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'Rosewater' journalist says fear of social media is making tyrants more dangerous (+video)

Journalist Maziar Bahari, whose memoir of captivity and torture at the hands of the Iranian government has been adapted into the film 'Rosewater,' warns that the inability of authoritarian regimes to control social media is making them more brutal. 

Journalist Maziar Bahari, whose memoir "And Then They Came for Me" about his 118 days of imprisonment and torture in Iran has been made into the film "Rosewater," says that the frustration over the inability to control social media and the internet has driven authoritarian regimes deeper into their comfort zones of imprisoning, torturing, and murdering the messengers. 

"These are analogue regimes resorting to all their old methods of suppression of information," says Mr. Bahari in a phone interview. "They are used to controlling people through imprisonment, murder, shutting down newspapers and radio stations. They can't handle what the Internet is doing in the way of generating social movements and facilitating communication."

He added, "Social media is a phenomenon that even Mark Zuckerberg himself has no idea how to control."

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"So imagine being one of these authoritarian regimes," Bahari added. "They don't like to rock the boat. That's what social media is all about and it makes them very angry."

Journalists, as suppliers of internet and social media fodder are what could be referred to as Analogue Enemy Number One.

Bahari, a native of Iran, returned to the country in 2009 to cover the presidential election and the subsequent protests challenging the results that kept President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, according to his memoir.

After shooting news video of the protests, he was arrested.

"Rosewater," named after the scent worn by Bahari's tormentor, is written and directed by "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart.

The film offers disturbing revelations of how Iranian officials chose to "weaponize" Bahari's appearance on the show, which has a large following online and on social media platforms.

The journalist participated in a comedy sketch wherein he met with a "spy" – actually Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones in sunglasses – in Iran. During his imprisonment, Bahari's jailers tortured him and repeatedly made reference to the show as the premise for accusing him of espionage, Bahari explained. 

Bahari said that his experience has taught him that the less control tyrants have, the more violent they become.

Asked if he would advise others heading into hot zones under this type of "analogue" rule to avoid giving interviews or appearing on shows like "The Daily Show," Bahari said, "They will use anything as an excuse, a premise. It's entirely up to the individual, but I would remind them that journalists in general have to realize that they are the targets now."

Bahari said that while kidnapping journalists has occurred since the 2004-2006 Iraq war and prior to that in Bosnia there are more interested parties out there trying to keep the news under wraps.

"It's not just the crazy groups or even the authoritarian regimes kidnapping, but also corporations are in it trying to suppress the media through bribery and litigation against news organizations," he said.

Bahari warns young journalists going to a nation they have not visited before to remember that "journalism is in a very unstable period in general, with less experienced journalists and more specialists heading [into] the field."

Kill, terrorize, and otherwise ward off the journalists, and there will be nothing for people online to post on their Facebook walls or to tweet about is the modern day use of the well-oiled tools of "analogue" intimidation, according to Bahari.

NPR's Terry Gross asked Stewart in an interview on the show Fresh Air on Thursday if this experience has led him to change the topic and guests he picks. Will he tread more carefully in future?

"You can't censor yourself for someone else's ignorance. There's no way to understand. What they utilized was innocuous and they weaponized it," Stewart told Ms. Gross. "It was just pretense. If it wasn't that, they would've used something else and they did!"

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for RENTRAK www.rentrak.com referenced the innate power of television in the digital age in email.  "The power of the medium cannot be overstated and considering the unfortunate events that followed The Daily Show segment, that power has to be used, particularly these days with thoughtful consideration," Mr. Dergarabedian said.  

At this point Bahari's message is also one of personal healing.

"The more you can talk about an experience like the one I had, the more you can be healing," Bahari said. "You have to supplant all that anger and frustration into something good. If you don't it will corrode you from the inside out with hate."

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