Ben Ali’s Propaganda from Bouazizi to January 14

In addition to writing about the impact of Mohammed Bouazizi on the occasion of his tragic self immolation,  I thought it would be intersesting to explore the evolution of Tunisian propaganda as it became increasingly unable to deal with the growing protests. I have used the main Tunisian French daily, La Presse to show how the message changed from December 17 to January 14 – a month of protests that changed the course of Tunisian history.

La Presse is Tunisia’s oldest French language newspaper (founded in 1936). It is linked closely with the government. Under Ben Ali, as with all media in the country, they were closely monitored and censored by the government.

December 17, 2010

On this date, Mohammed Bouazizi self immolated in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid in southern Tunisia. La Presse, unaware as everyone else of what would transpire that day in Sidi Bouzid, leads with a story on Ben Ali’s visit with Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, and furthering Qatar-Tunisia relations. The irony is unmistakable as Qatar has emerged as a key supporter of Arab revolts in general, and specifically of Tunisia’s long-oppressed Islamist leaders, Ennahdha.

December 21, 2010

From the 17th until the 20th, neither Bouazizi nor the protests in the south were mentioned. The first headline in La Presse regarding protests in Sidi Bouzid occurred on December 21, a rather terse and ominous one liner on “Incidents that have happened in Sidi Bouzid: Precisions from an official source.”

December 24, 2010

In the following days, the press continued to float stories about the president’s plans for economic development, but it wasn’t until the December 24 that La Presse reported on actions being taken in Sidi Bouzid. This was clearly an effort to ensure that the events would stay, at least in the public’s eye, as a localized event. But by this point, the protests were already spreading. The headline reads that the regional counsel of Sidi Bouzid sends its strongest thanks to President Ben Ali. In an adjoining story, Ben Ali’s hated wife is praised for her tremendous work in support of Arab women.

December  25-27, 2010

From the 25 until the 27, La Presse made a targeted effort to direct attention to positive work in vulnerable regions. Beginning in Kasserine (close to Sidi Bouzid) on the 25th, to Le Kef and Jendouba near Algeria in the west. Protests had been spreading and this can be seen as another effort to cut them off before they reached the important coastal cities of Bizerte, Sousse, Sfax, and Gabes. The interior regions have long suffered form underdevelopment compared to the richer cities on the coast, which benefit from manufacturing and tourist income. By the 27th, Ben Ali was calling for decentralization of government – at the time, if it could have been taken seriously, this would have been considered a major reform.


December 28-29, 2010

ByDecember 28, the myth of Bouazizi had spread far enough that it could no longer be ignored by the press. A small headline toward the top of La Presse refers obliquely to “Reactions (of the government) following the isolated and painful incident in Sidi Bouzid.” The following day, Bouazizi’s name makes its first appearance on the front page, reporting that Bouazizi is at the burn unit of a Tunis area hospital, Ben Ali was keeping vigil at his bedside. An editorial reports on the humanity and ethics of Ben Ali, for both Bouazizi and the country (he also called for greater social protections that day)

December 30-31, 2010

By the 30th of December, Ben Ali was forced into announcing major jobs and investment programs as well as changes in the government. On the 30th he announced a partial cabinet reshuffle, the following day he announced the replacement of several regional governors (largely hated by local populations). Protests had spread to all major cities, including Tunis, leading to the issue of travel warnings by foreign embassies. The U.S. issued its warning on December 30, before the protests had been reported in the local papers.

January 3, 2011

The first few days of the new year the Tunisian press tried to capitalize on the new year festivities and well wishes of the president. By the 3rd, as protests continued, La Presse was in full propaganda mode. They lead with: “Le progrès est humain ou il ne l’est pas. Un principe universel adopté par la Tunisie, un pays qui avance à pas sûrs sur le chemin de l’excellence sous la sage conduite de son président.” Or in English: “Progress is human or it is not progress. A universal principle adopted by Tunisia, a country that is marches forward on its path of excellence under the wise leadership of its president.” Perhaps reinforcing Tunisia’s stability, neighboring headlines describe the conflict in Palestine and the unraveling security situation in Cote d’Ivoire.

