Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Social media allows reports despite Tehran's curbs

by David Folkenflik

All Things Considered, June 16, 2009 · Iranian authorities are seeking to exercise a stranglehold on press coverage of mass unrest after the disputed election results there, but they're having trouble stopping a combination of old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism and new social media platforms.

On Tuesday, officials ordered journalists in Tehran from foreign outlets, including NPR, to stay away from protests. They could file stories only from their homes or offices.

"When we go to our reporter on the ground, we talk the audience through what the restrictions are," says Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing director of CNN International. He oversees all the networks' foreign channels and its coverage abroad.

CNN's most well-known international reporter, Christiane Amanpour, had to leave the country Tuesday as her visa was expiring. The regime is refusing to renew visas for those reporters who arrived ahead of last week's elections.

Farnaz Fassihi, the Iranian-American senior foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, says Iranian news agencies with links to the ruling regime are seeking to whip up support by blaming foreign media for the unrest. And, she says, many of her sources are being arrested.

Yet because she spent much of her childhood in Iran and speaks Farsi fluently, Fassihi has been able to slip out and witness rioting and protests firsthand.

There's another aid to her reporting:

"Thankfully, due to technology, what's happening in Iran is being documented by Iranians," she says by phone from Tehran. Iranians equipped with digital cameras or even just camera phones are creating and sharing footage of developments. Social media sites such as Flickr, Twitter and Facebook have become saturated with material from Iran.

"Information is flowing very quickly, and I don't think they can really seriously censor it in any way," Fassihi says.

Not that the authorities aren't trying. The BBC's satellite Persian TV channel is among those being jammed inside Iran, for example. The Voice of America's rival Persian News Network took steps to avoid that, according to the channel's acting managing director, Alex Belida, by beaming its programming from two additional satellites.

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