Getting the Word Out

Foreign journalists have been told to stop reporting, but the ingenious and fearless people of Iran will carry on.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Iran’s June 12 election and its aftermath.

A supporter of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi

TEHRAN, Iran—“Pause on the Grand Stairway at Persepolis and imagine trumpeters heralding your arrival” … “Indulge in rosewater ice cream as you stroll between centuries-old bridges in Esfahan.”

I’m staring at the back of Lonely Planet’s latest guide to Iran and listening to the Cowboy Junkies on my iPod, because that’s about all I can do for now.

All journalists working in Iran for foreign media outlets have been told by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, better known as Ershad—politely, I must admit—that we’re not to report any further on the events taking place just around the corner.

“The situation is out of our control, and we can no longer guarantee your safety in Iran,” they say. As things look now, I don’t know that they ever could. It seems that many tentacles of the local establishment are in a process of damage control.

I got the call a bit later than some of my comrades. I was standing on Valiasr Street watching throngs of people, many of them dressed in black as a sign of mourning, march silently toward a planned demonstration in front of the Iranian state TV station.

“Please don’t take any picture or video,” people asked. I agreed, as I had watched many local citizens documenting the event themselves.

I stood wondering which route to take home, while the thousands, who just a few days earlier felt so much hope about the coming election, walked onward. Many carried signs in English, intended for the noticeably absent foreign media to snap. Indeed, the last week has often felt like a series of massive photo ops gone awry.

Still, there was plenty of hope that word would get out. I knew that the handful of foreign journalists still here could help by transmitting what they saw. Given the limitations imposed on us even before the situation became contentious, I think we’ve done a good job of reporting something that no one can seem to define.

Perhaps just offering a sense of the overall confusion, rampant conjecture, and—for lack of a better word—con is enough.

The fearless people of Iran have been the real force behind getting the news out. With little more than phone cameras and dial-up Internet connections, they have mobilized the international community to pay attention.

On the day after the election, when riot police beat stone-throwing protesters, I ran for cover while hundreds of Iranians stood motionless to “get the shot.”

For people who have experienced their share of violence over the last 30 years, most of all when Saddam Hussein’s bombs reached Tehran, it seems that taking a beating for a worthy cause is reasonable for once.

Despite text-messaging blocking, cut cell phone service, and Internet that at times feels like a sentence in purgatory, they’ve continued to get these images and videos out.

Don’t forget that these are the offspring of people who pieced together thousands of pages of shredded documents after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized back in 1979.

Twitter, as everyone now knows, is playing a pivotal role in mobilizing the daily rallies, even though it’s blocked, along with Facebook and YouTube. So you are probably wondering how people are getting their tweet on. Well, ingenious Iranians have long circumvented these filters, creating proxy servers on which access to all manner of banned material is possible.

I don’t think there’s any turning back, either. For years, many of the rules limiting the outside world’s access to information from Iran have been lackadaisically implemented. It seems to me that if the regime wants to start enforcing them now, it will be an uphill battle.

In the meantime, contradictory images will flow in the face of official rhetoric, and it will be up to the rest of the world to decipher what’s really happening here. Welcome to the club.

Associated Press video: an Iran street rally