05 October 2011 10:45 am | | 18

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Foreign media and bloggers in the meeting in Tunis.

Arab Bloggers chose la Cite des Sciences, Ariana, north of Tunis, to host their third annual Arab Bloggers Meeting in the presence of Tunisian and foreign media. The opening ceremony was open to the public. Malek Khadraoui and Sami Ben Gharbia, the organizers of the meeting,  greeted the audience, and Ben Gharbia opened the meeting with an overview. Tunisia, he explained, was chosen as the meeting’s location because it was the first country of the Arab Spring.

Georgia Poppelwell, managing director of Global Voices, highlighted the role of citizen media in giving a voice to young Arabs in the Arab uprisings and praised Arab bloggers for their courageous activism. Rebecca McKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices opened a discussion entitled Fitting of Our Digital Rights: Threats and Opportunities. She presented Riadh Guerfeli, alias Astrubal, the founder of Nawaat.org website, and his promotional video by Apple Computers on how technology brings down dictators. In the Tunisian context, McKinnon stressed the relationship between citizens and the government mediated by the internet. She also gave a historical overview of the use of internet to democratize  societies during democratic transitions in countries like South Korea and Russia. She emphasized engaging in activism with no fear of online policing. Governments’ inability to control the controversial effects of online platforms such as Facebook and Wikileaks are features of the challenges of democracy in the Internet age.

Laila Nachawati and the Spanish M15 movement presentation

A discussion circle on the use of Twitter in the Arab revolutions and how activists used this new media to convey young Arab revolutionaries’ message to counter blackouts on Western media in Tunisia and Egypt. By translating tweets in several languages, the revolution was Twitterized. With Mauritanian blogger and activist Nasser Wedady as a moderator of the discussion , panelists included Sultan Al Qassemi from the UAE, Egyptian Manal Hassan, Saudi Ahmed Al Omran, Moroccan Hisham Al Miraat, and Libyan Ghazi Gheblawi and Razan Al Ghazzawi. The group emphasized that they authenticated their tweets to ensure their news was accurate. These tweets became a valuable source of information in their home countries, eventually used by mainstream media. Bloggers agreed that net activism united Arab people, discredited regimes and destroyed language barriers between Arabs.

Moez Chakchouk, CEO of Tunisia’s Internet Agency (ATI), said blogging was essential for the Internet to survive. ATI was connected to the infamous “Ammar 404,” the symbol of censorship during Ben Ali regime. Chakchouk complained that ATI still controls Internet practices and the censorship of certain websites. He revealed technological equipment that was used and tested by ATI for censorship when certain western companies sold censorship software to dictatorial regimes in Arab countries afterwards. Chakchouk declined to name the companies.

The Turkish speaker Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill gave a talk entitled “Beyond Tahrir: Networked Activism in post-Revolutionary Transitions,” asking why regimes remain for decades in “pluralistic ignorance.” Dr. Kufekci argued that the challenges of a post-revolution situation can be daunting, as history has shown. New media technologies played an important role in this period to counter dictatorship and state censorship. Arguing that rich nations lack the participatory impulse, the global challenge of the 21st century is to take inspiration from the Arab revolutions and create a bottom-up process.

Egyptian and Lebanese bloggers discussing Wikileaks and its impact on Arab revolutions

Egyptian and Lebanese bloggers discussing Wikileaks and its impact on Arab revolutions

After lunch, a documentary movie entitled “Zero Silence, a Documentary About the Free Wor(l)d” screened for the second time (premiered in Sweden), featuring players of the Arab revolutions from Tunis to Beirut who used new media to vent their anger at authoritarian regimes. The film received a positive review from the audience, and actors Wael Said and Rebecca Saada discussed the movie with the audience afterwards.

Spanish-Syrian blogger Laila Nachawati presented a snapshot of the impact of the Arab Spring on Europe with a slide show on the Spanish 15M  movement. Drawing on inspiration from the Arab revolution, Spanish youth gathered in the main squares of many Spanish cities, using new media to mob mobilize people against government corruption.

An important highlight of the meeting was the relationship between Tunisian bloggers and politics. Several bloggers who have now become candidates for the Constituent Assembly on independent lists were in attendance, including Amira Yahyaoui, Riadh Guerfali, Mehdi Lamloum, and Tarek Kahlaoui,  as well as Slim Amamou, a member of an organization which gives campaign training to independent candidates. Together they discussed their experience as bloggers turning to politics and the challenges they faced. They argue that an electorate which has become skeptical of parties may look at independent candidates as political alternatives to party politics.

Tunisian bloggers candidate for the Constituent Assembly. From left to right: Riadh Guerfali (Astrubal), Amira Yahyaoui (Mira 404), Tarek Kahlaoui and Slim Amamou (Slim 404).

Wrapping up the first day of the meeting, organizer Sami Ben Gharbia and moderator Jillian York of Global Voices re-traced the Wikileaks saga: the release of the first cables in November 2010, their publication on Nawaat.org under the title “Tunileaks,” and their later publication by Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper. Altogether, the revelations of the leaks had a great impact on speeding up Ben Ali and Mubarak’s eventual fall, even though many were skeptical that it was possible. Gharbia said that he himself was skeptical, but when people take huge risks, courage becomes contagious. Ben Gharbia gave the example of former Tunisian Minister of Interior Farhat Rajhi and whistle-blower police officer Samir Feriani. Both men leaked secrets of the ministry.
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