Blogging Tunisia: whisper!

Written for Global Voices

Roughly a year ago, the Tunisian weekly newspaper, Tunis Hebdo has published an article about the Tunisian Blogs [Fr] in which the author, Zouhour Harbaoui, shaped a frivolous image of the Tunisian Blogs as a matter of all and nothing. The reactions of the bloggers, whether on Tunis Hebdo online or on their blogs, were furious. While welcoming the first article on a national newspaper talking about them, bloggers were upset by the way the author treated their sphere. They accused the journalist of misunderstanding the new medium and not taking a deep look into the Tunisian blogsphere. Some of them even have asserts that blogging in Tunisia is an alternative to the national press and that the Tunisian blogs are filling the vacuum that the mainstream media have created.

One year later, what’s left of that positive self-perception that bloggers have maintained? Do they really represent an alternative to the print media? Do they offer a safe space in which they write freely and bypass strict state censorship? Are they concerned about the freedom of expression on the Web? Are they worried about Internet Filtering used by the Tunisian regime like Democlas’ sword that can fall down at any moment and blocks sites, blogs and all kinds of dissent information?

A lot of questions of ends and means are being asked at the moment on the Tunisian blogs and an unusual effort to find the answers to what it seems to be an existential question is being made. Even if it is certain that the atmosphere of fear is not helping the majority of bloggers raising their voice, a start of self-criticism is trying to patent fresh air to the debate that is taking place.

Zine & GaddafiCommenting Affaire de microcosms [Fr] (a text that Houssein published following the article of Sameer Padania on Global Voices) Leilouta noted that few Tunisian bloggers deleted her from their blogroll [Fr] after she has posted a photoshopped picture of the Tunisian president Ben Ali. I asked her by mail if she can explain this action:

Maybe they were part of Ben Ali’s family! Or they were addicted to my blog and just needed to go cold turkey to get on with their lives. Seriously, I think it’s understandable given the situation. Voicing opposing views or having fun with photoshop can cause ‘problems’ and it may not be worth the risk for everyone. I don’t think my pictures were risky but…not everyone reading has the same sense of humor I do.

And what about blogging in Tunisia? Is it replacing journalism and print media? But if is not the case, what should the Tunisian bloggers do in order to become a credible alternative? On these questions she responded:

From the blogs I am familiar with, and talking to my family and friends, I would have to say that they are not replacing our ‘journalism’ and print media at all. There are encouraging signs and talented bloggers out there however, too often people who voice a view different from the mainstream are hammered. Maybe it is our nature or culture to go along with everyone. For blogging to be a credible medium for change we need a gateway to discuss all viewpoints that is constructive and informative. It needs to build a reputation that is open-minded and fair, because we all know how important our reputations are to us.

I also asked her about the journey towards democracy and freedom and if she thinks that blogging is a powerful medium to help the process of democratizing Tunisia. And she gives me this answer, not without her touch of humor:

Hey, Tunisia is a democracy, we vote! ? I think blogging is a great medium to help ‘improve’ our democracy. Democracy depends on an informed, literate, knowledgeable population. Personally I have learned so much about the world since I started blogging. I have heard the stories and opinions of regular people like myself that I never saw on US or Tunisian TV, or in any newspaper. As my husband says…These are Gutenberg times for us all.

In another comment, this time on the post of InfinityLa blogosphère tunisienne .. et la dissidence ..” [Fr], Nasnoussa criticized the double-standard applied on the Tunisian blogs when it comes to speaking about the victims of oppression in the country. She mentioned the case of the youngsters of Kef (who were condemned for downloading an mp3 criticizing the brutality of the Tunisian police) and noticed that Tunisians bloggers have shown more support for Ingrid Betancourt than for the youngsters. I also asked her by email about this attitude and if there is any allergic behavior, on the blogsphère, towards politics, a kind of politicophobia. She gives me this answer:

“Depoliticization, as far national politics is concerned, is a fact among mainstream Tunisians. One would expect that this trend would not affect Tunisian bloggers since many of them have an educational level superior to that of the rest of the population that should have enabled them to develop a less narrow-minded focus in politics for example. A cursory look at the Tunisian blogsphere, however, will reveal that it hardly ever deals with topics pertaining to national politics. Those bloggers who do talk about political issues will most probably analyze what is happening in the international arena without ever mentioning what goes on in their own country. Put crudely, many Tunisian bloggers (with no intention to make hasty generalizations) have a finger in every pie but their country’s. This apathy vis-à-vis Tunisian politics is mostly explained by a fear of the regime. This regime has shown on numerous occasions that it would brook no dissent and tolerate no opposition to its policies. A number of internet users that were deemed subversive by the government were put in jail for expressing their opinions and this has unfortunately acted as an enormous deterrent.

