Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The spirit of liberty finally arrived at Tehran’s Freedom Square. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians demonstrated Monday against Friday’s election, which handed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad an improbably lopsided victory.

The mass protests followed a weekend of street demonstrations, rioting and other expressions of discontent. These events were brought to the world in real time through social-media networks and online video.

Tehran’s authoritarian leaders clearly were caught off-guard. They had managed to take down the telephone system opposition supporters used for texting but for some reason were slow to eliminate other social media. As open defiance of the election results broke out, citizen journalists used new media to spread the word. And the whole Web was watching.

Iran is a highly computer-literate society with a large number of bloggers and hackers. The hackers in particular were active in helping keep channels open as the regime blocked them, and they spread the word about functioning proxy portals. Hackers also reportedly took down Mr. Ahmadinejad’s Web site in an act of cyberdisobedience.

The immediacy of the reports was gripping. Well-developed Twitter lists showed a constant stream of situation updates and links to photos and videos, all of which painted a portrait of the developing turmoil. Digital photos and videos proliferated and were picked up and reported in countless external sources safe from the regime’s Net crackdown. Eventually the regime started taking down these sources, and the e-dissidents shifted to e-mail. The only way to completely block the flow of Internet information would have been to take the entire country offline, a move the regime apparently has resisted thus far.

There seems to be no shortage of video cameras in Iran. The footage that has emerged is raw, unedited and dramatic. It is a revolution in cinema verite courtesy of YouTube, showing young people throwing rocks, scenes of burning tires and vehicles and riot police delivering savage beatings. By contrast, the videos from early Monday of the Freedom Square demonstration show police standing by as the crowd peacefully flows into the square, chanting and singing, festooned in green scarves and shirts, with banners flying. The message is distinctive: “Marg bar dictator!” they chant. “Death to the dictator!”

The scene turned violent as paramilitary Basij and police rooftop snipers opened fire. Reports of deaths tweeted out, and within minutes, a gruesome picture circulated of a man lying face-up in the street, blood covering his face and pooled around his head. Other photos followed of other people bloodied or dead. Soon there were reports of nonstop shooting and opposition leaders arrested. A crackdown was under way.

What we are seeing is the flickering flame of freedom. People are willing to risk their lives to protest a system that oppresses them and denies them fundamental human dignity. Those who say none of this matters - that it is a feud between factions of the ruling class, that it has no chance of bringing about real change - are missing the point. The people of Iran are exercising their sovereign right as a people to stand before their rulers and say “No more.” They are commanding the attention of a world that seeks to make deals with their oppressors. Iranians are telling us that they yearn to be free.

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