Iran: From Revolt on the Streets to Resistance on the Net
The voice on the telephone is tremulous, the breathing rapid: "You have to spread this news!" Almost every conversation begins with this sentence, but it is still as haunting as it was the very first time. "Tell me what is wrong", the young Iranian woman whispers into her mobile phone. It is Spring 2011, and she is sitting in her pretty flat in Germany. The world around her is focused on the euro crisis and ending atomic energy – the Iranian revolts from 2009 have almost been forgotten. But in Iran, the fight continues. It is 6 o'clock in the morning, and this Iranian Ph.D.-student has spent the entire night at her computer keyboard.
At demonstrations on the previous day, a student died, she explains to me later. The boy was beaten to death by security forces, but government henchmen are trying to skew the facts of the case: They claimed that the young man was with the secret police and that the students themselves beat him to death after unmasking him. "They even forged his papers", she reports. Now, on the day after his death, the funeral is scheduled to take place. This is what the call is about.
"The students wanted to accompany the body of their comrade to the graveyard", the voice breathes, "but the guards locked everyone inside their classroom and took away their mobile phones to prevent any contact with the outside world." The caller is a journalist. He wanted to conduct interviews with the students, but was forbidden to file his report and is now himself locked inside the director's office. His voice drops even further: "Across from Teheran University, there is also a demonstration, the guards are dividing into two groups." And then he quickly adds "Nemisheh digeh, man raftam" – he is unable to talk any longer and hangs up.
She never asked him to send her information. But the journalist continues to contact her since they met two years ago at the beginning of the protest movement in Iran in 2009. He is a reporter for state television and sends her all the reports and videos that he or one of his colleagues are not allowed to broadcast. He sends her photographs from the director's office this time as well. She will make sure they get to the right people.
"You can't even shop anymore because of all the soldiers"
A country-wide wave of protests shook Iran after the controversial re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2009. It was initially celebrated as a digital revolt, since the demonstrators mobilised and organised via thousands of blogs, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Digital media seemed essential to the protest movement itself.
The powers that be in Iran defended themselves by blocking internet platforms and even intercepting text messages. But this interference just spurred on the internet community to find new creative ways of spreading the news. They developed anti-filter programs to encrypt and restore websites. Using codewords, they continue to smuggle news past the state filter programs to this very day. "Shop" became a secret code when demonstrations were called for at the beginning of March in the lead up to the Persian New Year. As in: "I'm heading out to do my New Year's shopping now." Or: "You can't even shop anymore because of all the soldiers."
Iran's youth were primarily responsible for the revolution. While this may sound like a fairly limited segment of society, it is, in fact, a group of impressive size: Around two thirds of the population of Iran is under age 30. These are the Iranians hitting the streets. And they are also the ones who sit at their computers day and night, blogging, hacking or uploading photos and videos.
The link between the real and the digital world is very close. As soon as young activists find a demonstration, they send instant messages to everyone they know – including the Ph.D. student in Germany, since she can more easily pass the news on to local Iranians from a country without internet censorship. The Green activists even have informants in the military. After all, not every soldier completing his mandatory military service is on the side of the government. Before a widely publicised demonstration, some of them released videos of operational training sessions on the internet in which the commander-in-chief explains which side streets the soldiers should drive the demonstrators into so they can be met by plainclothes militias. The videos allowed demonstrators to avoid these dangerous side streets. "The plainclothes militias can come down much harder than the security forces in uniform," explains my acquaintance, "because they have no visible connection to the government."
Revolutionary in Exile
The young Iranian woman came to Germany to attend university many years ago. She is well connected to some important people from the Green Movement in her homeland. They depend on people like her who, ensconced in a secure foreign country, can ensure that secret information is widely disseminated. It is not just about the spread of news abroad, but also passing along information to other oppositional groups in Iran itself. The journalist, for example, is always on hand for all important events – except that he is often not allowed to report on what happens. The secret service repeatedly sends him text messages, reminding him of the severe legal consequences that await if he maintains forbidden contact to Western media.
