My Word: The technological revolution

The Iranian election results are being contested on the Web no less than on the streets.

liat collins 88 (photo credit: )
liat collins 88
(photo credit: )
'Don't you know, they're talking about a revolution. It sounds like a whisper," sang Tracy Chapman way back in the 1980s. But the events taking place in Iran are not so much a whisper as a chat in an Internet forum - which shows how much the world has changed in the three decades since the ayatollahs ousted the Shah of Iran. The protests have even earned the nickname "The Twitter Revolution." Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims he was re-elected president in the June 12 elections in results which he was able to predict with uncanny accuracy before the polls closed. On the surface, he was not surprised by the force of the protests of supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Or at least he managed to hide it with a business-as-usual trip to Russia. That's because the real fight has not been in the streets of Teheran, despite the casualties. Mousavi's supporters, wearing his party's green colors, have paraded through the capital finding safety in numbers - and the complaints of rigged elections even reached the Soccer World Cup qualifier with Iranian players boldly wearing green wristbands. But this has been very much a "surf war." Ahmadinejad has arguably helped Iran's poor, who continue to support him. Mousavi targeted the disaffected educated and monied classes. And this section of the population has been waging a war where the poverty-stricken and illiterate have no access: Cyberspace. Democracy Iranian-style dictated that opposition Web sites were closed down in the days running up to the election. Then, in his attempts to stop the post-election protests, Ahmadinejad found it more expedient to impose a near-total clampdown on Internet connections, cellphone communications, and satellite dishes than shoot in a crowd. The population of Iran is a young one; half the population is 27 or younger. Despite the strict societal demands of the ayatollahs, many of the opposition's supporters who have never traveled abroad have seen the outside world via the Internet and made "friends" by passing through a virtual portal: Facebook (where you could also meet Mousavi). These younger people might not be able to effect a change straight away, but they are heading in that direction and their tools are Web sites, mobile telephones with cameras and SMSs. A concerned Scandinavian journalist warned this writer and others at the Post against accidentally exposing the identities of sources of information in Iran. The secret police have been seizing satellite dishes and tracking down local Twitterers, virtually the only source of uncensored news from the country in turmoil, he warned. Clearly, these young demonstrators are coming of age in a very different world to the one in which their parents witnessed the downfall of the ruler. The last Iranian revolution was seen on television - Israel didn't yet have color broadcasts. This time, if you want to see a revolution in the making, just Google it. One wonders if the genre of war films won't ultimately shrink to YouTube-sized segments. Today's revolutionaries and fighters don't write diaries, they blog. Future historians seeking material won't thumb through yellowing pieces of paper trying to figure out faded words. They'll probably struggle with computers too advanced to open old files and wonder just what past icons have been erased from collective memory with a push of the delete key. AT PRESENT, it's not easy to get an accurate picture of the situation in Iran. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has condemned the Iranian authorities' intimidation of reporters trying to cover the street demonstrations. Local and foreign media have come under fire and a number of Iranian reporters have been detained or arrested. But it is the foreign press that is now under pressure, said the IFJ in a statement issued June 17. Acts of harassment include confiscating material and prohibiting journalists from filming street protests. "In some cases officials have been 'inviting journalists' to leave the country. There have also been reports that BBC radio and television services have suffered 'heavy electronic jamming,'" said the statement. A correspondent for al-Arabiya's TV news channel was reportedly told to keep his office closed for a week. Journalists from Netherlands and Belgium public broadcasting services were briefly detained and correspondents from German ARD and ZDF received warnings not to report on anything and were not allowed to leave their hotel. Many foreign journalists are concerned that they will be forced to leave Iran this week when their visas expire. They had expected to be finished with the election coverage, but now demonstrators carrying placards with the post-electoral question "Where is my vote?" are the story. "The intimidation of media comes after President Ahmadinejad tried to blame media for his troubles," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. "He wants to pin the blame for angry protest by Iranians on foreign media, but reporters doing their job must not be made scapegoats for this crisis. "Journalists should be able to report freely and without harassment. Censorship and bans on media will not convince the world that these elections were fair and nor will they cool the temperature on the streets," said White. For Israelis, the events in Iran are a reminder that no matter how low local politics get, things could be worse - although last week's boycott of parliamentary activity by the opposition is a new level about as welcome as the dropping water level of the Kinneret. Despite stories circulating on the Web that Israel is behind some kind of conspiracy to bring down the Iranian regime by fostering the Twitter Revolution, it should not automatically be assumed that the suave Mousavi would necessarily be less of a threat to Israel. The Iranians are arguing over matters that affect them - Islamic dress codes, the economy, even the right to use the Internet. They are not arguing over what affects us: the race for nuclear weapons and support for Hamas and Hizbullah. On that, they basically agree. As long as technological wars are fought in cyberspace, Israelis can watch via laptops. But sooner or later the protests will be over, one way or another, and whoever wins, it won't be Israel.