Citizen media takes the stage as protests continue in Iran

With foreign media expelled from Iran, and local journalists being targeted, citizen journalists are becoming vital in covering the situation on the ground. MENASSAT interviewed Magda Abu-Fadil, Director of the Journalism Training Program at the American University of Beirut (AUB), to discuss what this means for the future of journalism.
Int'l Herald Tribune Cartoon
World turns to citizen media for news on Iran © International Herald Tribute

BEIRUT, June 23, 2009 (MENASSAT) - With the crackdown on foreign media in Iran, BBC, CNN, Al Arabiya, and other major news outlets have been forced to step aside, no longer able to provide breaking news from the ground.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and online media sources have become a platform for what is often described as “citizen journalism,” providing up to the minute breaking news about what is happening in Iran. 

The day after Iran’s presidential elections took place on June 12 and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was announced victorious, protests broke out and allegations of voting fraud began to surface by the opposition, led by reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Videos, pictures and news of the protests are being posted almost instantly by people in Iran and recycled by the mainstream media with disclaimers about the material.  It has become rare to see original footage from a major media outlet itself.

As Iran continues to impose severe restrictions on media workers - Iran now has a total of 33 journalists and cyber-dissidents in its jails and has expelled most foreign media, online media as tools have overcome, or at least have been working around, the regime’s attempt at censorship.

MENASSAT interviewed Magda Abu-Fadil, Director of the Journalism Training Program at the American University of Beirut (AUB), to discuss online citizen media, and it’s role in providing news to the world. 

MENASSAT: Severe restrictions on foreign journalists have forced media outlets to take news from citizen journalists. Can you comment on this?

“These changes have been happening anyway, with or without Iran. In the case of Iran, it is more prominent. The only outlet for information coming from there is not being provided by what some people call “professional journalists.” And the only alternative is state-run media in Iran.

“What is happening has to be documented for history. If and when they can verify information – which is what most media organizations are doing - then people can get a relatively good idea of what is happening, by taking from here and there.

“For years we had the Soviet Bloc, among many other countries, where the media is severely restricted, and people still managed to get information out, some people are harassed for it, some are killed, but that is the price you pay for freedom.”

MENASSAT: And will this new form of journalism change the mainstream media?

MAGDA ABU-FADIL: “It already has. When I see people scrambling on BBC, CNN, and Al Arabiya, for example, trying to sit and analyze the situation, they’re at a disadvantage.

“This has been in the works for some time, but people have not yet woken up to the reality of it. The issue is often debated at media forums.”

MENASSAT: The Iranian government is trying to make it difficult for the world to see what is happening in Iran. With new media it is becoming more and more difficult. Can new media challenge state repression?

MAGDA ABU-FADIL: “It has so far. It has succeeded in making the world aware of the tragedy of Iran. It is in the interests of every repressive regime to stifle people. This is true throughout history, where changes occur in the media and regimes shut them up, but they really can’t do it anymore. In the old days, they would kill the messenger, now the messages spread like wildfire.

“People with ill-intent are going to try their best to suppress journalists. Iranians are blaming the media, but it’s not just the media, people are fed up, especially those who traveled and those who watch satellite networks. They begin to think, why is so and so in another country about to do this? A lot of  people are going to rebel and say enough is enough.

“Mousavi is not as liberal as one may think. Yes he is a reformer, but he is also for a nuclear program in Iran, he was prime minister of Iran for eight years, and he was involved in shady deals. One has to put things into perspective. Journalism is quite often not put into context, so why is this happening?”

MENASSAT: Does this present a challenge to mainstream media?

MAGDA ABU-FADIL: “In a sense, yes. It’s not a matter of challenge but a matter of priority, if a journalist doesn’t have time to check a source, at least someone should be doing it.

“It’s a matter of who is handling that news – across the board. It can happen all over. Constant training is important, because sometimes people slip.”

MENASSAT: How do we measure the reliability/credibility of this form of media?

MAGDA ABU-FADIL: “My perspective is that it is very important that journalists, and people in the business, should be group trained to produce accurate, fair and balanced journalism and to meet certain standards agreed upon.

“A certain minimum of ethics need to be factored in. There needs to be a combination of training, good writing skills and ethics, and journalists need to know what to focus on, what not to focus on, and not to blow things out of proportion. There has to be common sense.”