January 6, 2011

By Thursday, January 6, regular protests were underway in all major cities in the country. The government announced a 900 million dinar (~$600 million) stimulus, with 1,000 jobs for Sidi Bouzid alone. The media kept the country in the dark on protests. But it was too late, foreign and social media provided information to Tunisians, and Washington had begun using the term “Arab Spring.”

January 7-8, 2011

Never a strong believer in pluralism, protests had driven Ben Ali to listen to opposition parties and civil society representatives by January 7. La Presse continued its tried and true formula of touting Ben Ali as a champion of education and a promoter of jobs. In the south, the unemployed are offered 20,000 spots in a training program. On the 8th, opposition parties, as well as youth movements, show there support for Ben Ali.

At a moment when things were falling apart, these headlines perhaps show the greatest disconnect between the propaganda machine and current events. While Tunisians never held much faith in their newspapers – except for sports scores and as glass cleaner – these headlines clinched the utter madness of the regime, simply unable to respond to its people.

January 9, 2011

La Presse continues to ignore the situation on the 9th with an article on the banking sector. The corruption in the banking sector had been a major source of frustration for Tunisians under Ben Ali. The middle class were often obliged to pledge loyalty to the regime before being approved for loans. And loans outstanding were used against citizens as a form of control. This aspect of Ennahdha’s platform was an underreported story from October’s elections. Their desire to implement an Islamic finance system was seen as many as a foil against the abuses of the dictatorship.

January 10-11, 2011

By this point, the country was in full scale revolt. Foreigners had started to flee the country en masse. The entirety of the security apparatus was on the streets, with the exception of the military. Rioting and looting, and massive police violence were being reported in the foreign press, especially by AlJazeera. The Tunisia Scenario was being used to describe protests across the Arab world.

La Press called for being civil and good citizens on the 10th. On the 11th, Ben Ali announced the creation of 300,000 new jobs. La Presse also reported that Islamism would not happen in Tunisia.

January 12, 2011

By January 12 the army had been called in to quell the violence. This was seen as an extraordinary measure that would have an important impact on protecting protesters. Many Ben Ali apologists had been shocked that he had used live ammunition on protesters and by calling in the army, he was showing his humanity. La Presse reports little of substance beyond support for the regime – total satisfaction with his recent speech.

January 13, 2011

A day after the army had been called in, it finally appeared in La Presse as if the government had received the message. The people were now in revolt against the police, who they blamed for Bouazizi, relentless harassment, and the use of live ammunition on peaceful protesters. In addition to mobilizing the more pacific army, Ben Ali sacked the former interior minister, replacing him with another party member.  Ben Ali also called for freedom of expression – under peaceful means.

January 14, 2011

The day that ended with Ben Ali leaving the country did not begin on an optimistic note. In a speech the previous night, Ben Ali spoke for the first time in Tunisian dialect, with the famous lines, “I understood you, I understood you all.” These lines headlined the issue of La Presse. In a carefully orchestrated propaganda coup, the regime had organized interior ministry minions to drive through the streets after Ben Ali’s speech to show their elation with the president’s speech – another newspaper headline screamed “National Joy!” On a personal level, after having my apartment filled with teargas, running battles down my street, and several deaths in the neighborhood alone, it didn’t quite feel like a national joy. Another day of protests on the 14th would prove that Ben Ali offered too little too late.

As we reflect back on the beginning of the Arab Spring, it is useful to remember the propaganda and to see how far Tunisia has come. These headlines are also a reflection of how much the Arab world has moved on from conventional propaganda pushing media. From social networks to international news channels, the traditional propaganda machines simply cannot compete with news that acknowledges the intelligence of its readers. Perhaps most telling about these headlines, is that the person who most embodies the Tunisian uprising is mentioned but once on the front page of the paper. And yet, by the end of December, he had become a household name. Sometimes the most powerful message is the one that is left unsaid.

