Launched in June 2011, the Iranian Stories platform picks and analyses thousands of videos posted on the web since the aborted Iranian revolution of 2009. The website offers a chronological reading of events through video interviews by journalists and bloggers as well as a users guide of anti-censorship web browsing which allows potential witnesses to express themselves without fear. We met with the founder of this innovative project, French journalist Thibault Lefèvre.
How was the idea of Iranian Stories born?
I went to Iran in 2009 from April to June, right before the elections. I was initially supposed to go to Afghanistan for Swiss radio but the trip was cancelled at the last minute so I found myself with a free month ahead of me. When I came back to Paris afterwards, I noticed that Iranians were posting images of events related to the follow-up of the electoral campaign online. Through these images, I was able to stay in touch with the country, something that was impossible to do through official Iranian media or Western media which were covering the event as much as they could.
I have developed a keen interest for participative information: how to use images, how to source them, and how to avoid the issue of manipulation or sourcing errors. This was the case with images from the Haiti earthquake in Haiti. France 3 and BFM TV had used AFP images as were they from Haiti whereas in fact they were footage of an earthquake in Japan. Today, we as journalists have to find a new work method. The Iranian Stories project is the result of a trip, but also of a reflection on new forms of journalism.
How did you proceed? Were you in contact with Iranian bloggers?
No. There were two phases: first, a phase during which I collected videos. I gathered 3000 images and tried to source them according to the means that I had. For instance, on some videos you can see the the name of a street. This allows you to localize the place. When the images are taken from different point of views, and all of them mention the same date, I consider that the video can be classified. In the end I found myself with a hard disk of 3000 video files, sorted according to date and place. I stopped at February 2010. These images need to be analyzed: the aim of this website is to create a space of living memory.
By “a space for living memory”, do you refer to something that lives on after the 2009 events?
Exactly. Chronological sequences are changeable, progressive. If something happens in Iran tomorrow, and we have the means to pursue data processing in such way, we will keep doing so. The first phase was the phase of collecting videos. Our intention was to tell stories through a mass of available videos. The next issue was sourcing images. It was only then that the idea of the website was born. These Iranian protesters gave us their eyes. So we wanted to let them speak. Therefore, since 2010, we use a secured witness protocol destined to put words behind these images.
Were the bloggers and journalists that we see expressing themselves on the website interviewed in Iran?
No, we met most of them in Turkey. Some 70 000 Iranians left Iran in 2009, many of them to Turkish cities like Kayseri and Nevsehir. The first shooting was in March 2011. This allowed us to show that people are ready to speak out, something that can encourage other witnesses to tell their stories by filming themselves via their webcam. Today, we have 65 recorded testimonials. Five of these were shot in Iran through the webcam system and managed to pass due to a secured protocol that we offer.
When working with collecting these stories, we asked ourselves how we could pass through all the state censorship and security controls. Happily, we were very well advised on how to create an attack-proof server. This way, the data gets dispersed on different servers which makes it practically untraceable from the moment users start protecting their computers. There is a section on the website called digital survey check-list, which guarantees the user’s anonymity through five steps.
Is this new, a website that explains in an educational way how to escape censorship?
That’s the aim of the website: teaching people how to protect themselves against censorship. From the moment people connect to our servers, their data is secured. What we cannot control the security of is the data on the hard disk of witnesses, or the data during its transfer from the users’ computers to our servers.
Have you had feedback from people on this particular issue?
Frankly, no. Iranians haven’t been waiting for Iranian Stories to protect them. They’ve used things like VPN. We just created a place to centralize this information.
Do you plan to extend the project to other countries?
Yes, absolutely. It is only normal that after the buzz created by Iranian Stories, other websites dedicated to other countries would succeed this first project. Right now, we are witnessing the first revolutions covered by their own actors. The Arab revolutions have changed things. I am in touch with the founders of the project 18 Days in Egypt, who are Columbia University journalists. Their idea is to make available the same chronological sequence as on Iranian Stories, and to create a common space by offering them the idea of the project. Our website is a research tool for journalists which allows them to penetrate closed places, places to where they do not have access. It is an alternative for journalists who have no direct contact with their subject, and also for the problem of image manipulation.
What is the budget of the website?
Today, in order to run Iranian Stories, we need 20.000 euros per month. The architecture server is expensive, the monitoring servers dedicated to data security are expensive. We also have a committee of experts comprised of human rights activists and journalists who verify the veracity of the data we receive. And to that comes data processing. But online journalism does not bring money unless you put enormous ads on your website.
We want to be accessible, which means creating a website that works with both high and low-speed connections. It also means being linguistically accessible, that is why the website is in Farsi, English and French. This requires paying translation fees which are expensive.
Who are your readers?
It varies. We have many readers from the Iranian diaspora, human rights activists from groups like the International Organization for Human Rights (FIDH) and Internet Without Borders, journalists and new technology users. We are at the crossroads of these four worlds. And Iranians in Iran can access the website through proxy via an html version.
Have you had to deal with Iranian authorities? Indirectly?
One of my co-producers did have his computer attacked. But I am not sure if that was related to our website. If they want to destroy our website, they have to attack our servers. But there is no reason to be paranoiac. I think they already have a lot of trouble dealing with what they consider to be propaganda.
What feedback do you get from Iranians in Iran?
The five webcam testimonials that we posted on our website come from Iranians living in Iran. We also hired someone who will start this week to communicate through facebook and Twitter as well as Iranian social networks like Mardomak and Balatarin. Iranian Stories is really a bottle in the sea. All we are saying is: “Look, there is this option, think about it”.
If it works, it works, if it doesn’t, that’s not a problem. Our project is constantly evolving anyway. Iranian Stories is a laboratory of ideas. What interests us is getting information out from closed spaces, whichever they might be – prisons or countries practicing censorship. And, there are closed spaces which are thoroughly locked by democratic governments too. They are everywhere and it is therefore necessary to work for more transparency. New technology has to be used as a weapon by journalists.