My interview on Global Voices

Below is the interview I had with Jillian York:

This week’s Blogger of the Week is none other than Global Voices Advocacy Director Sami Ben Gharbia, known for his dedication to the fight against oppression and censorship. Sami is originally from Tunisia, but has been based in The Netherlands since 1998. He blogs at fikra فكرة.

JY: Tell us about yourself.

SBG: I started blogging in French, then, after few years, I decided to blog in Arabic and cover interesting stories that deal with digital activism and the use of new information technologies for social and political change. I speak 4.5 languages. The half is what remained from the Farsi that I’ve learned during the one and a half year that I’ve spent in Iran.

I studied law at the University of Tunis but I didn’t complete my studies. I always hated Law and preferred to study Sociology. But in Tunisia, at that time, it does not matter what you choose to study, the government educational body is there to choose it for you!

I work as a part-time Advocacy director for Global Voices and I’m also trying, together with my colleagues from nawaat.org, to evolve some of the Tunisian citizen media projects and digital activism initiatives to something more professional and sustainable.

JY: You published the first Tunisian e-book (in French) about your exile from Tunisia – can you share a bit of that story with us?

SBG: Well, when I arrived to The Netherlands after one year of travel following my flee from Tunisia, the first thing I did was write down the story of that trip, which was a very rich and intense experience.

“Journey in a Hostile World” is the subtitle of the e-book. And I think that it gives an idea about how it is to travel the world with an Arab or African passport in a region where all kind of frontiers and mountains of obstacles are built to prevent a wide portion of this specific group from traveling and exercising their freedom of movement in a so called “global village”. In this travel, I realized how difficult, and even impossible, it is to travel from one North African or Arab country to another and how often you can get arrested and investigated only because you are a young Arab and thus have the “bad” passport. I was arrested twice, once in Libya where I spent five days in the security offices because my attempts to travel through the Sahara desert in the direction of Niger was deemed suspicious. The second time was in Damascus (Syria) where, after two days of investigation, I was asked to leave the country. The book tries to also analyze the political situation in the countries that I’ve visited (Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Chad, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and the Netherlands) and follows the personages of the story through the use of fiction, theological analysis, political debate, prose and poetry. All the stories are linked by the wire of the journey that leads the personages through countries, cities, events and memories, that trace their relationship with the end of a century (XX) and the beginning of another (XXI).

JY: How did you get involved with GVA? What inspired you to work on the project?

SBG: After the article by Sameer Padania, GV former Video Hub editor, about the Tunisian Prison Map mashup, Haitham Sabbah, former GV Middle East Editor asked me to cover Tunisia for GV, which I did for a few months, before starting GV Advocacy.

I personally was impressed by the role of GV after the support that our citizen online demonstration, Yezzi Fock Ben Ali, has gained, thanks to the coverage that has been given to it on GV. It was interesting to see that the Anglophone blogsphere was much more supportive toward our action than the francophone one, which we excepted to be much closer to us than the Anglophone one. The same trend has been observed after my Tunisian Prison Map. Those two cases were my very first impression of GV and they have demonstrated to me the place and the very particular identity that this amazing website is shaping within the media sphere.

JY: Do you feel you’re achieving more for freedom of expression living outside of Tunisia than inside?

Since I only started advocating when I lived in the Netherlands and not in Tunisia, I didn’t experience the problems I could have had in a similar situation in Tunisia.

I must say that I didn’t really experience freedom of expression inside Tunisia and I think that after the short political openness during the eighties, Tunisians have lost a huge part of their freedom of expression and free access to information. Living and blogging from outside Tunisia has certainly helped me express myself freely, but the fact that my personal blog is blocked, as are all the other collective blogs that I’m co-running, always remind me of the harsh situation in which freedom of expression has declined year-by-year in my country.

JY: You recently reported on the status of freedom of expression in Tunisia. What is your take on the matter?

SBG: The Tunisian government has realized that censorship is not working the way it wanted it to. The flow of dissident information into Tunisia is a fact and censorship is simply not succeeding in stopping it. It’s true that only a small percentage of Tunisian Netizens have the technical skill and the will to figure out workarounds for the censorship, however, the rest of Tunisian Netizens still can access the same information on Facebook or via their RSS subscriptions and mailing-lists. The government is aware of this breach and it seems that it is updating its policy from a simple blocking of dissents websites and blogs to a much aggressive one that include hacking and deleting of websites and filtering of emails.

By getting rid of outspoken websites and blogs (those who, thanks to the service of RSS, social networking websites and newsletters, are providing their readership in Tunisia with independent information) and by filtering emails (it seems that the Tunisian Internet police has recently implemented what seems to be a Deep Packet Inspection (DPI to filter targeted email addresses and content) the regime hopes to destabilize the two hubs that are providing Tunisia with political information and that the censorship couldn’t stop.

The other new development is the response of the Tunisian Netizens in general, including bloggers and digital activists, to censorship. The recent ban on Facebook in Tunisia that lasted for two weeks has generated a very strong mobilization to protest the ban of Facebook itself, on the blogs and websites and as a result, access was restored after two weeks by a “personal intervention” from President Ben Ali, who ordered the lifting of the ban.

Now, and for the first time in Tunisia, a Tunisian journalist and blogger, Zied El Heni, who is also a member of the executive board of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists, has taken legal action against the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) over the ban on Facebook and the first hearing has been scheduled for November 4th.

JY: We know you love technology – what new developments are you really passionate about?

SBG: I’m very impressed by the new North African blogs aggregator, Berberus.com. It’s one of the most efficient tools that helps you follow, explore, and understand the North-African blogospheres and have a sense of the kind of conversations that are taking place in that region of the world. With graphs, tags, hot topics and a very advanced search into the content and comments of the Maghrebian (North African) blogspheres, Berberus.com offers a range of new functionalities that make the navigation of the aggregated blogs and authors a very interesting experience.

JY: You recently attended your second Global Voices Summit. What did you learn from this year’s gathering? What new developments do you hope to see for GVO and GVA?

SBG: During the Budapest Citizen Media Summit we have dedicated one day to debate the online free speech topic, from a variety of perspectives (technical, legal, social, political, etc.) by bringing together on-the-ground activists and bloggers, NGOs representatives, tools developers, free speech advocates and researchers. What I personally took from that meeting is that the battle against online censorship/filtering and the defense of free access to the tools that are giving the platforms for people to express themselves (like blogging services, photo and video-sharing websites, and social networking websites) is a global battle that needs to be fought globally by joining efforts of all actors in the online free speech movement. The building of a coordinated global anti-censorship network is one of the ideas that has strongly emerged from the Budapest debate.

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