Has the real Twitter revolution just begun in Tunisia?

As the initial problems were revealed, the buzz went out across Twitter and Facebook of the problems Tunisians were facing. Some cried conspiracy, some worried about being disenfranchised, and others took the problem in their own hands. This was the first week of voter registration in Tunisia.

Tweeting for free and fair elections in Tunisia

20 days, 7 million voters

The registration process kicked off this past Monday in Tunisia (and in consulates for expatriate Tunisians). Over 20 days, bureaus across the country will try to register over 7 million voters. Some have argued that registering this many people is virtually impossible in that timeframe, but regardless, the independent elections commission (Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Elections de Tunisie, or ISIETN) had plowed ahead, recruiting over 2,000 new staff and volunteers to help with registration and launching a nationwide marketing campaign, in print, TV, billboards, and online.

And on Monday morning among this buzz, the community of online democracy activist was ready too. Ready to hold the commission to account and make sure that everyone’s voices were heard.

A responsive government?

As registration kicked off, things didn’t quite go as planned. A server error prevented practically all registrations on the first day. Voters overseas experienced even more problems, as understaffed embassies scrambled to accomodate thousands of voters. Some, looking to cast their first free ballot in their lifetimes, lacked key documents, like national identity cards, that would have helped with the registration.

On day two problems continued to arise, with confusion over what documents were required and and where exactly one should register. Some folks arrived at their designated registration place only to find that the office was on a siesta (with summer heat reaching 40C degrees (109F) this week, perhaps the beach was just irresistible). Other bureaus reported further technical problems.

And just as quickly as these problems arose, online activists were spreading the word. “Why isn’t the bureau in La Marsa open right now?” “I’m at my parents house in Jendouba, but I live in Tunis, where can I register?” They posted on the ISIETN Facebook page, they used the hashtag #IESTN on Twitter. One Parisian activist began recruiting volunteers to help with the registration efforts in Paris.

And in complete and utter surprise to those who know Tunisian bureaucracy, the agency responded. They started responding to registration questions on Twitter and they opened their Facebook wall so that anyone could post or respond to questions. The answer to where one can register: anywhere. Why is my bureau closed: the hours were posted incorrectly, it will be open at 4 p.m.

This is unheard of responsiveness for any government agency, but especially one coming out of the slumber of 23 years of kleptocratic dictatorship, where it didn’t matter whether you performed in your job, as long as you knew someone.

A real social media revolution?

While the task ahead is daunting, and there are many fears and much pessimism, perhaps this is the moment when we will witness the real Facebook revolution. The revolution that will empower citizens to help their government conduct free and fair elections, and hold them to account when they are failing.

The overthrow of Ben Ali has been called a youth revolution. The October 23rd elections and the events leading up to it are the next opportunity for Tunisian youth to steer their country toward a democratic future. As the political process becomes more complicated, this week’s events show that Tunisian youth will not let  fear and pessimism deter their efforts.

Give me my porno!

There is a pornography war going on in Tunisia right now. On one side are conservatives who want to defend children against harmful images, on the other liberal freedom of speech advocates and internet geeks who know the power of government censorship of the internet. Behind the debate is the history of censorship in Tunisia and the powerful role of the state.

Poster against censorship and internet blocking in Tunisia

Internet censorship – Tunisian style

The first time I came to Tunisia was in 1999, five years before Facebook, 6 years before YouTube, and only a few months after the launch of Google. The dial up connections were pretty slow, and internet cafes were few and far between, but it was definitely possible to connect – as long as you chose the right site. I found that sites like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others were completely blocked. As it turned out, this was just the beginning of one of the longest and most thorough attacks on internet freedom by one of the most fearful and repressive regimes.

