The limitations of video journalism as a tool of revolution:

Protestors in late January 2011 in Tehran, Iran.

Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have been tools of amusement and, more lately, business, for most of the western world. But following events in Egypt and Tunisia we have come to see these new social media and video sharing sites as the lifeblood of revolution.

Online video sharing has become a seemingly unstoppable force as technology-literate young people take advantage of these new arteries of information to share ideas and expose footage of government brutality to a global audience.  An idealistic mood has gripped the world as it seems inevitable that totalitarian regimes are doomed to crumble under the steady erosion of Western ideas and technology.

But is this real? Can these new tools create a de-facto democracy across the globe, or do they only pose a threat to those regimes that, ironically, already permit some social freedoms?

Take Iran. Within hours of the initial protests in Egypt and Tunisia the internet was flooded with amateur footage of citizens demonstrating against the regime followed by more disturbing sights of police brutality.

Please be aware that the following video contains images that some may find distressing.

This video was one of many that exposed the brutality of the Egyptian police and soured any international sympathy for Hosni Mubarak.

But from Iran, a much stricter and more brutal regime than Egypt, only a handful of videos of the recent protests have emerged, mostly shot by professional journalists whose status as foreign nationals offers them some measure of protection. For many ordinary Iranian citizens, identifying themselves as supporters of the protests by uploading footage to the internet is simply too risky and as long as the government controls which sites can be accessed the power of the online world will inevitably be tempered. Iran’s internet censorship laws have tightened in recent years, particularly under the leadership of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The kind of bloggers who were able to spread dissent in Egypt cannot exist in Iran.

Omid Mirsifayi: An Iranian blogger who died in prison under suspicious circumstances in March 2009. He had been written about traditional Persian music and culture, not politics. Apparently this was still enough to attract the attention of the Iranian authorities.

Also, crucially, in Egypt the army refused to fire on protesters. In contrast Iran has the Revolutionary Guard – a 100,000 strong, heavily armed force who are renowned for their fierce nationalism and religious zealotry. It seems unlikely they will be swapping flowers with demonstrators on the streets of Tehran as we saw in Cairo.

This isn’t the first time Iranians have clashed with police. As recently as 2009 anti-government protests were put-down by security forces and opposition leaders were executed. Those protesters had the same online technology available then and it wasn’t enough to overthrow the regime.

The internet itself may be a world without rules; in cyberspace the individual with the right technical skills can raise a banner of defiance against a brutal regime and reach an audience of millions. But a keyboard offers no protection when secret police come banging at that same internet protestor’s door.

Popular opinion is that winds of change are blowing through the middle east – and this may turn out to be true. Perhaps political dissent within Iran will spread as it did in Egypt and the regime will crumble.

But if it does, this victory will owe at least as much to international support and tactical organisation against a heavily armed enemy as it will to video-journalism .

The internet can provide a vital catalyst to rallying public support within a nation and spread word of government oppression to a sympathetic audience in the West. But as long as the state can censor content and has a force of soldiers ready and willing to fire on unarmed civilians citizen video journalism may not be the magic bullet of revolution that we would like to believe it is.

By Alan O’Doherty

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