Following the Iranian election on 12 June, which both sides claim to have won, Iranians and the rest of the world wants to know the truth about the results, as well as wanting to follow protests and other developments. But this has proved more difficult than anticipated given the restrictions on reporting, both by Iranians and foreigners, and the occasion proved to be an opportunity for citizen journalism to show its value.
Mainstream media has been suffering from severe restrictions in Iran, even tougher than during last year's Zimbabwean elections, foreign editor for Channel 4 News Ben de Pear told the Guardian. Foreign journalists first had to get special press cards and were closely monitored, then on the Tuesday following the election, foreign journalists were banned from reporting on the streets. The BBC's correspondent has been asked to leave the country after the broadcaster was accused of supporting rioters. And it is not just foreign reporters who are suffering: now even reporters of Iranian nationality are being confined to their offices. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), 26 Iranian journalists, editors and bloggers have been imprisoned since June 14.
Citizen video becomes a symbol
In the absence of an abundance of professional reporters, amateurs have stepped up. One of the most watched and discussed videos to come out of the tragedy, and one which is emblamatic of the role of citizen journalism in reporting from Iran, is that of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman who was walking near the scene of clashes between pro-government militias and demonstrators when she was shot. The video has prompted international outcry and the girl's death has since come to represent the tragedy of the conflict, a "symbol of the anti-government movement," according to the New York Times. It was taken, not by a reporter with a camera, but by a bystander on a mobile phone, and posted on Facebook and YouTube after the man sent the 40-second clip to a friend who then forwarded to friends and news sites in Europe and the US.
A Twitter revolution?
Talk of a Twitter revolution swiftly spread as Iranians and others in the country used the social network Twitter to get their news out to the world, and it has been used extensively by the media. Twitter is particularly effective as a method of spreading news as it is harder to censor, given that it can be accessed via various different applications on computers or mobile phones, as well as via the website. #IranElection has been the top trending topic on Twitter for days, with thousands of updates an hour using the hash tag to get included in the feed and direct interested observers to text, image or video content. Following a request from US President Obama, Twitter decided to delay maintenance to the site in light of the important role it was playing in keeping people informed, carrying it out during Tehran's night rather than daylight hours.
Twitter is clearly not immune to censorship, however. The following message has been passed around Facebook over the last few days amongst Anglo-Saxon users:
"FREEDOM OF SPEECH: If anyone is on twitter, set your location to Tehran and your time zone to GMT +3.30. Security forces are hunting for bloggers using location/timezone searches. The more people at this location, the more of a logjam it creates for forces trying to shut Iranians' access to the internet down. Cut & paste & pass it on."
Clearly, there are problems with relying on information generated by amateurs. Benoit Hervieu of RSF told Editor & Publisher that one of the main problems is that because many people want to remain anonymous, it is harder to verify information. And indeed, it seems that much false information has been circulating. After Twitter was hailed as the voice of the revolution, a backlash quickly emerged asserting its unreliability. There is always the possibility, after all, that interested parties might deliberately try to misinform, or might be so personally involved in the debate that they cannot maintain impartiality. And one of the disadvantages of a campaign such as that mentioned above, encouraging international Twitter users to set their locations to Iran, could end up misleading journalists searching for information on the network.
So how are citizen journalism agencies dealing with these risks and challenges?
Checking for reliability is a top priority for those trying to sell their content to traditional media companies. Citizen journalism agency Demotix has obtained many images from freelancers and amateurs portraying events in Iran, including two pictures which have appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Demotix COO Jonathan Tepper emphasised that Demotix understands the importance of reliability of sources and "believes that serious citizen journalism needs to take all the ethics of traditional reporting and build on them, such as verifiability and protection of sources." All submissions go through a vetting procedure which includes looking at the metadata in photos.
Citizenside, which specializes in citizen photo journalism, has managed to get hold of some good images which have been published by mainstream media outlets, but co-founder Matthieu Stefani said that it has been "really hard" both to establish contacts in Iran and to receive images from these contacts. "The big issue is that most of the contributions we've received were sent through proxies, with most of the time no way to contact our contributors as cellphone networks don't work really well," he explained, and therefore his team is extremely cautious about what they accept. He said that the photos that the agency has been pushing most to its clients were received from known and trusted members in the UK who were sent them by close relatives in Iran.
The Observers, a project run by TV news station France 24 combining citizen journalism with professional editing, has been active in its coverage of Iran. Founder of the initiative Julien Pain told the EW that what makes their coverage particularly useful is the fact that they already had trusted contacts in Iran before the election, and hence they have fewer problems with establishing the reliability of sources of information, particularly when using proxy servers. "We worked with these people before the situation was tense," he explained, "so we know them." He gave the example of a girl who has recorded a video describing how the censorship works, with whom he and his team had already worked. Prior to any major election, Pain added, the Observers tries to enlarge its network of contacts, which in this case proved particularly useful. Even using trusted contacts, Pain said that the Observers still cross-checks information as far as possible.
Amra Tareen, CEO of AllVoices, a project that aggregates professional and amateur news on one site, has a different approach: publish everything and let the reader decide. She said that the site has received more than 1,000 submissions, in English and Farsi, since the election, gathered via proxy servers as the AllVoices site is blocked. She stressed that submissions have tackled both sides of the issue and that this is one of the most crucial aspects of citizen journalism and of her site in particular: that anyone can be heard. "we're neutral and anyone can have their voices heard on our platform--that's key for the credibility of citizen journalism; bias will undermine the concept and keep citizen journalism and citizen journalists from ever being taken as seriously as they ought to be."
Generally it seems that such a situation where media access is severely reduced has provided citizen journalism with a significant opportunity to prove its importance. Tareen commented that "we really want to use this opportunity to show that Cit-J is not only about massive amount of non-qualified content, but also good "pro-am" work that we have been promoting for years now," said Stefani.
Getting pictures on the front page of a major daily is likely to be a huge boost to Demotix in terms of fame and credibility. Tepper was clear that Demotix is trying to supplement mainstream media rather than replace it, but said that "we think our reporting can sometimes be more accurate than the mainstream media" because "most of our users record what is known to them, in their city or country" and therefore "Demotix images provide a more accurate representation of the subject from a local perspective."
For the Observers, the situation has provided an opportunity for collaboration with the TV station on an unprecedented level. Usually, Pain said, he would publish a video on the Observers website and offer it to TV, now he has been working more with programming at France 24 to supply them with videos first before putting them online, to offer a period of exclusivity. "We've really moved a step forward here," he said. "We have learnt how to work together, and it's not going to be the same any more."
Although amateur 'citizen journalists' do not have the knowledge or expertise to analyse developments the way a professional journalist could, they can certainly witness and record events, and when traditional media coverage is limited, this is a valuable service. In terms of providing a true news service, amateur contributions must be verified so that readers can trust them, which is a priority for citizen journalism agencies. As opportunities continue to arise for citizen journalism to prove its value, the mainstream media is likely to incorporate it with increasing frequency and develop new ways of working closer with citizen journalism agencies.