Empowering Voices

Interview with Sami Ben Gharbia

I was introduced to Sami by Ethan Zuckerman @ Picnic, Amsterdam, last September. Sami is a guy who always has a smile on his face, his eyes are constantly laughing. While I was talking to him for the first time I’ve got the feeling that he is very passionated about what he is doing. His work for Global Voices Advocacy is based on instinct, passion and conviction – there is no doubt about this. He is one of these ”true believers“ for an ”Internet for the Good“. Good to have him on board for this We volume.

we-mag: Sami, would you please introduce yourself?

Sami Ben Gharbia: My name is Sami Ben Gharbia. I’m from Tunisia, but I’ve been living in the Netherlands for the last ten years. I fled Tunisia in 98, and I am a blogger, an activist, I was mostly engaged in an online initiative in support of online free speech in Tunisia. In 2006 I started covering the country for Global Voices Online which is an online aggregator of global debate on the blogo- sphere. I started out by covering Tunisia and then, in 2007, when Global Voices launched its new Advocacy section I also applied for the position of director. I had the good luck to get it and since then I’ve been heading the Global Voices Advocacy section.

we-mag: What is Global Voices Advocacy all about?

Sami Ben Gharbia: What Global Voices Advocacy actually does is cover the breakdown in online speech by documenting issues and censorship, like the arrest and harassment of bloggers or the colleagues who translate their articles. We identify digital activists already engaged in online free speech in their country. We try to support them in covering their country and we give them the technical means to continue with their work. Well, I think it’s a new kind of advocacy, it’s citizen advocates – they are active in the field, but they are also very active in supporting their fellow bloggers who are jailed in places like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. We see people who are defending bloggers and the main part of our writers are also bloggers. Most of the time they are the ones who alert the world about the arrest of bloggers, like the case in Saudi Arabia with Fouad Alfarhan, and the case of Kareem Amer in Egypt. So the advocacy section is an attempt to create a global anti-censorship network composed of all of these activists to ensure that the voices of those using digital tools remain heard.

we-mag: So how would you describe the understanding of WE behind this idea? Because there is a very strong WE in this kind of advocacy.

Sami Ben Gharbia: Actually this WE is based on the voluntary involvement and engagement of all of these authors and activists who help us understand and navigate the censorship and anti-censorship efforts that unfold. It’s not a traditional way of advocating online speech. It’s a new way based on a sense of community between all these people – despite all the linguistic, cultural and other barriers. A few of us are from the Arab world, others are from China, others from East Europe but we do manage to share our tactics and strategies in the fight against censorship. So that’s the WE, and that’s the strong WE behind this kind of new endeavor.

we-mag: So let’s take the case of this Iranian blogger who has just been arrested. What can Global Voices, what can the WE do for him now?

Sami Ben Gharbia: What Global Voices does in general is to try and get the attention of the traditional media and the online community about any bloggers or others arrested for speaking their mind. What we can do is cover and follow their cases. I mean, for instance, that Global Voices Advocacy was among the first to talk about the arrest of Hussein Derakhshan and give some background information about this blogger who has been described as the ”father of the Iranian blog scene“. We try to understand why he was arrested and we try to help – and this could be through our personal contacts, activists who actually campaign to free him in a campaign supported by various authors from Global Voices and other activists around the world.

we-mag: But how do you make it possible for these voices to be heard? I mean it’s always one thing if you publish all this, but it’s quite anotherthing and much more difficult to ensure that what these people are saying is really heard.

Sami Ben Gharbia: You’re right. Well, we use different tactics. The major obstacle in understanding the case of an arrested blogger is with people who neither have anough information about the concerned country nor can put it on the map, like if you are taking about Yemen or Syria or Iran. A lot of people know nothing about these countries so the first thing to do is to translate what this blogger is talking about – to give this particular victim a human face. They’re not just a name, they’re not just a case, they’re a human case – and so the most important thing is to try to personalize the case of this victim by translating his writings, by posting them on blogs, Twitter and other social networking websites like Facebook, in order to multiply their potential readership.

we-mag: You yourself are a political activist and you had to leave Tunisia for several reasons. What was the driving force that made you participate in Global Voices and what do you think you can contribute or change with your work in Tunisia that might be needed for an open and fair political discussion there?

