By now you might have seen the wrenching YouTube video: A young woman shot dead on the streets of Tehran as she and her father (some reports say he was one of her professors) watched a crowd of protestors on Saturday. You see her standing; you see her fall; you see the desparate effort to save her as blood spurts from her nose and mouth and streams down her beautiful, youthful face. Allegedly, her killer was a member of the Iranian Basij, a paramilitary force that reports to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. According to news reports, her name was Neda Agha Soltan, a 26-year-old philosophy student. And now, she is the symbol of Iranian resistance.
BagNewsNotes posted the still image of the moment after the murder:
Of course, the way her eyes happen to focus in the direction of the camera after being hit -- as if she's still sentient -- is what makes the image so powerful. That, and her name (Neda, which I've seen translated as "the voice" or "the "calling") makes for the most potent image of the standoff so far.
In California on Sunday, protestors took the the streets with posters bearing Neda's image:
The killing of Neda Agha Soltan, like everything that has happened in Iran over the last few days, has only become public because of the reports of citizen journalists on the ground. The Iranian government has ordered international news organizations to obtain government approval for anything they report. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned the nation on Friday that any protests would be dealt with harshly. Despite efforts to shut down internet and text-messaging networks, Twitter, Facebook and Youtube continue to supply a steady stream of news, and they have become the source of mainstream media reporting. Whether paid or volunteer, those who are trying to get the news out of Iran face imprisonment or worse -- a point underscored by the arrest of Newsweek magazine reporter Maizar Bahari.
NPR's On the Media has a report on the struggles facing journalists in Iran, including an interview with a professor at University of California San Diego, Babak Rahimi, about the isolation in which Iranian citizens live.
It remains to be seen how these images will affect the course of the protest movement. A galvanizing image such as the killing of Neda Soltan can have a deep political and cultural impact without affecting the power structure of a regime. After all, it was 20 years ago this month that the image of another young, unarmed person riveted the world's attention to another human rights crisis:
Twenty years later, we still don't know how many protesters died in the brutal government crackdown at Tiananmen square. Scholars have documented the impact of the massacre on tourism to China, as well as attitutes among the Chinese people. Of course, Iran has not sought the kind of economic ties to the west that China was cultivating in 1989. No doubt, the Iranian regime is hoping that its militant response will quell the protests, as they did in 2003. However, as with China in 1989, the Iranian regime has not been able to keep the world from watching what it is doing to its own citizens. When we look back at this time 20 years from now, we may find that this moment made all of the difference.
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