BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.
In the summer of 2009, a wave of protests broke out in the streets of Iran.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Thousands of young opposition protesters spilled out onto the streets in a spontaneous outburst of anger against what they said was a rigged election.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: …the dictatorship, they were shouting “Mousavi, get my vote back for me.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Nothing has been seen on the streets on Tehran like this since the revolution right back in 1979.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: During one of those protests, a 26-year-old woman named Neda Agha-Soltan was killed after being shot in the chest, a tragedy captured on cell phone video.
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.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: One woman slain in front of the world has become the face of an entire movement.
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. What I did not know at that point was that I had already been mistaken with her. I started receiving phone calls from friends, students, colleagues, all of whom kept telling me they had seen me on this TV broadcast, on that TV broadcast and 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, the Facebook photo that had been taken from my profile without my knowledge. 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: The names are similar but they are not the same. How did media outlets around the world mistakenly use your image?
NEDA SOLTANI: I once did an interview with a French newspaper, and the journalist told me that the media has turned into a huge mechanism that once it gets started, it is impossible to stop. And, of course, that video shows something so tragic and the experience of that is so profound, everybody just rushed to give a face to that poor woman who had such a tragic death, and nobody second-checked the source. Within minutes, my photo was everywhere.
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, seeing your face in candlelight vigils?
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 e-mails, 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. The reaction we received was that CNN kept broadcasting my photo. In a more disheartening example, 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, they would believe the media. People started calling me a whore, a bitch, a slut, whatever you can imagine. It really killed me mentally and 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: That video has been one of the largest scale scandals for the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Iranian regime had desperately been trying to wash their hands off the blood of that innocent woman. They wanted to use my story to claim that that video is Western propaganda, the conspiracy against the Islamic Republic of Iran by the Western media 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. And I remembered that 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. The whole sequence of events happened in a matter of 12 days, from the day she was shot to death to the day I left Iran.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, just last year there were photos of a London woman by the name of Elena Lechich who was used on the Gay Girl in Damascus site. Actually, it was an American man in Scotland who did a, a kind of creative writing project and just took this photo and created this Gay Girl in Damascus blog. The media eventually caught on, but not before her image had been used all around the world. 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: You 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. In one of their recent reactions, they claimed 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. You do not like to live a life in a shadow, and that is somehow my life. 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 is 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, 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.”