In the summer of 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan became the face of the Iranian Green Revolution after her tragic death by gunshot was caught on cell phone camera and uploaded online for the whole world to see. The international media rushed to put a face to the victim--but the face they used was that of another Iranian woman by the name of Neda Soltani, who was still very much alive. In a piece that originally aired in November of last year, Brooke speaks to Neda Soltani, author of My Stolen Face: The Story of a Dramatic Mistake.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Doubts about the fairness of Iran’s 2009 election led to a great protest movement, the so-called Green Revolution that prompted much hope abroad and ultimately much despair inside Iran. Early in the bloody crackdown, there was a famous killing and a case of mistaken identity. Last fall, we spoke to the woman who was not killed but who suffered another kind of death.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Posted to YouTube and other Internet sites, the first shocking snippet of cell phone video ran less than a minute, with voices shouting, “Neda has been shot, Neda, don’t be scared,” then, “Neda stay alive.”
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Time Magazine called it “probably the most widely witnessed death in human history.” Protesters across the globe held posters of her image, vowing her death would not be in vain. But on many of those posters and in countless news reports, it wasn’t her face on display. It was the face of another young Iranian, a woman named Neda Soltani, who was very much alive. That Neda was working at a university in Iran when her photo was lifted from her Facebook page and mistakenly used to put a face to the fallen protester.
Now living in exile, she says that at the time of the 2009 demonstrations she wasn’t even a political activist.
NEDA SOLTANI: I did not even vote in that election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When did you become aware of the death of the other Neda?
NEDA SOLTANI: The morning after she was shot to death. I had almost 300 Facebook friendship invitations from all over the world. I started receiving phone calls from friends, students, colleagues, who broke down on, on the phone, once they heard my voice, because they had prepared themselves to call and hear that I had been killed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were seeing you on Iranian channels, Fox News, CNN.
NEDA SOLTANI: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Were they seeing - you?
NEDA SOLTANI: It was my face and, of course, at the beginning it was my name, as well, so they were calling the real victim, who is Neda Agha-Soltan, with my name, Neda Soltani. And they were using my photo to be the face of opposition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These images of you weren’t just used in the media. Demonstrators began to use your picture during the protests. Alongside the graphic images of the deceased Neda, they held your picture with the words, “Neda did not die in vain.”
NEDA SOLTANI: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was that like?
NEDA SOLTANI: It was like watching my own funeral. The mental image that I could be dead, that was a very, very terrifying experience. On the other hand, it was very shocking because I could not believe my face would wrongly go all over the world as the symbol of opposition, which I was not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were just the quiet scholar of English literature.
NEDA SOLTANI: That was the life that I had.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you do?
NEDA SOLTANI: Together with several people, we started writing emails, blogs, made phone calls, talked to TV producers. Nobody listened to us. So, even after the family of the deceased Neda provided several photos of her, the international media kept using my photo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about some of your experiences to try to get this fixed.
NEDA SOLTANI: Two different people contacted two different producers from CNN and talked to them in length about the mistake. CNN kept broadcasting my photo. When I sent a second photo of mine to Voice of America Farsi Channel and I asked them to compare the photo to see that I was not fabricating the story, to my terror and shock, the next evening I saw that they broadcasted the second photo as an exclusive photo of the deceased Neda.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did they - explain?
NEDA SOLTANI: Nothing. Nobody ever wrote back. Nobody ever apologized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So here you are, trying to correct this. How did people respond, besides ignoring you?
NEDA SOLTANI: We started receiving hate mails for distorting the face of a true hero. People were arguing that I was an agent of the Islamic Republic, that the photo did not belong to me. They had seen it everywhere on the media. Of course, [LAUGHS] they would believe the media. People started calling me a whore, a bitch, a slut, whatever you can imagine. It really killed me emotionally.
And then my situation got dangerous, once the Iranian Secret Service realized that there had been a mistake. They came for me, and they started trying to use what has happened to me to their own advantage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did they want from you?
NEDA SOLTANI: They wanted to use my story to claim that that video is Western propaganda and that that poor innocent woman had not been killed, in the first place, that, look people, this is the photo you have seen and this is the person who owns the photo. The whole thing is fake.
I did not cooperate, and they charged me with treason against the national security of my country, which in Iran can bring about death penalty. One of those agents told me that, look, when it comes to the national security of our Islamic fatherland, you and your fate as an individual does not count. I had friends who started telling me that I needed a backup plan, in case things go wrong, and they arranged for my escape.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any way that this can be avoided?
NEDA SOLTANI: Social networks are an indispensable part of modern life, so you cannot get life to a pre-social networking era anymore. But what always surprises me is how carelessly and how recklessly the data that comes out of these social networking systems, like Facebook, like Twitter, are being used by very, very professional journalists. There are such times that you start doubting media, in general.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ya think?
NEDA SOLTANI: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is the Iranian government, even today, still insisting that the death of Neda was just propaganda from the West?
NEDA SOLTANI: Yes, they do. They claim that Neda Agha-Soltan was alive and [LAUGHS] she was living in Germany, which is me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think you'll ever go back?
NEDA SOLTANI: I'm very hopeful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you leave behind?
NEDA SOLTANI: I left behind my family, I left behind my friends, I left behind my job. I left behind my world. I have to live the rest of my life in the shadow of a person that I am not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think about her much?
NEDA SOLTANI: She’s a part of me. I go through life with her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What does that - feel like?
NEDA SOLTANI: Sad, not for myself but for her, because life is a blessing, and I so wholeheartedly wish that this second chance that has been granted me to build up a new life from scratch, no matter how uncertain it is –
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- I wholeheartedly wish that it had been granted her, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
NEDA SOLTANI: You’re most welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Neda Soltani is a visiting scholar at Montclair State University and author of My Stolen Face: The Story of a Dramatic Mistake.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary. We had more help from Olivia Weitz and Molly Buckley. And the show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Donne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News, and our boss. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.