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Tunisian campaigner discusses online uprising
« on: July 21, 2012, 17:45:52 PM »
Tunisian campaigner discusses online uprising

Tunisian human rights campaigner Sami Ben Gharbia discusses social media, WikiLeaks and the Arab Spring uprising.


EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: They called it the Facebook revolution, when thousands of Tunisians took to the streets in pro-democracy protests that culminated with the fall of president Ben Ali's government.

A Tunisian military court has sentenced the ousted president's interior minister and 38 other former officials to up 20 years in jail over the deaths of protesters. The court also sentenced the former president himself to life imprisonment in absentia but he fled into exile in Saudi Arabia in January last year.

Eighteen months later the bloggers and social media activists are telling their stories about how they inspired a generation to make their voices heard. Among them is Sami Ben Gharbia who lived in exile for many years. He is the advocacy director at Global Voices and co-founder of the blog site Foreign Policy Magazine lists him among their top 100 global thinkers.

I spoke to Mr Ben Gharbia from our Melbourne studio just a short time ago.

Sami Ben Gharbia welcome to Lateline.


EMMA ALBERICI: Much is said about the fact that the uprising in Tunisia was very much inspired by the use of social media among young people, but can you tell us, exactly how did that actually start?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: Actually, it wasn't inspired by social media. It was inspired by grass roots activism, on the ground activism by unionists, jobless youth.

Social media did accelerate the phenomenon and helped it spread the message. A decade of censorship online filtering and repression has created a generation of tech savvy youth that knew how to circumvent censorship, how to use new information technology to dismay the measures, to build networks, to launch advocacy campaign.

And when the events of the uprising started in December, the 17th 2010, the youth was already ready to deal with the censorship, to deal with the repression and they managed to by-pass censorship, spread the message online and use English, French, multiple languages - reach global audiences and then create an information cascade that convinced the entire population to go into the street and to topple the government.

EMMA ALBERICI: But you're talking about the uprising that began in December 2010 but really, it had its origins much earlier than that, you could say, couldn't you?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: It has its origin, let's put it around 2008. In a close region to city where the 2010 uprising started in a city called Gaza.

It's a mining region, very poor mining region around a big city of Gaza. By then the police and the regime managed to crack down on the uprising. They killed many. They arrested hundreds of unionists and students. The online scene during that moment wasn't really ready to spread the message and to build campaign around it and to raise awareness about the situation. So the regime managed to besiege that movement in that region. It didn't reach out to the entire country, unlike the situation in 2010-11.

EMMA ALBERICI: But even before Facebook and Twitter, there was already online activity in Tunisia and I guess it's extraordinary because this is also a country that has - that used to have one of the toughest online censorship regimes in the world?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: Yes. Censorship, as we know, can block website, but it doesn't block information. Before social networking website, before Facebook, Twitter, video sharing website, we had forum board.

Since late 90s, late 2000s, cyber dissidents were using forum board for discussions around political topics in Tunisia. Then we witnessed the phenomenon of blogging between 2002, 4, 5, it was the era of blog and political blogging and then Facebook helped at least gather all Tunisians all together in one platform.

Since all other video sharing websites, social networking website, photo sharing websites were blocked in Tunisia. All of them were blocked.

So the only platform where Tunisians could publish video was Facebook. The only platform where Tunisians could share photo and picture and send messages was Facebook because the government blocked everything else. So in a way, it was a big mistake of the government to gather all Tunisians in one platform. And that was a big help for Tunisian uprising.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now I understand you're a friend of Julian Assange and in fact in 2010 your blog site translated some of those US government cables into French and Arabic that had been released and what became known as Tuni-leaks. How did you manage to get those cables?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: Well we got the cables, um, I cannot name the one who gave me the cable. I knew Assange in Budapest during the third Global Voices summit in Budapest in 2008. It was one of the summit that Julian Assange organised, I think, to recruit people for his own network for the WikiLeaks network.

So we got to know each other, not only me but many of Global Voices bloggers and activists.

In 2010, in October, we got the cables, not only the Tunisian cable, but the entire Arab world cables. But as Tunisian bloggers and activists we worked only on the Tunisian cables because it was too much work to deal with an entire, like a set of 400 cables about the entire Arab world, so we published the Tunisian cables and we hand over the Arab cables to the Lebanese newspaper and website Al Akhbar which published the rest of the cables and then was hacked by Saudi hackers.

EMMA ALBERICI: So how potent were the revelations in those Tuni-leaks those cables you published and translated and what part did they play in the subsequent uprising cause that was October 2010 then it really kicked off in December?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: Yeah, we got the cable in October, we published them after WikiLeaks started publishing the cables in November 28th. I think the psychological effect of the cables was huge within the political establishment in Tunisia. At least the cables revealed that the US state department at least didn't really trust the Tunisian government and they believed that the Tunisian government is a corrupt system and that the ruling family is really stealing the wealth off the country.

