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Posts Tagged ‘citizen bloggers

Weekly #11: Tunisia and Citizen Media

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T is for Tunisia (oh, Sesame Street, you are handy). I first became interested in this country while studying elementary Modern Standard Arabic in college. On paper (or Wikipedia, as it were), it looks stellar at first glance. It is the northernmost country in Africa, surrounded by Algeria, Libya, and the Mediterranean, and its official state religion is Islam. Perhaps surprisingly, it is a constitutional republic with heavy influences from the French, with a great degree of religious freedom, and a close relationship with the European Union. Its government, led by President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, has also held a moderate stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, making it a valuable voice in MENA in the eyes of Western powers. Sounds good, right?

Guess again. Ben Ali has been around since 1987, and if Blagojevich can go bad in six years in President Obama’s sandbox, it’s easy to imagine how corrupt this guy can get in 23. Ben Ali touts freedom and democracy, all the while Amnesty International calls his messaging “lip service” and cites various human rights abuses committed by his security forces. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy (2008) classified Tunisia as an authoritarian regime, ranking 141 out of 167, only four spots above Iran. Although freedom of press is officially guaranteed, in reality it is the exact opposite. No public criticism of the government is tolerated, and journalists are blocked from reporting on controversial events. Finally, Tunisia is one of the strictest countries in the world when it comes to censorship of the internet. There is only one server for the entire country, and it is controlled by (you guessed it) the government. Just this past January, Secretary Hillary Clinton named Tunisia as one of two countries with the most internet censorship in the world (China was the other).

This is all my long way of saying that Tunisian bloggers have guts. Global Voices writer Lova refers to the bloggers as the “citizen media,” which rings true. They face extreme oppression for doing what U.S. bloggers do every day: give their opinion, spread information, and tell the truth as they see it. They speak out against the government and its restriction of both quantity and quality of information. For example, as reported via Global Voices, bloggers on Nawaat revealed that photos of Ben Ali’s son were doctored by the national press to his benefit, showing the government’s influence over national media.

These bloggers are evidence of Shirky’s claim that these days everyone is a media outlet. However, their significance for Tunisia goes much further than “mass amateurization” and its effects on journalism as a profession. They are saying what the professionals cannot and taking huge risks to practice free speech in a repressive state. In April and May 2010, the government blocked hundreds of blogs, and in response bloggers protested online with videos, comments, blog posts, and screens denouncing the actions. Since this crack down, a movement has started to revamp the blogosphere by encouraging Tunisians to start new blogs.

Tunisian bloggers are not Justin Hall and they are not Robert Scoble. They are the citizen media, acting under threats to freedom and life, all for the sake of providing access to accurate and uncensored information. Sure, they blog about their personal lives too, but the overwhelming narrative is what they are compelled to tell by virtue of being a blogger on the most censored internet server in the world: information is limited and falsified, and through my blog I can tell you what is really going on.

We come from a place where the work of Woodward and Bernstein is hailed as the “single greatest reporting effort of all time.” We are that lucky. I don’t mean to diminish their hard work, but Woodward and Bernstein were backed by a hundred-year-old institution and didn’t face the certainty of being tracked and high possibility of being arrested and detained without cause that these bloggers face daily. The bloggers of Tunisia, the citizen media, are a crucial media outlet for the country. They are key to tracking human rights violations, practicing freedom of speech, and keeping democracy alive in Tunisia.

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