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Nawaat Pushes Boundaries in Tunisia With New Whistleblowing Platform

BY Rebecca Chao | Wednesday, June 18 2014

Twenty days before a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself with borrowed gasoline on a street in Sidi Bouzid and tipped off what would become the Arab Spring, a Tunisian activist exiled in the Netherlands and his Tunisian-based colleagues translated and released to the Arab press a set of diplomatic cables that exposed the corruption of the Ben Ali regime.

Sami Ben Gharbia, who created TuniLeaks and co-founded his activism blog Nawaat with law scholar and computer scientist Riadh Guerfali, has since returned from the Netherlands to Tunisia. In a blog post earlier this year, he called Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning’s leak of documents to WikiLeaks, through which the Arab leaks were passed on to him, a crucial revelation or “butterfly effect” that added to an undercurrent of anger with Ben Ali’s corrupt regime and that helped lead to its end.

“If the U.S. will take 35 years from Chelsea Manning’s life, may it console her that she has given us, Arabs, the secret gift that helped expose and topple 50 years of dictatorships,” wrote Gharbia.

For decades before the Arab Spring, endemic corruption was a staple of everyday life in Tunisia: vendors like Bouazizi who did not have money to bribe officers to allow them to sell their goods often faced harassment and humiliation. But the Arab Spring made clear that believing your government is corrupt and seeing hard evidence of corruption are two different things. Until Bouazizi’s desperation was made palpable through images of his bandaged body and videos of his immolation, and until stories from the leaked cables surfaced of how Ben Ali’s wife made massive profits off of private schools, among other corrupt practices, the anger that Tunisians felt towards their government lay dormant.

But since the toppling of the regime, Tunileaks has sat still, its last entry dated July 2011. One might assume that with Tunisia's relatively positive transition since then –- a successful election, an internationally praised Constitution, and what appears to be a recovering economy –- that Gharbia and Riadh’s project might have lost its relevance. It has not. Just as Gharbia now knows two Tunisias, the one that sent him into exile and the one that brought him back, he sees two phases for Nawaat: a link in the chain of events that brought down the regime and a link in keeping the new one from returning to its darker days.

“In order to strengthen and broaden [Nawaat], we need to establish a platform that can provide a secure platform for whistleblowers without exposing their identities, and their futures and their families, whether the leaks are coming from lobbies, the state, businessmen or the security apparatus,” Gharbia explained in a recent conversation with techPresident. Each leak is received with a number of precautions, added Guerfali, undergoing an intensive fact-checking procedure before they are released to the public.

Gharbia and Guerfali’s plan is to grow Nawaat into a vehicle for powerful investigative journalism and also a tool for whistleblowers to voice their concerns through a platform that enables them to protect their identity, even from Gharbia and Guerfali. The NawaatLeaks whistle-blowing site launched on March 27 with the help of the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, an advocacy group that creates “software for social change,” said Fabio Pietrosanti, one of its founding members.

The whistle-blowing software Pietrosanti and his team built focuses on making the user aware of technology’s limitations and how to protect against them. He says that, in the end, “technology will not save the whistleblower,” only an awareness of its limitations will. The open-source GlobaLeaks platform, which NawaatLeaks adapted, builds this awareness into its software by forcing whistleblowers to acknowledge risks before submitting a leak. For example, “If a user didn’t submit his own PGP key for his encryption, he will get a warning over and over again,” said Pietrosanti.

The platform also acts as a “camouflage” for the Nawaat founders. “It protects us from court orders to provide the names or any information that could lead to whistleblower and it makes it impossible for us to identify the whistleblower,” Gharbia said.

In post-Arab Spring Tunisia, the leaks that have come to Nawaat are not regime-shaking but they are potentially regime-changing.

On May 14, the Court of Auditors issued a 39-page report on their work auditing energy companies, but a whistleblower soon revealed to Nawaat that the public report had been redacted from an original one spanning 125 pages. Med Dhia Hammami, a blogger for Nawaat, elaborated on the leaked document in an article:

Take the example of two concessions Bagel and El Franig located in the region of Kebili and operated by a subsidiary of the Anglo-French company Perenco. The final report of the Court of Auditors suggests a delay of more than 14 years in the audit of exploration expenditures. In addition, it is reported, in two lines, the lack of technical and financial documents makes it difficult to audit expenditures exploration.
Details reported in the document leaked are even more shocking! [translated from French]

Guerfali asked, "You may raise the question, what is all this for? Did we reach our targets using such tools?"

The goals of Nawaat are much broader than just publishing leaks. The organization is also pushing against censorship and for protecting Internet access, Guerfali said. Article 32 of the Tunisian Constitution is one important fruit of that labor. It grants the right to access of information as well as the "right to access to communication networks," which Guerfali said is broad and encompasses the Internet. "Tunisia is the first country in the world in my knowledge that has constitutionalized access to the Internet. We're very proud of that."

As NawaatLeaks continues to challenge the status quo, its future, said Guerfali, remains staying on the front lines. "We are pushing the limits and the red lines further. We try to do that on all the levels. It’s a bit risky; some times very risky. But we do it.”

By doing so, they are keeping the anger and tenaciousness that manifested in the winter of 2011 from going back to sleep.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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