She who was presumed dead sat opposite me. She talked, she laughed, but sometimes I could feel her fear. Neda Soltani had to flee, she had to leave her homeland. Everything seems so different here at this obscure address near Frankfurt am Main – the snow, the frost, the rain, the inclement streets. It is a foreign country for this young woman.
Almost everyone in the world knows Neda Soltani’s picture. It appeared on TV and the Internet and in the newspapers in almost every house as the picture of someone who had died. This well-known portrait shows a young brown-eyed woman carefully made-up. The veil, obligatory in Iran, is pushed back slightly. One can see the beginnings of luxuriant hair. She smiles, gently, a bit innocent but friendly.
But right now, here in a café somewhere near Frankfurt Neda Soltani has become harder. She’s not wearing a veil anymore. One can see grey strands that are growing on her forehead. “It was a misunderstanding,” she says, “a mistake, an error with terrible consequences.” Neda Soltani got caught up in the tumult between the fronts after the fraudulent election in Iran. She was hounded, hunted and had to flee. Her old life fell apart like a shattered mirror. Her photo, that picture with the gentle smile, was torn from her.
Neda Soltani lived in Teheran up to half a year ago. She taught English Literature there. She speaks this language fluently, precisely and intelligently. In summer she completed a work on feminine symbolism in the works of Joseph Conrad. For that reason she had no time to take part in the protest in Iran. She had to do proof reading in June. “My aim was to become a professor one day, should I prove good enough for it.”
Her parents belong to the Iranian middle class. She does not want to say exactly where she grew up or what her family do. She is afraid. She is aware of the problems. She knows that things are not going well. But she was diligent when it came to learning. I was an academic, she says, “I worked hard for ten years to get a position as a lecturer in the university. I earned money, I went out with friends and I had fun.” She has none of that today. No work, no money and no friends to go out with. Neda Soltani is now 32 years old.
The story of her photo began on June 20th 2009. That day a young woman was shot down near Kargar Avenue in Teheran at 7 p.m. local time. She fell on her back and blood ran out of her mouth. On doing so she stared into a mobile camara, wounded, terrified and helpless. She died shortly afterwards on the way to hospital. The pictures of the dying woman appeared on Youtube.
The big TV stations soon got wind of the dying woman from Bloggers and Twitter. Editors tried to identify the woman. Pressed for time, they looked for pictures. Neda, her first name could be heard on Video. The internet quickly turned up a surname: Soltan, student at the Azad University in Teheran. Sombody used these data to search in Facebook.
Neda Soltani also had a profile there. There is not much accessible to the public in it. Only Neda’s friends had free access to the contents. But her photo was accessible at that time to every body.
It is not possible, anymore, to reconstruct who it was exactly who first gained access to the international portal for students, managers and housewives. It is also impossible to identify who it was who mistook the photo of Neda Soltani (below on the right) for that of the murdered Neda Soltan(below on the left).
But the fact is that on the night of June 21st 2009 someone copied the photo of the living Neda Soltani from her Facebook profile. It was sent to all the social networks, blogs and portals. Soon it was being used by CNN, BBC, CBS, ZDF, ARD and every other conceivable station. It was printed in the newspapers and magazines of dozens of countries. It all happened simultaneously world wide.
The photo of this young woman became the symbol of the freedom fight in the Persian Gulf. Furious people carried the picture of this alleged martyr before them in demonstrations. They carried it on their T-shirts and built alters to her. “The Angel of Iran” they called her.
How could it come to this photo swap? Soltani is a common name in Iran. Something like Miller probably. Neda is also not unusual. Somewhat similar to Sonja. The murdered Neda studied at the private Islamic Azad University, the living Neda Soltani was a lecturer there. Shouldn’t the media have done better research on the photo they were using instead of coping it directly from a Facebook profile and sending it around the world? Time was pressing, true, but one thing should have made them pause. The full name of the dead women was Neda Agha-Soltan. The name of the living Neda was simply Neda Soltani.
On the morning of 21st June 2009, the day after the shooting Neda Soltani was surprised by the number of people who wanted to register on her Facebook profile, allegedly as friends. There were hundreds from all over the world. They kept coming. There were telephone calls. A professor, a close friend, broke down in tears when he heard her voice.
