Iran's presidential election represented a watershed moment for BBC Persian. As the government jammed its television broadcasts to the country and websites were shut off, it became a platform unrivalled in its ability to give Iranian citizens a voice and a means to share news across their country and around the world.
Citizen journalism comes of age
In the aftermath of Iran's 2009 presidential election, BBC Persian was receiving up to eight user generated communications per minute. As videos, text messages and emails flooded in, the integrated news and information service became the focus for citizen journalism during the most serious crisis in the country since the 1979 revolution.
BBC Persian gave Iranians a voice and a way of sharing information, as well as providing a source of fair and balanced news. The online television streaming service was requested eight million times in just one month.
User generated footage showed the events of 15 June 2009 when Tehran University students were dragged from their dormitory beds and beaten by plain-clothed militia and police. Nearly eight months later it was sent to BBC Persian, which verified its authenticity before running edited clips on television and the full nine-minute footage on bbcpersian.com. The publicity resulted in a parliamentary inquiry.
Nobat-e Shoma (Your Turn) is BBC Persian's leading interactive programme. "The volume of user generated content we were receiving overwhelmed us. We were receiving thousands of emails, photos and videos, sent to us to spread the news and share images of what was happening in Tehran and other cities," says presenter Pooneh Ghoddoosi, who hosts the show.
"As the Iranian government closed down lines of communication, and limited the domestic and foreign media, our job became even more demanding.
"The Interactive team, with its small six-member group, became essential to covering the news. Eventually these submissions become the cornerstone of our coverage of events and video was used in UK and international news output across the BBC, on TV, radio and online."
One of the biggest challenges was verifying the user generated content (UGC) and deciding what was appropriate for transmission. BBC Persian worked closely with the BBC's domestic UGC Hub to establish systems to handle the content and confirm accuracy. "It was a formidable task," adds Pooneh. "Some of these were broadcast after they were carefully verified – others were impossible to verify or too graphic to broadcast."
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As the protests continued and turned violent, the Iranian authorities imposed severe restrictions on the media. BBC Persian staff were already unable to operate in the country and, at one point, other reporters were banned from covering any demonstrations.
Foreign journalists were either not having their visas extended or were being asked to leave, including the BBC's permanent Tehran correspondent Jon Leyne, who had been the only resident staff correspondent for a Western broadcaster in Iran. He was given just 24 hours to leave after reporting some of the biggest demonstrations since the foundation of the Islamic Republic three decades earlier.
BBC's Tehran correspondent Jon Leyne (left) was given just 24 hours to leave Iran by the nation's authorities after reporting on the country's demonstrations.
"What marked out our coverage was the long-term commitment of the BBC to the story," he says. "I was in Iran for two years before the election, giving me a depth of knowledge and confidence in making judgements about what was going on that I simply could not have provided on a brief visit."
Despite the setbacks, the BBC had its largest team in Iran for many years during the election, including veteran Iran specialists Lyse Doucet and John Simpson, as well as Hugh Sykes and, for a week following the election, Jeremy Bowen.
The BBC maintained its commitment to presenting a full range of views, despite determined opposition by the Iranian authorities, which included an ongoing block on the BBC Persian website, click
bbcpersian.com, and deliberate interference with satellite television signals.
Despite being largely blocked, click
bbcpersian.com continues to receive the highest amount of traffic of all BBC World Service language websites. In June 2009, when the election took place, it recorded close to 50 million page impressions, up from 16 million the previous month.
Jamming intensified in December 2009 when the BBC covered the death of a leading reformist, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. That same month, BBC World Service Director Peter Horrocks said: "The fact that someone would go to these lengths to jam BBC Persian television's signal is indicative of the impact we make in Iran.
"The Iranian people want to know the truth about what is happening in their country and they know they will get impartial and independent news from the BBC. We'll do everything we can to give them that news."
This move by Iran has been condemned by the BBC and other international broadcasters. The BBC continues to use online, email and radio to encourage viewers to switch to alternative satellites.
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The events of the past year clearly demonstrate that BBC Persian has successfully created a new, interactive relationship with its audience. Those at the epicentre of major news stories are actively sharing their personal experiences and eyewitness reports with the channel.
The challenge is how to embrace that new-found dialogue and both authenticate and analyse UGC content, while continuing to uphold the BBC's values of accuracy, fairness and objectivity.
Our young channel has already earned a reputation as a source of uniquely credible, unbiased reporting. We have also become experts on the phenomenon of user generated content in news, as we continue to forge a closer, more direct relationship with our audience.
Sadeq Saba, Head of BBC Persian
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Newsweek magazine names BBC Persian as one of its "20 most powerful people in Iran"
"The ban on satellite dishes is widely ignored: Iranians want news they can trust, not state TV. The Persian Voice of America is too pro-Washington for some. Since early this year, many have turned instead to the BBC and popular anchors like Farnaz Ghazizadeh."
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Meeting the objective
Focusing on news provision on BBC Persian TV, 38% of all those in Tehran consider its presence to be either fairly or extremely important. This rises to 53% when we focus on PTV's monthly viewers, while 33% consider news on the channel to be extremely important. The higher rating for the news content on the channel reflects the strong need for objective news sources in Iran.
Source: BBC audience research
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Voices from Iran
"One of the reasons why these people are so annoyed about Britain is only because BBC Persian has been able to open the eyes and ears of the Iranian people in a place where they have kept people's eyes and ears closed, and could feed whatever they wanted to us. Now they feel pain from deep inside, because whatever they say, the next day you tell the truth about it." Massoud (male)
"We have got addicted to you in this short time and approve of you from the bottom of our hearts. Everybody talks about you and unfortunately we have been unable to watch your programmes for a while" Shirin (female)
"I always thought BBC is a liar and biased news agency, but in this election I learnt a lot about things to the point that I no longer watch Iranian channels and just watch BBC Persian over the internet." Mehdi (male)
"We can no longer get your channel. Security forces are collecting satellite dishes from houses. We are being isolated. Help us." Anonymous
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