The violence and everyman suppression of post-election Iran was crystallized to the world when student Neda Agha-Soltan was shot in the chest and killed by one of Ayatollah Khameini’s Basij paramilitary officers. Neda was on her way to a protest march.
Despite Iran’s best efforts to keep news of the ongoing protests contained, this incident has proven that the Internet’s facilitation of citizen journalism is more powerful than the constraints of traditional press. Which is to say that you can boot all the foreign journalists from your country, but amateur video combined with the broadcast and sharing power of the Internet can lead to worldwide awareness of whatever you’ve been trying so hard to keep on the down-low. And the more you try, the bigger the backlash.
Video of the killing (and it’s very graphic, so be prepared if you seek it out) circulated quickly. Commentary and reaction began spreading virally via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, websites, e-mail and – as we’ve come to expect when people have something important to say – CafePress, where those touched and angered by the assassination began in earnest to design protest T-shirts to share their message of outrage. This is one of those events wherein the merchandise is primarily a symbolic creative outlet for its designer, rather than a “this is a funny headline” somewhat entrepreneurial T-shirt event.
Neda has become a symbol of all that the protestors are rallying against in Iran – and the more the Iranian government seeks to silence the voice of the people, the more they’re empowered to use alternate forms of communication as a broadcast system. This is not a new phenomenon in cultures where neither press nor elective process are free from government intervention; having lived in South America in the mid-90’s, one of the things that immediately struck me was the graffiti. And it wasn’t the amount of graffiti that caught my attention – that’s nothing new to anyone who’s lived in big urban cities – but rather the content. The graffiti in Quito wasn’t, as most American graffitti is, vanity tagging. By and large these were hard-hitting political statements, brought to the streets by an oppressed people looking to find the most accessible public of places to make their voices heard.
And so it is with Neda. No longer is this kind of government-chafing message necessarily constrained by the locality of a public wall. No longer is there as much personal risk when you can trade in your can of spray paint for an Internet connection. Getting online from half a world away can get the word out, and get it out fast. You can tell your story. You can influence people. You can use the almighty T-shirt to get it off your mind and onto your chest, and you can empower an army of grassroots participation. You can even get a message to the foreign journalists denied access to a first-person vantage point, and they’ll write your story anyway.
Or, as President Obama put it: “No iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness.”
And so, while the Iranian government prohibits Neda’s family and friends from having memorials in her honor and tries to locally silence the voices mourning her, the world is talking. And from our end, a T-shirt is worth 1,000 words.