I’ve been following Brian Conley’s work at Alive in Baghdad since October 2007, when I met him at the Networked Journalism summit at CUNY. Conley — somewhat more commonly known as Baghdad Brian — is one of the few supporters of citizen journalism with several trips to wartime Iraq under his belt. In this interview, Conley talks about his recent project, Alive in Tehran.
Listen to the full interview here (15:35) or right-click to download the mp3.
Full transcript follows, with links added:
Ryan: Hey this is Ryan Sholin here, I’m recording this today for PBS Idea Lab, and I’m here with Brian Conley of Alive in Baghdad. Brian, how are you doing this morning?
Brian: Pretty good. A little tired. Good to talk to you.
Ryan: Good to talk to you, too. Brian, I’ve been following what you’ve been doing since Alive in Baghdad and we crossed paths in person once in October 2007, but I’ve been seeing you pop up a lot in the last couple weeks as I follow what’s going on in Iran…There’s been a lot of talk about Twitter, but there’s a lot of other ways that people in Iran have been trying to get their story out. Can you talk a little bit first just about your experience so far with Iran, and with Alive in Baghdad.
Brian: Yeah, so I basically come from the documentary film world. I went to Iraq back in ’05 with the intention, basically, of producing a bunch of videos of Iraqis talking about what they were experiencing and that kind of expanded into an ongoing news and documentary program distributed by the Internet for the last three years. And then at the beginning of this year and last year, there was the most recent incursion by Israel into Gaza, and during that time we — we being some other folks that I’ve collaborated with — started looking at other tools that we could use just to get some news out. [That led to the Alive in Gaza blog.]
Actually, somebody later told me that we may have been the only international organization reporting from within Gaza. I don’t know if that’s exactly accurate, but what we were doing was using Skype and recording phone calls, interviews with…a journalist there, and trying to get emails from various Palestinians who were living there, via our coordinator of Alive in Baghdad, who actually, his family is originally from Gaza, although he’s never been there, or hasn’t been there since he was very young.
Ryan: So while you weren’t on the ground in Gaza, you had connections who were, and were able to get information out, too.
Brian: Exactly, and then we used Twitter to pull in questions from people and enable people to sort of interact with our guy on the ground there. So then when Iran started happening it seemed like a natural fit to try and use the same tools for the folks there, to enable them to basically communicate out. The primary thing that we’re trying, that we’re pushing right now, is basically a phone number that people can call, get to a voicemail box and record whatever they would like to say, and right now I have a public voice mailbox available via an Alive in Tehran Facebook [group].
Also, people can message me via twitter.com/baghdadbrian and then for people who are more private or who have family, they just want to share one voicemail box…we can set up a specific number for any individual. Beyond that, we’re looking at other tools. I’ve learned a little bit about how Students for a Free Tibet have gotten video out of Tibet. So there’s one tool I’m sort of sharing with people privately. Then there on Alive in Tehran we have a list of tools Iranians can use to communicate securely. So basically, right now it’s a lot of organizing and working it.
Ryan: So, to get information out and have it be valuable and valid, part of that is protecting, for example, that phone number, protecting the message and the exact numbers that you’re using, otherwise…Do you feel like it would be prone to the sort of — I don’t want to say abuse — but the broad range of uses that a Twitter hashtag is subject to because it’s completely public?
Brian: Yeah, so the thing about it is that we do have a voicemail box that’s completely public. I’m more concerned about that number getting shut down…or that number being tracked, sort of listened into. All those recordings go to one source, and I can listen through them, or have somebody else on our end listen through them before we post them, so that way we can decide where to post them. At this point, unless something is really offensive and abusive, I’m pretty much planning to publish anything that I get there. I may create different categories or different sorting functions for it. For the website, I might create a pro- or an anti- category for the blog.
Right now, we have one guy who’s been using the tool repeatedly, and he’s just basically doing an update about what he’s experiencing there, so that I’m just posting directly to the blog. And otherwise, to some degree, it’s just a question of like, I don’t know exactly how the technology works on Iran’s end, but we know we’ve heard a lot about their Internet filtering capability. And it actually seems, surprisingly, that landlines may in fact be the safest mode of communication out of Iran right now. Other than encrypted email, which is, unless you do it right, you could end up screwing yourself without sort of realizing.
Ryan: So, this seemingly Dark Ages landline communication that’s actually the most secure way to get a call out, once that gets out, you just said you’re kind of moderating them. Where are you posting these? I know you mentioned you’ve got a call with somebody else just after this. I mean, are you trying to reach large news organizations and get out to places like NPR and the BBC to get this on the radio?
Brian: Yeah, I feel like I should be doing that, but right now, given that I’ve only had one guy who’s regularly posting, I’m sort of trying to stay a little bit outside of the establishment press, and sort of say, ‘here’s a tool that we’re giving people.’ I’m hoping that people will come to me — like what happened with this interview that I’m doing next is somebody from BBC’s Pods and Blogs show and we’ll see how it goes. To me, this is a long term view. That is: How do I start organizing now and get as much done today and [also] stay on this and keep it running, once everything kind of settles?