By the time I came back to Tunisia in 2010, things were much darker. The tentacles of government censorship were not only longer, they were more invasive into the private lives of individuals. The government no longer wanted its citizens to not access information about its repressive practices, it wanted to know what they were writing on Facebook and to the their friends over email. During this period, a visitor in Tunisia could expect, shortly after they first accessed their email, to see a security message from Facebook or Gmail or Yahoo indicating that someone had tried to access his account and that it may be necessary to change the password. This was the government internet spies, who had purchased elaborate systems to hack user accounts. YouTube was blocked entirely. (For more details on the scale of internet censorship in Tunisia under Ben Ali, see Nate Anderson’s article in Wired from January 2011)

And then came the uprising and the fall of the regime. Within a few weeks, the internet was entirely unblocked. Tunisians were as free as anyone else in the world to access what they wanted online.

That is, until a recent court decision that banned online pornography, following a challenge by three lawyers that claimed that pornography was bad for children, and the state had a duty to protect them.

Rendez-moi mon porno

The story started back in January when the internet was finally opened up completely – including pornography. Subsequent revelations about the extent of the censorship and the technology used added to the fear in Tunisia that any kind of censorship would be a return to the practices of the ancien regime.

Meanwhile, the blogger and Anonymous hero Slim Amamou became a member of the cabinet, championing the cause of internet freedom and opening the government up to the internet.

In May, the era of internet freedom began to unravel. The posting of an online video of Farhat Raji, a former minister, that suggested that the military could overturn an election won by the Islamists caused riots and the government brought back an overnight curfew. Later that month, the military tribunal forced the closure of several facebook pages after the page owners suggested that a coup d’etat was imminent. This led to the resignation of Slim Amamou from the interim government.

As these serious allegations and counter allegations were rocking the government and the internet community, enter the claim of the three lawyers. The claim did not identify specific sites nor was their any group that came forward to back the claim by these lawyers. The government agency that regulates internet traffic in Tunisia, in somewhat of a surprise move, came out against the ban on pornography, winning an injunction against the claim. This was later overruled, but the agency was able to make the case that a blanket ban on pornography would invite much broader censorship than just nudie sites.

For the segment of the Tunisian population that, above all, fears the re-imposition of censorship, the argument is that their are plenty of ways to censure the internet within your own home, the government doesn’t need to do for you. Right? After all, that’s how it works in the West….

Since the ruling was challenged, the question of whether will Tunisians get their porno or not has been one of the most popular stories in the Tunisian blogosphere. It has been one of the most popular issues of the past two months  on Nawaat.org, a Tunisian website that closely tracks post-revolutionary issues and has over 50,000 followers.

In one of the most popular articles (in French only) Rendez-moi mon porno or “Give me Back my Porno,” blogger Adam Jerbi  contests the notion that the State can simply ban a genre of websites based on the complaint of certain members of society. Jerbi’s article was countered and supported by other articles, which have gathered nearly as  many views and comments.

Liberalism is butting up against a society that has always relied on the state as the role model and arbiter for mores. Many of the comments came from readers who likened pornography to rape itself, thus making the state responsible for the protection of the victims of this humiliation. In a society that is still very much conservative, this issue touches at the core of the debates that many Tunisians are having right now. How much freedom is too much? What is the role of the state? Who is responsible for morality?

The West has often had these debates. Zoning laws are still major issues for communities that face the choice of having adult book stores in their communities. The difference is that those who are pushing for internet freedoms in Tunisia are not the Larry Flynts of the world. Nor are they supporters of pornography. They are those that know the power of giving the government the ability to control sources of information. To many of them, the January revolution was about censorship and internet freedom, and they see these recent decisions as a major step back on their quest for democratic institutions.

Six months afterward – the revolution remembered (part 1 of 3)

It’s sometimes hard to imagine how much life has changed in Tunisia since the revolution. Before launching the Social Contract, I wrote to my Facebook friends to describe what it felt like. The thoughts here were not meant for the general public, but looking back on them, I can still feel the emotions from that period. I’ve decided to share these as part of the inspiration for A 21st Century Social Contract.

