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#PdF11: Looking Forward to Tunisia's Global Voice--Sami Ben Gharbia

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, May 5 2011

A quick note on why I am so excited that Sami Ben Gharbia of Tunisia's Nawaat.org human rights group blog and Global Voices will be speaking at PdF 2011 next month as part of our slate of keynoters exploring the rapid pace of change in the Middle East and North Africa.

A few days ago, Nawaat.org turned down a major award, the 2011 Arab e-Content Award, because the prize is sponsored by the government of Bahrain. In a statement, the group referred to its policy of avoiding government support, and condemned the Bahrain government for the arrest of scores of bloggers and human rights activists & the arbitrary blocking of websites and blogs critical of the government and its ruling family.

A few weeks ago, I was in Italy for the International Journalism Festival, and watched Ben Gharbia sternly criticize Al Jazeera Egypt correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin for his network's failure to support the popular democracy movement in Bahrain in the same way that it had in Tunisia and Egypt. As an example, Ben Gharbia noted that Al Jazeera was not showing citizen-generated video from Bahrain in the same way it did from Tunisia and Egypt, in effect allowing the government's version of events to hold sway. In response, Mohyeldin fell back on every TV journalist's favorite chestnut: We all make mistakes; don't trust any news service. What, don't trust Al Jazeera? I sat up in my chair: Bloggers schooling mainstream media, but in the Arab context.

Two prizes that Nawaat has proudly received recently: The Reporters Without Borders Netizen Prize for 2011, and the Index on Censorship New Media Award for 2011. The group was especially recognized for its work creating the TuniLeaks website, which brought to light key State Department cables from the archive obtained by WikiLeaks, helping to spur the protests that led to revolution in Tunisia late last year.

And none of this happened overnight. Ben Gharbia and his colleagues have been building Nawaat and the Tunisian movement for human rights and democracy for seven years. Not only did they seize on blogging as their way of building independent media, they have long been in the forefront of other creative uses of new media. Here, for example, is a 2004 remix of the famous Apple "Think Different" ad that his partner Astrubal made to attack the Ben Ali regime--years before the Hillary Clinton mashup that was so famous in 2007:

Dans la tête d’Aziza... by fikrat
[This post by Ethan Zuckerman gives a fuller history.]
They also made an interactive map of Tunisian prisons, which won a mashup award from Programmable Web in 2006. And here is a Google Earth video Astrubal made that used planespotting databases to show where the President and his wife were jetting off to Europe on shopping sprees.

Tunisie : Avion présidentiel, à quoi et à qui... by Astrubal
[Yet more amazing background from Ethan here.]

For all his work with new media and technology, Ben Gharbia doesn't strike me as an internet utopian. Just read his long essay on "The Internet freedom fallacy and Arab digital activism," which he posted last fall in response to the rising efforts of American diplomats to promote digital democracy efforts. He writes:

For digital activism in the Arab world to achieve its noble aspirations, it must remain independent and homegrown, tapping its financial, logistic and moral support into the grassroots level or try to seek a support from neutral parties that do not push for any kind of political or ideological agenda. Of course, this does not mean we should be completely disconnected from the global digital activism experience that we need to understand, interact with and learn from. At the present time, we urgently need to resist every governmental attempt to hijack or politicize our space, publicly denounce it and make sure that we are making informed decisions, rather than naively accepting ideologically tinted Internet Freedom funding and support.

Something new and important is happening here, folks. And I'm looking forward to learning more about it when Ben Gharbia and all the other great speakers we have coming to PdF 2011 help us dig in.