Honestly, I think that we have to look at the history, and recognize that in 1979, this so-called Islamic Revolution was actually a widespread, multi-ethnic, pluralistic uprising against the Shah, and it just so happened that the conservative Islamic faction was able to effectively control communication, silence its opponents, and come out on top. And that’s really a question we have to be sure about today — at Alive in Tehran, we have no interest in supporting one political candidate over another, or one political party over another. I’m literally just trying to figure out a way to build trust with Iranians and get them the tools to be able to report and speak about what’s going on in their lives.
If somebody just wants to call and say “Hi, this is a message for my family in San Francisco, and I want them to know that I’m OK,” that’s fine with me. The hardest part of this work is getting people on the ground to take ownership and recognize that I’m not doing this with an ulterior motive. My goal is to get people to recognize that they have a voice, they have the tools, and whatever I can do to support them, I will. Obviously, at some point I need to be able to pay my rent and support my family, but that’s not really the interest at the moment.
Ryan: You’re trying to give these people a voice to get their message out at a moment where it’s crucial and it’s incredibly difficult…for those of us on this side of the ocean to figure out what’s accurate and what’s reasonable and what’s reliable in terms of sources.
Ryan: But you’re obligated, also, to play the role of the human editor for that. But on the other hand, you’ve got the difficulty of trying to get the people on the ground to use the tools.
Brian: Yeah, exactly. And I don’t speak Farsi. I speak Arabic, but I don’t speak Farsi. I don’t really have any contacts there. I have a couple of contacts, it’s sort of funny, because we did look into trying to set this up, back in…a couple of years back, sort of looking at doing a project in Iran, with a couple of filmmakers who are known over here and in the blogosphere. I got the impression that nobody wanted to be associated with a project called “Alive in Tehran” because it was too political. It seemed political, inherently.
And it is to some degree political, because we’re making this statement that we don’t necessarily need the foreign press to go and say “Live from Tehran, this is what you need to know.” There are people who live in Iraq, they know what’s going on. Especially in places like Iraq where so many people were educated as engineers, and were highly educated, they may not be journalists, but they know how to use the scientific method — who, what, why, where, when, and how — it’s not hard as long as you can commit to it and be held to account by an editor. Or a fellow collaborator.
Ryan: So how is getting people on the ground involved different in Tehran than it is in Baghdad? In Baghdad, you were there — you were there in person handing out cameras.
Brian: That’s a big part of it, and also that I spent a year just learning about Iraq before I went…and learning about the culture and the people on the ground, and all that sort of thing. On the other hand, now with Alive in Tehran, I have three or four years of proven track record. I’m pretty sure that Alive in Baghdad has won more awards in Internet video than any other program. I have proven integrity that I can stand on. I can say to people on Twitter or on Facebook or wherever, ‘My full name is Brian Conley, go to Google and search for me. I’m not the surfer, and I’m not the British comedian. I went to jail in China and I went to jail in Mexico and I went to jail in the United States, all to be able to support this ideal.” And I think that goes a long way.
Ryan: Right, you definitely want people to click the first link [in the Google search results] and not the second two.
Ryan: Let me rewind for a second, can you tell us a little bit about Alive in Baghdad? And then we’re going to wrap up and tell people how they can help you out now.
Brian: Alive in Baghdad had been until recently a weekly program about life in Iraq produced by Iraqi journalists and documentary filmmakers. At the beginning of this year, beginning of 2009, we sort of ran into a wall with funding. With Obama being elected, people’s eyes were moving away from Iraq, and that made things difficult. We’ve had some trouble with translators who moved on to other work. And then we’ve had trouble locating other translators, given the small money that we’re able to support for translating our content. We’re still working on getting translation happening regularly again and hope to be producing soon — hopefully by the beginning of July.
It’s just been difficult going, and we really want to keep this thing going, but people in Iraq, we’ve always paid, and we need to be able to keep paying them to be able to keep that work coming. So it’s really just a question of priorities and funding right now, and looking at some different things. But I definitely want people to know, it hasn’t been regularly updated in the last few months, but Alive in Baghdad is still going, and we are still trying to keep producing new work.
Ryan: What kind of avenues are you looking at for funding? Non-profit? For-profit? How do you go about it?
Brian: Well, my wife and I just had a baby, and we’ve been on leave for the last several months.
Brian: Well, because of that, not much has moved forward, but I’m probably going to be looking into grants and that kind of funding. Most of our funding so far has just been donations, and every so often getting a deal to license our content, or to produce work for someone like the BBC or Sky News. But as the attention to Iraq has dropped, even more dramatically than it already had previously, it’s been getting more difficult. I think really the best way to move forward is going to be to set up a not-for-profit organization and maybe to support all of this content collectively through a larger grant.
Ryan: That sounds really interesting. So let’s get the URLs out there again for the people who are listening to this, and I’ll get them into the post as well. Where can people find you, and where can people find Alive in Tehran?
SmallWorldNews.tv is our organizational website, where I’m mostly writing about theory and thoughts about journalism and different media tools that exist and how we can use them more effectively…Also, if people in Iran want to email posts to go directly to the blog, they can email to [email protected].
Ryan: That sounds great, Brian, thank you so much for your time today, and I hope that you’re able to get a lot of the message out about what’s going on in Tehran.
Brian: Thank you for having me.
Photo of Brian Conley by Simon Bierwald via Flickr.