Last month, Aida Ghajar saw a tweet saying a girl had been beaten by Iranian police and was hospitalized. The woman had no name, and there was no confirmation it actually happened.
Ghajar, a reporter for the scrappy digital news outlet IranWire, reached out along with her editor to the outlet’s wide network of sources, and one was able to get into the hospital and confirm the news.
That source also sent back the phone number of the girl’s brother. When Ghajar got on the phone with him, he implored them to tell his sister’s story. He also provided her name: Mahsa Amini.
Ghajar’s Persian language story went on IranWire Sept. 14. It was translated into English the next day. On Sept. 16, a journalist from a separate news organization broke the story that Amini had died.
“We were the first to mention the name of Mahsa,” Ghajar said in an interview. “And now, everywhere, every country they know about Mahsa.”
Since news broke last month that 22-year old Amini was killed after being arrested for violating hijab mandates at the hands of Iran’s religious morality police, a cop squad that enforces Islamic customs with force, the country has been ensnared in a massive civilian protest. In response, Iran’s authoritarian regime has tried to quell it with brute force, disinformation and shutting down internet access.
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Iran Wire has become an essential player using technological savvy and internet sleuthing to determine a death toll from the protests. Its live video footage is regularly shown on CNN. IranWire’s network of citizen journalists — everyday citizens wanting to hold the government accountable — help it break news on stories capturing global attention, from the fallout from Amini’s death to the punishment of Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi for competing without a hijab.
“We are tired and we are sad for the people of Iran,” editor Shima Shahrabi said. “But on the other hand, we are determined to make their voices heard louder.”
Iran Wire joins a network of other global journalism outlets such as Bellingcat, Rappler and Coda that aim to rigorously report what’s happening in authoritarian regimes with on-the-ground reporting and creative technology use.
The project started with Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari. Bahari had been a journalist for Newsweek, and was detained in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for his reporting, he said.
After his release in 2009, Bahari saw videos of anti-government protests sweeping the country emerge online. They weren’t “very good quality,” he said in an interview, but the energy in the country to report out the regime’s brutality was palpable. At the same time, Iranian journalists were fleeing the country to escape repression.
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Bahari decided to create a news outlet that matched professional journalists outside Iran with citizen journalists — often teachers, lawyers, doctors and students — inside the country to deliver high quality, well sourced news.
Since 2014, IranWire has trained roughly 6,000 Iranians on how to turn events they see firsthand into a piece of journalism that can be verified and hold up to scrutiny.
They’ve prepared booklets on how people can communicate securely and anonymously. They teach basic journalism skills, telling people how best to hold a video camera for footage and reminding them to note the date, time and location of the video.
They rely on applications that allow people to access information posted online even if they are in a place where the internet is shutdown. They also recommend using Tor, a digital browser that helps evade government censorship and tracking, along with other virtual private networks to mask their physical location.
Omid Shams, IranWire’s director of documentation, said the outlet uses digital sleuthing and open source intelligence techniques to build a database of videos and documents to show Iran’s regime is systematically oppressing its citizens.
Over the past month, Shams and his team have received gruesome videos of alleged beatings and murders that have taken place amid the protests. To verify they are real, often they’ll freeze the video, scan it for street signs and landmarks, and use Google maps and satellite images to verify the location. Analyzing the sun’s shadow in videos helps verify the time, Shams said.
Videos show Iran’s violent crackdown as protests intensify
They are creating an online death toll that aims to track how many people have died in the protests. Often the work is personally taxing. Shams remembers receiving a video on Oct. 6 of a lifeless Iranian child being cradled in an old man’s arms.
The Telegram message came with the child’s alleged name, age and incident location — but was it true?
From his home in London, Shams reached out to sources in Tehran and got two credible ones to verify the details. He analyzed each frame of the video, noticing the bullet hole in the child’s cheek was likely an exit wound, indicating he may have been shot in the back while running away. “Whoever killed him wanted to kill him,” he said.
Now, Javed Poushe, 11, killed in Zahedan province, will have his name and story preserved online for anyone to analyze. “Someone has to do it,” Shams said in an interview. “Someone has to put these names there, so they won’t be just a number.”
But the challenge ahead is grave, Shams said.
Iran political experts said the internet shutdown will continue to hinder the flow of information. The regime employs misinformation campaigns to deny credible reports of beatings and killings, they added. It intimidates families into not speaking to the press, and also forces people to lie about how family members were injured to protect the regime.
To combat that, Iran Wire needs to rigorously verify its work and be creative, Shams said.
They are very careful when analyzing videos of people being shot. Iranian law enforcement, Shams said, have started wearing different kinds of uniforms when quelling protests, so it’s not easy to identify what unit they belong to. To trace what branch of law enforcement they are, they have to pay attention to granular details in videos like the type of weapon being used.
Still, no matter how creative or innovative IranWire is, he said, it will never capture the full scope of atrocity in Iran. “There is no way to exactly know the scope of the things that’s going on,” Shams said.
Gissou Nia, a human rights expert at the Atlantic Council, said the work IranWire, and others like it are doing, is essential.
Unlike in Ukraine, where international investigators can access crime sites, Iran is closed off to scrutiny. “These journalists that are looking at human rights issues are our main sources of information,” Nia said.
But the work they do is dangerous, and puts them at risk of getting jailed. “The Islamic Republic of Iran views human rights work as something that’s subversive to the government,” she said.
Other international organizations should help, she said, noting that when Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. State Department created a public-private partnership to conduct open source investigations documenting crimes.
“With Iran, we don’t even have one,” she said. “They need more help.”