Besides, self-censorship is rife in Tunisia. We were conditioned since our childhood to watch our actions and beware of what we say. We were taught notions of civil liberties and human rights from elementary school to university level. We are unfortunately aware that what we learnt on those school benches starkly contrasts with reality. I do acknowledge the ruthlessness of the regime as far as its dealing with dissent is concerned; however, I feel that at times this fear is unjustified. The regime will only be more comforted in its tyranny if we carry on showing our excessive fear. A first SUBTLE step is necessary to overcome the “politicophobia” that has plagued the Tunisian blogosphere.”

Big Trap Boy [Fr] has used the M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” as metaphor to describe the relationship between Tunisian blogs and politics. In “The Village”, the population has made a pact with strange creatures in the woods: They never leave the village; red color is evil; they don’t talk about “certain things”. Based on that metaphor, Big Trap Boy writes the following in a very clever way:

Who wants to take the risk venturing into the woods inhabited by those we don’t speak of on the blogsphere? Who wants to carry “the bad color” which attracts these creatures? And who wants to wake up the next morning and find a “404 Error – File Not Found” on his blog?

I think that much of this fear and this politicophobia is based on myths that can easily be surmounted if the concerned parties, within the blogsphere, show a bit of comprehension and moderation. (…) It is certain the Tunisian blogsphere is still searching itself.

The Quest of its “raison d’être” has made it obvious the search of definition of what blogging is, and what the role and duty of bloggers are. Concerning Astrubal [Fr], I quote his words:

A true blogger cannot conceive his activity without being committed to defend the tool that he’s using. Blogging is initially a state of mind, an attitude and the intransigence towards all those trying to harm the two amazing tools we own: expression and the Internet.”

Learning from other people’s experience, debating and comparing the journey of the Tunisian blogsphere with the Egyptian one or with the huge Weblogestan was also one of the methods used recently by Tunisian bloggers to build a sort of self-awareness and to provide profound insight into the questions confronting them.

In this way Infinity has republished on her blog the Aljazeera documentary on Egyptian bloggers [Fr] (mudawinoun is the Arabic term for bloggers, it implies documenting and testifying) and a recent one on the Moroccan blogger, questioning herself and her visitors about the content of the Tunisian Blogs and if they represent an alternative to the national media and promising to “get more involved” with this kind of issues.

But in the meantime Houssein, who maintains the Tunisian Blogs aggregator in addition to his own blog, has criticized the attitude of various journalists and bloggers [Fr] who often:

praise the blogs as being the ultimate space for freedom, political militancy, dissidence and subversive ideas. (…) and who evoke the case of the Iranians Bloggers, the Chinese, and recently the Egyptian blogsphère as the Fifth Estate, citizen journalism, cyberdissidence, cyberactivism. (…) Reading them, it is not doubted any more that the next great revolution will be cybernetic, or will not be.

Referring to The Law of Large numbers, Houssein believes that the rate of 3 or 4 Tunisian political blogs among 300 or 400 others, sounds reasonable and it does fit with what he called “the international virtual standards” And concluded:

So please, spare us the speeches about the Iranian and the Egyptian blogsphere. It is just a question of large numbers. The day we’ll get thousands of Tunisian blogs, there will be a few political and militant blogs among theme.

So let’s assume that this is true. Just for the sake of argument. What we have witnessed until now is that the mainstream and traditional media suffered from the growth and power of blogs when they did not respond. The same is even truer for the last one: blogs can also be damaged and grow weaker when they don’t respond to the needs of their community. The risk of waiting for the Godot of the large numbers may be much greater than the risk of giving up free speech, rights and justice.

In his ‘We the media’ Gillmor said that “ in country after country where free speech is not given, the blogsphere matters in far more serious ways. This is the stuff of actual revolutions.” (p. 140)

And that is actually what we are witnessing in the past few days and weeks on the Tunisian blogsphere: more and more of new, young and fresh voices are rising; going well beyond the limits, crossing the red lines of the apolitical incorrectness. And even if they are neither criticizing openly and frontally the Tunisian regime, nor using their blog for advocacy, they are describing Tunisia’s myriad problems in a debate that is meant to evolve.

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