Sami Ben Gharbia: That’s a very good question. I mean one of the main things I have learnt from Global Voices is the way people use digital tools in other countries. I try to apply what I have  learnt to the case of Tunisia. Such activism is also very creative and innovative in finding ways to disseminate information despite all the harsh censorship facing Global Voices Online. So by highlighting what Tunisian activists are doing in their spaces on the Global Voices web- site and the Advocacy website, we are empowering these voices whilst at the same time also trying to implement other tools to publicize stories from other countries like China or Syria or Egypt and trying to cover what goes on in Tunisia.
The other thing is that there is some personal touch in it because my blog was among the first blogs in the Arab world in 2003. My blog was blocked and I feel very much that I need to unblock it, and so the battle for my own personal speech online has become part of the global battle that needs to be fought with all the power of this collective associate work.

we-mag: So what was your banned blog about? Was it in Tunisia?

Sami Ben Gharbia: Yes. My blog has been banned in Tunisia since 2003. I wrote a book about my flight from Tunisia to the Netherlands and after it was published online as a PDF file in 2003, they blocked the blog.

we-mag: When did you leave Tunisia?

Sami Ben Gharbia: When or where?

we-mag: When.

Sami Ben Gharbia: In 1998

we-mag: Okay. How would you describe the situation in Tunisia regarding free speech and censorship because   for most western people Tunisia is just sunny beaches where everything looks fine?

Sami Ben Gharbia: Yes, that’s right. The tourist cliché that Tunisia is wrapped in is just an image to appeal to the clients of the Tunisian tourist industry. The problem is that Tunisia is not only jailing bloggers and arresting them like in Egypt but is also bundling a lot of censorship tools, hacking into and deleting blogs on websites, doing packet inspection of emails and trying to bring down the communication bridge be-tween the Diaspora and the Human Rights organizations within the country. Tunisia is trying to silence dissident workers online and this technique up to now has proven highly successful in terms of blocking reports from or to the country. So it’s a combination of censorship, harassment and control, and it’s a combination of de-packet inspection of emails and arresting bloggers. In 2008, the first cyber dissident was jailed in Tunisia and by now 14 people have been convicted as online activists.

we-mag: So how is the blogosphere in Tunisia? Is it very active? How do they  protect themselfes or how do you give them help? How would you describe the blogosphere from your point of view?

Sami Ben Gharbia: In its beginnings in 2003-2004 the Tunisian blogosphere tried not to broach political issues. There were no real political debates on the Tunisian blogosphere. There was a small group of cyber dissidents active on the blogs and also on forum boards and other online platforms, but they did not focus their work on the blogo-sphere. Starting in 2006, however, the blogo-sphere changed as we began to see a lot of politicization of debates and an upsurge of activism on platforms or video sharing websites like Youtube, Flickr or Facebook. But the blogosphere is not the only vital part of the Tunisian Web – because social networks and video-sharing websites are also very active in providing information the regime wants to conceal.
we-mag: Are Youtube and Flickr banned or blocked in Tunisia?

Sami Ben Gharbia: No. Flickr is not banned but both the video-sharing web- sites Youtube and Dailymotion have  been banned since 2007. Facebook was blocked for a week and then unblocked thanks to a huge campaign on Facebook and the blogosphere, and Wikipedia was blocked for about one week because of some comments on the pages of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and then unblocked.

we-mag: Do you see signs of a change in Tunisia? Is there any kind of conversation going on between the bloggers and the government?

Sami Ben Gharbia: Well, as a reaction to the Tunisian blogosphere, the government recently tried to start a debate online by creating a forum and inviting the country’s youth to debate issues that concerned them. The reactions of the Tunisian blogshere were whether ignoring this initiative or being al- ready politicaly against it. However, Tunisian bloggers, and others active on the ground, like NGO’s, students and workers, do endorse the idea of of engaging the youth in this kind of debates.

we-mag: But do you also cooperate with the traditional media in the country?