And that they believed that if any uprising will happen, it will be helped by the trade unionists. This is what happened in Tunisia actually the uprising in Tunisia was facilitated by the trade unionists so it helped at least create shake the political establishment, many people like resigned from the ruling party during the last day, the same what we are seeing now in Libya and recently in Syria.

I don't know, it's up to research and admission to measure what kind of impact the WikiLeaks cables had but for us at least it has a huge psychological impact, it convinced the political establishment that this regime is not any more trusted by the west government.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now as a Tunisian in exile for many years, now that the president's been deposed and you've been able to go back to your country, do you see it as a vastly different place from what you remembered it to be?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: Yeah. I think the most important gain is freedom of expression, freedom of movement that there is no fear any more in the streets, that people can address political and sensitive issues. They can talk about taboos.

The new - I think the new dangerous development is this conservative trend within the Tunisian society. It's not because of the Islamists are ruling now the coalition which is ruling the country. But because there is part in the Tunisian society which is willing to maybe rebuild censorship bases on religious and moral values. This is the risk that Tunisia might face in the future.

Fortunately there is a strong human rights advocate in Tunisia who are very experienced during the last decades of repression and I think that they can deal with this threat.

EMMA ALBERICI: As you mentioned earlier the uprising was largely fuelled by the high number of people out of work. And the unemployment rate now in Tunisia is 18 per cent or thereabouts which is five per cent higher than it was before the uprising. So is there a fear that things might get much worse before they get better?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: There is a fear, actually it's getting worse especially in the region where the uprising started (inaudible) and the surrounding areas and neighbourhoods. Things are not really quite secure. I mean there is a lot of sittings a lot of protests.

People didn't really get what they wanted. Mainly the three slogans. Tunisian revolution work freedom and national dignity. We might achieve the national dignity, we might achieve the freedom, but the first slogan which was work, we didn't achieve it. People still feel that they didn't really get jobs.

I can understand the economic situation, the slump that the tourism industry had to face during the last two years has a negative impact on the Tunisian economy, but I think as well that the government didn't really do his job. The current transition government didn't really do the job to create new jobs, etc.

EMMA ALBERICI: And only in the last day or so we've seen the government actually sack the central bank governor and sheet some of the blame to him for the lack of financial progress.

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: Um ... many say that that's the power game between the prime minister which is from another party and between the president which is from leftist secular party, after the Libyan prime minister was hand to Libya without the agreement of the president, the president decided to resign the president of the Tunisian central bank. It's more a power game between two political parties than anything else. This is what Tunisians think.

EMMA ALBERICI: Has Tunisia in your view managed to regain then the trust of the financial markets more globally and is the economy as transparent in terms of economic data and is that reliable, is the information coming from the government reliable enough to get that trust back from the financial markets?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: No, it's not transparent. There is like conflicts between numbers that are presented by the Tunisian central bank and the numbers that are presented by the government. There is a big open government movement an open data movement that is building up in Tunisia asking the government to open the data at least for the public opinion to debate them and maybe they have a better idea than those who are in power now.

So there is this struggle again between the public opinion who's starving to have more information about what's going on and a government who is trying to close up the information. Few in the government although are believing in the urgency to open the information to the government. Many of the parliament are carrying out campaign for the opening of policy within the government, within the parliamentary, within the minister, but still it's more hope and good wishes than real practice.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now, the former president Ben Ali and his family are now subject to dozens of lawsuits. I think he has been sentenced himself to something like 66 years in prison. We know that he's fled to Saudi Arabia. What are the chances do you think that the Saudis will return him to Tunisia to face justice?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: Saudi won't return him. Saudi are begging the current government they are giving a lot of credit, billions are coming from Saudi Arabia to Tunisia from Qatar to Tunisia from the US to Tunisia. I think the current government manage to create an alliance between Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey to get out of this economic crisis and it was a deal, they won't get Ben Ali back at all.

EMMA ALBERICI: And how do the Saudis themselves feel about harbouring a criminal like Ben Ali in their country? Was there been much talk on social media circles about that?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: Not really. I mean, Saudi Arabia is used to host dictator from the Sudanese dictator to Ben Ali and then to the Yemeni dictator who operated, was operated in Saudi Arabia. I think they are used to have dictator. That's the place where dictator can flee. There is no place in the Arab world except Saudi Arabia.

EMMA ALBERICI: More broadly, given we start the conversation about social media, what role is social media playing in Tunisia now during this period of political transition?

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: Two roles, I think monitoring mainstream media is still the main role of social media. Mainstream media is suffering from decades of government repression and censorship. The journalists are not really skilled to do professional journalism work, investigative journalism. There is a lot of training, there is a will within the professionals to improve the profession, social media is doing that, monitoring is like showing the mistakes that mainstream media is doing.

But social media is also carrying a lot of rumours a lot of propaganda, pro-government, anti-government, there is this new phenomenon that social media actually is harming more than benefitting the country. This is a common feeling within the Tunisian scene.

EMMA ALBERICI: We have to leave it there. Sami Ben Gharbia thank you so much for joining us tonight.

SAMI BEN GHARBIA: Thank you, Emma, thank you.

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