Somewhat predictably, scarcely had President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali boarded his plane to exile when pundits began writing about Tunisia’s Twitter revolution. There’s already been quite a lot written about the role of social media in the ousting of Ben Ali and, with so much still hanging in the balance, it is probably premature to weigh up how social media might have changed the fortunes of the Tunisian people as a whole. What we can say about the protests and departure of Ben Ali, is that new media have become a pervasive part of the world’s media and the era of censoring media to supress vox populi (and so maintain unpopular authoritarian regimes) are over. Brute force remains a powerful deterrent, but any state’s ability to effectively censor the information that its population shares is severely limited these days: this is proving to be as true for the most powerful states in the world (i.e. the recent Wikileaks disclosures of secret US diplomatic cables) as it is for the states that exert the highest level of control over the media.
According to press freedom advocates Reporters Sans Frontières and others, Ben Ali’s regime was one of the greatest enemies of media freedom in the world, trying to maintain a stranglehold on Tunisian media and strictly control the country’s media environment. The regime extended its restrictions on media freedom to the web early on and was one of the first countries to persecute bloggers. Zouhair Yahyaoui, arguably the first key online media figure to be arrested in Tunisia, was detained in 2000 and sentenced to two years in jail for spreading ‘false news’. Many others have been threatened, detained, prosecuted and / or jailed since. Facebook was also added to Tunisia’s list of blocked websites briefly in 2008, while Youtube has been blocked since 2007. The past two years saw a sharp increase in the state’s monitoring, censorship and persecution of online media, bloggers and cyber-activists. In parallel, the past two years have also seen an increase in social media adoption. Nearly 20% of Tunisians are Facebook users, even though only 35% have Internet access to start with (still less read, by the way, are the nation’s newspapers).
The Tunisian state significantly ramped up efforts to curtail online dissent and activism in December, following the tragic self-immulation of 26 year old Mohammed Bouazizi, who sold fruit and vegetables illegally in Sidi Bouzid until police confiscated his wares. A new wave of arrests of journalists and online activists included bloggers Slim Amamou and Azyz Amamy, which friends and online contacts found out in almost real-time via Twitter. It was also alleged that the government had begun a program of hacking into the Facebook, Google and Yahoo accounts of dissidents, journalists and bloggers.
Thankfully, a significant percentage of Tunisia’s Internet censorship has been lifted during then past few days and websites that have been inaccessible for years are now open to Tunisian Internet users, including Youtube and French daily newspaper site Le Monde. Hundreds of Facebook pages blocked by authorities during the past few weeks are also now accessible. Best of all recently arrested journalists Nizar Ben Hassen and Wissem Sghaier, and bloggers Slim Amamou and Azyz Amamy have been released. Let’s hope that media access and press freedom continues to improve.
So, with one of the strictest media and Internet censorship policies in the world, just 35% of the population online and all the necessary institutions to maintain a totalitarian police state, why did social media get the better of Ben Ali? Well, the simple answer is that it didn’t, but it undoubtedly played a key role. Social media is now part and parcel of our global media environment and together with online news media, email, mobile telephony, satellite television and, let’s not forget, word of mouth in all its forms, it has helped to make news, the media and public opinion pervasive. Traditional media lagged in covering the news story almost until the tide had turned irreversibly against Ben Ali. However, today’s media channels offer the public so many different ways to make their voice heard that where there’s a will there’s a way. The people’s voice was heard and no number of government-endorsed newspaper stories or national TV broadcasts were going to stop it being heard.
Here is our pick of commentary on the role of social media in Tunisia’s regime change:
Note: we may well be adding to this list later!
Tags: activism, Arab, Arab World, blocked, Blogging, censorship, Facebook, government, hacking, Internet, journalists, media, media law, Middle east, new media, Newspapers, North Africa, online, press freedom, social media, Tunisia, Twitter