Defending against all attacks

From Tunisia 2011

A couple noteworthy references – one is that I was worried that the government would hack my account, so on the post of January 13th I refrained from making political commentary. Another is that the event was not even being followed by people abroad at that point, just one day prior to the overthrow.

Here are my posts from January 13 and 14.

January 13, 2011 – The day before the fall

I didn’t expect the first post from Tunisia to be about a curfew. For those who haven’t followed, there have been ever increasing protests in Tunisia since mid-December, culminating last night in a curfew for Tunis.
 
Today it has been calm around the neighborhood, but last night we could hear fighting between the police and civilians about 500m from our house. The army is in the streets since yesterday.
 
The amazing thing is the extent to which twitter is the source for information/disinformation. While the foreign press has been reporting on the situation, Twitter (and word of mouth) is the only way to know if your neighborhood has been affected. Despite the uncertitude, life continues. The stores were busy this morning, as most shut down at 11 or noon for the rest of the day. … people are stocking up on everything. I’ll refrain from political commentary – no need to cause any more trouble than necessary – but I’d encourage you to google or search twitter for information on what’s going on here. 
 


Tear gas rises after a day of street fighting. Tunis, Tunisia

From Tunisia 2011

January 14, 2011 – A Monumental Day

I woke up this morning with the thought that it might be over. I thought that the speech from the President Ben Ali last night calmed the frayed nerves of Tunisians, and that things might return to normal. But even then, the first thing I did was jump on the internet to see what was happening.
 
At the time, it appeared not much. The twitter posts with the hashtag: sidibouzid (the symbol of where all the protests had started from) were merely trickling in, whereas when I went to bed there were hundreds every few minutes. The newspapers had some stories, but nothing major.  
 
Eloise and I decided to see if the gym was open, finding it wasn’t we walked through the neighborhood where we saw evidence of the protests and a lot of military and security people but not much else. The shops were closed and only a fifth of the normal cars and pedestrians seemed to be out.
 
It seemed, as Eloise said, like it might be the calm before the storm.  We got back home and went online where we started to see the reports, from the Guardian, le Monde, and BBC, but especially Twitter, that there was a big protest in the center of town.
 
Everyone had been talking about it the night before, but we weren’t sure it would materialize. The first reports said there were a few hundred, then a few thousand, then more and soon we were seeing pictures of the entire boulevard Habib Bourguiba filled with peaceful protesters.  
 
Then we started hearing noises outside. The same noises we heard last night, only it was the middle of the day. I was supposed to start working – publishing some webpages and finishing up some loose ends – but after I heard the crowd, I knew it wasn’t going to be like that. I knew that I would be glued to Twitter again, and that things were afoot.  
 
The view from our apartment is great, it’s at a high point above our neighborhood which is perched on a little hill between the Corniche (the cliff above of the Mediterranean), and a pretty popular/urban neighborhood where we go to buy our baguettes and newspapers and get our keys made at the hundreds of local shops. There’s a major street running through the neighborhood that connects to our little side street, but the view doesn’t allow us to see exactly what’s happening on the street – but you can hear it, and boy did we hear it this afternoon. 
 
On this otherwise beautiful day a battle broke out between protesters and police. Between volleys of tear gas the youth advanced and retreated, lobbying rocks and yelling in Tunisian dialect.
 
After an hour or so things calmed down, but the fires were being lit. The air filled with smoke but the protests quieted down.  
 
Meanwhile, the riots continued downtown. The images and videos came in and the repression seemed brutal. And on the internet rumors circulated that the president might be stepping down. As the sun was setting, the word came that the president was leaving the country. Was the military performing a coup d’etat?
 
As it seems to have turned out, it’s been a palace coup – the prime minister was taking over. It’s been a long day with way too much time online. We’ll see what tomorrow brings….Thanks to all for the well wishes. Eloise and I are safe and for the moment our stock of fresh mediterranean food is not depleted, so we’re well fed. More updates tomorrow.