After watching Frontline World's "A Death in Tehran" documentary, I can say, undoubtedly, that if we want to pick one picture or short video of 2009, in terms of impact and influence, it's the video that documented the moment Neda, a 27-year-old Iranian, was shot during the post elections unrest on the streets of Tehran last June; a video that penetrated layers of censorship and unmasked a government. The documentary beautifully exposes the Iranian government's fierce but failed endeavors to manipulate the truth.
Neda's story is a part of an unexpected reaction of hundreds of thousands of people who believed their votes were stolen from them after the June 12th disputed election; a reaction that completely messed with the Islamic Republic's narrative to portray Ahmadinejad's fabricated epic victory.
They forced foreign print, radio and TV journalists to leave the country and started a brutal, organized and premeditated crackdown. They controlled and censored the domestic media and used their gigantic and influential national TV to frame their own version of reality. They thought that they had the capability of creating a narrative, which could support their post-election crackdown in order to guarantee Ahmadinejad's second term in office. But their narrative failed to dominate the reality of Iranians or that of the outside world-view of the events.
Journalists, both foreign and domestic working in Iran, simply cannot report freely. Yet ethically, in order to cover a story a journalist must cover both sides; in this case, the side of the people and of the government. Even if the story is sometime disproportionate, they still give space and air time to both sides.
Once the authorities forced out and silenced the journalists the Iranian media was left without professional coverage of the post election incidences. This left the government on it's own to perpetuate it's narrative, which backfired and furthered the disproportionate coverage via the many videos and still shots taken by the thousands of protesters which ended up, almost instantaneously, on YouTube and shortly there after on dozens of TV channels. It was not like the situation with foreign journalists, whom they could control, threaten, cancel their visas and/or confiscate their cameras. It was out of their control. In terms of effectiveness, because there was no news corporations or biased reporting involved, it was brutally believable. It was pure story telling.
The Islamic Republic overwhelmingly put the blame on the BBC Persian TV channel, VOA and other news agencies accusing them of stimulating turbulence and directing the crowds. This was not because there was an actual systematic and planned involvement on the part of those media outlets but simply because those outlets overshadowed the government's propaganda machine which was filled with fabricated narratives of the election and post-election incidences.
I talked to two protesters who had been arrested and released after a few weeks of detention. They told me how they were brutally beaten when the police officers found out that they had shot videos of the protests.
Imagine you've spent millions of dollars to articulate and orchestrate a message and then a 20-year-old protester shoots a 1-minute video, uploads it onto YouTube and destroys your whole story. What would you do? I promise, it would make you mad. Those videos, like the one that captured the moments after Neda was shot, severely damaged the image of the Islamic Republic; damage that is very hard and next to impossible to control or reverse.
You might ask why? Or how, despite all the money that they spent and all of planning they did, could they lose their whole fight to cell phones and text messages and things like that? The answer is simple. Regardless of their huge investment in devices to spy on people's private life, and despite all their effort to censor all media and filter Internet websites, the people who run the show in Iran belong to the pre-Internet era mentality. Their value system is binary based while the youth, the majority, are of the digital era. It's not just having or controlling such devices; it's more about a new way of thinking. It's more about a paradimg shift; a new way of sending a message, processing it and giving feedbacks. So, their attempts to monopolize the communication processes are feudal, and they don't get it.
Neda and at least 36 other protesters died during the post elections protests or in detention by the Iranian police and the others who led the systematic violence. Having said that, it seems very ironic; the Islamic Republic has damaged itself by the incompetency of its own propaganda machine, which was designed to preserve it. The leaders reliance on their own propaganda machine, designed to suppress the genuine movement of the people, effectively shot themselves in their foot.