've just read such outlandish stuff that I won't report it until I have some way of verifying it," she wrote in an e-mail.

Still, when asked to share her favorite websites for analysis and news on Iran, Gharavi instead offered the Twitter feed of fellow Harvard researcher Alireza Doostdar.

But if the medium is new, the idea is not. In an interview with Democracy Now, Time correspondent Nahid Siamdoust compared the role of Facebook and Twitter to cassette tapes copied and distributed during the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

“And whoever has access to Facebook, you know, will receive those messages and call up their friends, because some people have better internet connections ...t hose have become sort of a port of communication to a wider tree of people,” she said.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Full coverage of Iran's presidential election and its aftermath.

Pictures: Upheaval after Iranian election

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