At first Neda Soltani thought it was all a bad joke. Something that could be cleared up with two or three phone calls. A mistake that shouldn’t happen but then did. She began to write. She wrote that she was still alive. She wrote to the ‘Voice of America’, a popular broadcasting station in Iran. She told them that there had been a mistake, they had the wrong photo. She sent them her real photo as proof and asked the editors to make a comparison. Her photo was her. Neda Soltani never expected what then happened.
“Voice of America” broadcasted this new picture as a new picture of the dead Neda and CBS took it up. Neda Soltani got frightened. Everything she did to get back her true picture seemed useless.
She took her photo out of her Facebook profile so that nobody could make more copies of it. The next stone began to roll. Suspecting a censure her photo was copied in dozens and hundreds of Facebook pages all over the world. Blogs fixed it and Twitter sent it.
It was as if her own identity was subtracted from the photo and replaced by the longings of thousands of people. The smiling face of one presumed dead became the icon for an innocent victim in the freedom fight.
It was no help that on 23rd June 2009 genuine photos of the dead Neda Agha-Soltan were made available to all and sundry by her parents. Neda Soltani’s picture was still used.
Friends of Neda Soltani in Foren tried to correct the mistake. They were reviled with the words, “you bastards, you are not going to take the ‘Angel of Iran’ away from us.” It is as if a once believed-in mistake cannot be corrected.
This story is not just about a fiasco by the media in the artificial hectic they create when news gathering. This story also describes a cock-up created by the social media. The masses have the power in internet not only to expose lies, the masses can also create their own “truth” and defend it no matter how wrong. Few blogs bother to report the mistake. None of them had profile enough to be taken seriously.
The point came when it became clear to Neda Soltani that something had gone terribly wrong. Only a few journalists wrote to her about her Facebook profile and asked about her identity. None of them could or wanted to stop the deception.
Pressure was put on Neda Soltani in Iran. She was threatened. She feared for her family, for that reason she is not willing to say what exactly happened. Only one thing was clear: the mistake made with her photo should be used by every means possible against the opposition, the people on the streets should be revealed as instruments of western agents. Odious reproaches were made that could have meant death. Neda became ill, panic attacks and helpless fear became part of her life.
She couldn’t stay any longer. She had to disappear out of Iran. She fled to the west on July 2nd 2009 without saying farewell to her parents. She had to use her savings to pay her helpers. She fled with nothing in her hands except a rucksack, a small rucksack. She fled via Greece to Germany. She had a cousin here in Bochum. That is now her family.
Eventually the BBC Online reported the false identity on 3rd July 2009 in a weekly column about social networks. It was published directly after a report on the conspiracy theories about Michael Jackson’s death. The BBC commented, that this case was an excellent example of the danger involved when the mass media use pictures taken from the social networks.
One would have thought that that was the end of it. “My friends said, wait a day and all will be well. But days passed and nothing was good,” said Neda Soltani.
Her application for political asylum in Germany is in process for months. Neda says she never wanted to go abroad. She had never been in the west. She has homesickness. She gets about Euro 180 a month from the German state. That is barely enough to buy salads, fruit and bread which is what she was used to. She lives somewhere in a home for refugees. Her room, number eleven, is small, has two beds and a shelf. She lets nobody in. She wants to forget these months ‘in camp’ as quickly as possible. As soon as she is out she wants to completely forget it. The metal fittings on her door have been patched with plaster. There is no window in the kitchen for the two dozen people on the whole floor. The water tap clings to a shelving construction. There is a satellite dish attached to a broken metal bar on the balcony above the yard. The bar is stuck into a shabby sauerkraut bucket full of sand and stones, an improvised contraption for the connection to the homeland.
Although the photo of the dead Neda has been known for months the wrong picture still appears in Spiegel-Online, in the New York Times and in the Online edition of the Süddeutschen Zeitung. Even the AFP news agency used a version of the picture.
Neda Soltani remained silent about this for a long time. She wanted to get her feet on the ground again, to collect herself.
In November CNN made a report on Iran; they used Neda Soltani’s picture again. She wrote to CNN and asked them to erase her picture.
The answer she got was an automatic Email asking for her understanding that not all enquiries could be personally answered. The Email was signed “CNN, The Most Trusted Name In News.”
Her picture doesn’t belong to her anymore. It belongs to CNN and all the others.
Translation: Hugh Murphy