We could be witnessing the dawn of a new era. As turmoil engulfed Iran following President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s re-election, the administration tried to plug the flow of news by banning all foreign media. But they were seemingly unprepared for what was to follow. Many independent journalists, and a handful of citizen journalists, have since been on the job, ensuring that the world gets to know what is happening in the Islamic Republic, by the minute.
Over most of last week, they have been posting photographs and news clips from their mobile phones on to micro-blogging site Twitter and to the Demotix, a new, but very popular, hub for freelance journalists. Conventional news agencies like Reuters and Associated Press have now started sourcing photographs from the websites for their newswires. Worried over this unwanted and unwarranted coverage, Iranian authorities are trying their best to stem the flow of “uncensored news”, cracking down on journalists and amateurs posting pictures of the protests and tracking down others. But their efforts have not yet dampened the resolve of the ‘news crusaders’.
While both Twitter and Demotix have been a source of from-the-spot news for sometime, Iran could be their big break. When Mumbai was attacked last November, minute-by-minute accounts from people close to the centre of action were the only source of news for millions of residents in the city, where cable networks had been taken off air for security reasons.
But the use of Twitter as a medium to post news photos is something new. Since Twitter was designed for SMS-based blogs, it cannot, and will not, accept anything longer that 140 characters. Users who wanted to post photos have been uploading to a sister site, Twitpic, and posting the link on Twitter. Twitpic now has over two million users, and scores of those in Iran have made it a platform for their “He is not my president campaign”. Many of their pictures have since been used by news agencies, giving due credit to the site.
Demotix has till now come in for many accolades, from being called “journalism for the 21st century” to suggestions that “it may change the way news is reported”. But no one would have imagined that this citizen journalism site would within six months of its birth become the “leading voice in the global news agenda” thanks to contributors from Iran.
With their correspondents banned from reporting, Demotix images are being scanned by photo editors of the world’s top newspapers. Many pictures have already been picked up by agencies, making it to front pages across the globe. It helps that Demotix submissions adhere to a certain image quality and have better production value than those posted from mobile phones.
Like the Lok Sabha elections in India this May, Demotix had created a special hub for Iran elections too. But the sudden change of events have meant that even a week after the results the webpage was still clocking stories—of protests, of the crackdown and of torture.
The Iranian Government, however, was not so impressed. It traced a reporter who had contributed video feeds of the protests in Tehran, seized his camera and kept him in custody for a few hours. “While in custody, he was led by officials to believe that were he to be found guilty as a spy, he could be executed,” says a Demotix post. “Just pray for me. Ten years ago in ‘Koye daneshgah’ (Tehran University) I was arrested, and it’s a nightmare for me to repeat my memories...,” it quoted the reporter as saying.
Global Post, another new media venture which specialises in long format features from contributing editors stationed across the world, too, has found many takers. However, since stories on Global Post are commissioned, most of them are available only to those who pay for their services.
With the websites being updated every minute with tweets and photos by those who are closest to the news, Iran has ushered in a new era of reportage—of reportage that cannot be gagged or fettered easily.