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Tunisians break 23 years of silence

After years of repression in the name of the war on terror, Tunisians are using the internet to exercise their freedom of speech. Christine Moderbacher reports.

January 12, 2011
6 min read

When the people will to live,
Destiny must surely respond.
Oppression shall then vanish,
Shackles are certain to break!

The closing lines of the Tunisian national anthem are been sung with fervor in the streets of Tunis, capital of Africa’s most northeastern country. After two decades of torture, harassment and arrests, the people of Tunisia are ready to break their silence and condemn the brutal rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Their actions are chipping away at the peaceful façade he has fought to maintain and finally focusing media attention on the deaths, unlawful detentions and corruption that have resulted from government efforts to keep dissent at bay.

According to eye witness reports collected through Facebook, at least 50 people have been killed and hundreds injured during protests in Kasserine, Thala, Meknassi and Erregueb, small cities troubled by high unemployment rates and poverty. Government statements that report fewer casualties and claim that police fired on crowds “in legitimate self defense” have only fueled anger.

The uprisings have been traced to December 17, when a young man named Mohammad Bouazizi attempted suicide after being harassed by the police. The 26 year-old had been selling fruit and vegetables without a license in Sidi Bouzid, a small city in the center of the country. A constable confiscated his scales and produce, depriving a family’s breadwinner of their only means of income. Before setting himself on fire, Bouazizi tried to report the incident at a local government building. He was turned away.

The incident came shortly after the government blocked internet access to Wikileak’s US embassy cables, which referred to the Ben Ali regime as corrupt and out of touch. As Bouazizi lay dying in his hospital bed, civil unrest exploded onto the streets. At first, demonstrators organised to bring attention to the country’s high unemployment rate, which stands at 23 percent among college graduates. Seizing the opportunity for dissent, public outcry has swiftly turned against the regime in general.

Abusing power

Ben Ali swooped into power in November 1989, after declaring then-President Habib Bourguiba senile. After winning his first election with 99 percent of the popular vote, he sanctioned violent crack downs on Islamists. The approach is suspected by many of masking the suppression of opposition movements as a whole. After being elected for a maximum third term in 2002, the President changed the constitution to allow leaders to hold power until the age of 75.

Now, the protests have finally caught the attention of a western media hesitant to look beneath the glossy veneer of a country marketed as the perfect European holiday destination and role-model for democracy and modernism within North Africa.

According to Amnesty International, the Tunisian government has been “misleading the world” with a positive image of their human rights record. State-sanctioned torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances are common place. Unfair trials and abuse committed by prison guards is well documented and refugees forcibly returned from abroad face severe retribution. The Economist ranks Tunisia as an “authoritarian regime” and Reporters Without Boarders ranks the country 143rd out of 173 regarding press freedom.

Liberties have been further eroded under the veil of “fighting terrorism”. In return for their condemnation of the 9/11 attacks and cooperation in the global international efforts to combat violent extremism, a blind eye has been turned to the entrenched corruption and human rights abuses blighting the Tunisian state. Young intellectuals and political artists have been particularly targeted in recent years, while internet access is heavily censored. Freedom of speech does not exist in any practical sense.

Viral dissent

Social networking sites and bloggers-in-exile have changed the game. Sabina, a young Tunisian student, is one of a growing number of Tunisians sharing information via Facebook. Her husband was one of at least six young activists and journalists arrested early in the morning on 6 January. According to Sabina, he was seized without explanation along with his laptop and hard drive. The rapper Hamada Ben Omar, also known as “El General”, was also detained, having recently released a song entitled: “President, your people are dying.” In a rarely heard act of defiance, he sings: “Where is the freedom of speech? So far I only hear the words, I’ve never seen the action.”

The detainees are all ‘cyberactivist’, trying to break through the walls of censorship erected by the Tunisian Internet Agency (TIA), which have blocked sites including YouTube. Of the 15 countries surveyed in Freedom House’s 2009 Freedom of the Net survey, Tunisia tied with China as the second worst performing country.

Facebook is one remaining avenue for communication with the outside world. Sabina has used the site to post her concerns for her husband’s safety and communicate with other activists. Others are updating their profile picture with a black version of the Tunisian flag, a collective symbol of mourning and resistance.

According to Sabina’s Facebook wall, her husband, along with Hamada and the other cyberactivists, were released without charge on Sunday 9 January. What happened to them in detention remains unknown, however, as Sabina’s last message explains that she will no longer have access to the internet, or a computer. Reports are now surfacing that the TIA has begun blocking proxy sites and using sophisticated methods to steal users’ passwords for Facebook, as well as Gmail and Twitter, and access account information.

It is a desperate, dangerous measure, taken by a government under threat. Last week, police opened fire on people gathered to morn at the funeral Mohammed Bouzazis. Undeterred, Tunisians continue to march, heartened by the increasing scrutiny of international media outlets. The protests have grown to become the largest, most violent uprising under Ben Ali’s rule and have already spread to the capital. For the first time in 23 years, the shackles are starting to break.

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