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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twitter-ocracy in Tehran

The revolution will not be televised. But apparently it will involve tweets.

While the ayatollahs are trying desperately to keep control of the now 30 year old Iranian revolution, social media is proving more powerful than club-wielding, fatwa-brandishing theocrats.

The role of Twitter in bringing democracy to Iran is still underway. A couple of things seem clear: that social media (like all media) has an amazing potential to be a powerful agency of citizenship, even as it has an ability to keep us endlessly amused and constantly socializing. The combination of cell phone cameras, youtube uploads and tweets is making the old guard tremble. And so they should.

This is reminiscent of the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, the longtime Communist dictator of Romania in 1989. Back then, there was no social media. But there was a new satellite-delivered tv station called CNN, along with the BBC and the BBC World Service on short wave radio.

I was living in Amsterdam and freelancing for CBC Radio. BBC Radio was broadcasting something it called "Radio 648," so named for the frequency on which it was aired - 648 khz. While funding for 648 came from the Foreign Office of the British government, its programming was - at that time - very inventive. It started with a traditional newscast at the top of the clock. Then there were 15 or 20 minute segments aimed at a newly de-Communizing Europe. Jazz, gardening, comedy and a lot of politics and discussions. Each segment was repeated at a different time over the next few hours, so if you missed something, it could be heard again during the daypart.

Radio 648 was aimed at central and eastern Europe, and it originated from somewhere in southern England. As a result, it came in loud and clear in Amsterdam. It was apparently also so popular and so appealing to British audiences, that it began to siphon off listeners from BBC's Radio 4 - the predominant domestic information station. Sometime in the early 1990s, it ended its service. It seemed to have done its part in bringing down the Berlin Wall.

But in late December, 1989, Radio 648 broadcast live from all over Eastern Europe. The revolution in Romania was particularly well reported, with live broadcasts from demonstrations in the capital, Bucharest and from Timisoara, another large city where anti-government demonstrations occurred.

The BBC, ably led by reporter Owen Bennett-Jones kept reporting on where the demonstrations were happening and where the riot police were massing. Another reporter did the same reporting, live from Timisoara. The revolution may not have been televised, but it was reported and it was incredible radio.

Some years later, in 2004 I was invited to meet with journalists from Radio Romania to talk about journalism management. The remains of a communist management still lingered, as these journalists had no confidence in their management. They insisted that all management - indeed, all editing is only about censorship. It was impossible at that time to suggest to the journalists and to management that it did not have to be about censorship. It was clear that it would take more than a few days of discussions to change a lifetime of suspicion and repression.

However, I did ask the Romanian colleagues if they remembered the role that the BBC World Service played back in 1989. They were all in awe of what the BBC had done for them, especially Bennett-Jones' reporting. It had given them hope that they were not alone. Romanians listened to the reports and moved their demonstrators around accordingly. It was the only source of information that allowed them to co-ordinate anti-government activities.

The Ayatollahs are right but wrong: if you can stem the flow of information, you can control the people. But it appears it's too late for that.

What the BBC once did in Bucharest, Twitter is doing in Tehran.

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