In Iran, the censorship of public media has taken on almost bizarre forms, the doctoral candidate tells me. Not just critical reports are strictly forbidden – even the colour green has almost disappeared from the public sphere. She laughs as she tells me that a sponsor could not be named on the advertising poster for a recent art exhibition because the firm was called "green" in Persian. "Although they had absolutely nothing at all to do with the Green Revolution!"
It must all seem unreal to her at times when she sits in front of her screen in Germany. The news and pictures of revolts and deaths, conspiracies and plans, reach her via Facebook or Twitter, generally as private text messages. She passes them on immediately to as many people as possible. First she writes in Persian, so that the information reaches the activists in Iran, then translates them into English and Spanish. She asks friends abroad to translate them further into other languages. She also passes on reports from bloggers. It all happens very fast. "Once I sent a message and just an hour later, it was sent back to me with the exact same wording from an acquaintance in the USA. It is really fascinating!"
The doctoral candidate also works with German media. When the protests reached their height in 2009, she received repeated calls from the public German TV station "ARD", she recalls. The Tagesschau – one of Germany's most important daily TV-news broadcast – reported on the events she had drawn to their attention. Other TV and radio stations along with the German daily and weekly newspapers used her information as well.
After two television interviews, however, that publicised her name, she received a call from the embassy. Nothing concrete – just someone wanting to know if her telephone number and address were still current. "It was a threat", she is certain. "They wanted to tell me that they know where I live." She does not reveal her name anymore.
Digital revolution or failure on the net?
The internet is still the setting of the political battle raging in Iran today. As it grows increasingly dangerous to protest on the streets, hackers from the opposition try to access the homepages of politicians. Supporters from all over the world send the activists their IP numbers so that they can remain undetected, or provide advice on developing anti-filter programmes. A few months ago, hackers from both inside Iran and abroad managed to bring the state television station's site under their control briefly, my acquaintance informs me.
But the activists are not the only ones using the digital world. The state apparatus is hiring more and more good hackers who have declared online war against the revolutionaries. Informants give themselves other identities on Facebook and try to infiltrate groups of friends. "The government used to use snitches and informers to spy on the opposition", the young Iranian bristles, "now the Iranian government uses Facebook." In the beginning, when the government was not very skilled at dealing with the internet, the protest movement proved very successful and news spread quickly. But as soon as the government began gathering information online, it succeeded in brutally defeating protests and warning off opponents with mass arrests and executions. Online media, while they have helped the Iranian opposition, have not been able to save them.
One and a half years after the protests began in Iran, opponents in Egypt and Tunisia stormed the streets and the internet to bring their governments to their knees. They, in contrast, were successfull. A great number of activists in Egypt said that "they learned from Iran".
On the following evening, the mobile phone in the rented flat in Germany rings again. The fight continues. The Iranian student runs to the phone, then sits down at the computer and switches on a number of television stations: Haleh Sahabi, a daughter of a politician, has been murdered. This activist for women's rights had been imprisoned for a number of years and was released briefly to attend her father's funeral. According to the BBC News, government henchmen used this opportunity to eliminate her: They stormed the mourners and killed Haleh Sahabi. Even German politician Claudia Roth, Party Chief of "the Greens" seems deeply shocked by the events.
The lines run hot in the small room in Germany. The young activist translates, reads, compares information, sends emails. She is well-known on the net. She cannot risk a trip to her homeland in the present climate. "Anyway, I don't want to return there right now", she says with a smile. After all, she can help the revolution much more effectively from Germany.
Update: The Anniversary of the Protest Movement
On June 12, 2011, two years after the disputed re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, demonstrations again took place in Teheran. According to reports from the opposition, masses of demonstrators along with innumerable police officers swarmed to the protests. On the telephone, the informant from the Iranian state television station reported that police tried to provoke the protesters, who remained calm and continued to demonstrate peacefully. Still many were arrested. "Police stopped anyone wearing a green ribbon or green clothing. And cameras were installed in all the minders' cars." According to informants from Iran, more older people participated in the protests than ever before. At the same time, an imprisoned dissident, journalist Reza Hoda Saber, died after a ten-day hunger strike. He was protesting against the unexplained death of the women's right activist and politician's daughter Haleh Sahabi.