Sami Ben Gharbia: As activists do you mean? Are we collaborating?

we-mag: Yes.

Sami Ben Gharbia: Well, there is a kind of collaboration between bloggers and some newspapers published by opposition parties like the Democratic Progressiste or the Communist Party or other parties. There are bloggers who are very close to these, and active both on their blogs and in writing articles for print newspapers in Tunisia.

we-mag: So how do you think these   citizen journalists can gain trust in the world?

Sami Ben Gharbia: By covering stories that are not being covered by traditional journalists. I am talking about Tunisia and neighboring Arab countries, I mean that when journalists are not able to talk about corruption or to talk about torture and bloggers are doing it for them, I think this makes a huge contribution to the world. Like in Egypt where a huge anti-torture campaign succeeded in bringing a few policemen involved in torturing Egyptian citizens before the courts. And in Morocco, too, we have seen how videos published on Youtube have checked corruption in the Moroccan judiciary, so that’s another triumph for citizen journalism. Well, I describe it as citizen media because bloggers are not journalists but remain people who have the power and the means to share information. This information can be used by traditional journalists and we have seen a lot of stories that started life in blogs and then found their way into the big media.

we-mag: As far as I know one of your main sponsors at Global Voices is Reuters – so there is close connectivity …

Sami Ben Gharbia: Yes, well there used to be but not any more. One of the sponsors of Global Voices was sued. Maybe it’s a policy of Reuters to support citizen mediaship around the world, and Global Voices has also succeeded in building a bridge, a trusted bridge be-tween the global blogosphere and traditional journalism. A lot of journalists turn to Global Voices to help them get in touch with local bloggers covering various hot topics and in this way Global Voices is doing an amazing job in bridging the gap between traditional and new media.

we-mag: Do you have any information coming out of Gaza these days?

Sami Ben Gharbia: From Gaza, yes. There is huge coverage on Global Voices of the fighting. We have both Israeli and Arab bloggers covering the story and its impact on the country like Lebanese bloggers and Palestinian bloggers, but we have also people from Israel blogging on Global Voices and this, I mean, is a very sensitive issue and it shows the power of Global Voices in giving voices to both sides, I mean, well, enemies if you like, that can be translated from Arabic and Hebrew into English and then from English into almost 16 other languages.

we-mag: You come from the Arab world and I would guess that the blogosphere is really strong there.
Do you see any kind of hope with President Obama for the region?

Sami Ben Gharbia: My personal feeling is that I am really happy for the American people who have actually made amazing gains in Civil Rights, especially in terms of the color question, and I am really hopeful that the pathway of citizenship in the United States will continue to be so amazing. Even so, the government will keep on supporting what they call moderate regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Jordan and Tunisia. I don’t know what they mean by moderate because Saudi Arabia and Egypt are among the most oppressive regimes in the world. So I don’t think they will support the case of real democracy and engage with civil societies within these countries. Unfortunately. I don’t know, I hope that I’m wrong but we’ll see.

we-mag: Is there a discussion going on in the Arab world about Obama?

Sami Ben Gharbia: Yes, actually one of the initiatives of Global Voices is Voices without Votes. This covers the reaction of global blogs in the Arab world to the US election and the success of Obama and one of its hottest topics is: ”Will Obama change the existing relation-ship between the US and the rest of the world – and specifically the Arab world?“
There is a huge variety of opinion. I mean there are people who are really hopeful and optimistic about it, and others who remain skeptical and who do not think that Obama will some day change the strategic alliance between the USA and Israel.

we-mag: So the last question has to be what is your personal dream for Global Voices?

Sami Ben Gharbia: Well, my personal dream is to have a much better connection with the local blogospheres and to see that Global Voices really does carry weight within the Arab blogsphere, Russian blogosphere, Chinese blogo-sphere and others. I mean creating a really friendly and close relationship with the local blogosphere is one of the most important things and my dream is to see Global Voices well and truly on this path.

we-mag: Do you think you will be able to return to Tunisia one day?

Sami Ben Gharbia: Yeah, for sure, for sure, I will.

we-mag: Thank you!



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