Prior to and throughout the popular uprisings that shook Tunisia and ousted former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisian bloggers, cyber-activists and social network users took it upon themselves to take on roles unfilled by state-owned media.
Toppling a dictatorship implied starting over, and ushered in an interim government, a National Constituent Assembly election, and the draft of a new constitution by the end of 2011. The building process is still ongoing, however, with citizens and civil society representatives assuming crucial responsibilities. Among them, bloggers and cyber-activists have found a challenging mission ahead, not necessarily related to revolutionary politics.
To address this challenge, the Association of Tunisian Bloggers held an open blogging workshop in Douz on December 22 and 23. During the workshop, journalist and award-winning blogger Sofiene Chourabi stated that the media scene has changed since the revolution and thus bloggers’ role is no longer limited to news content or criticism. “I think what bloggers should do today is be involved in collective blogs that have specific topics. Once the topic is chosen, it’s easier to get a budget for activities,” he added.
Prominent blogger and photographer Abdelkarim Ben Abdallah explained the change of expectations from bloggers since the revolution. “A blogger today is expected to change the world,” he said. He considered the workshop a means to pass on knowledge to aspiring bloggers, through the experience of their peers.
Within the same event, Yamen Bousrih, a financial consultant, cyber-activist and a member of OpenGov.tn – an open data initiative in Tunisia- gave a presentation about Wikipedia and Open Gov. According to Bousrih, the new role of bloggers in post-revolution Tunisian, centers on citizen-journalism.
Additionally, Bousrih, among a small Tunisian Wikimedia community, believes that it is a shared responsibility to participate in free-access encyclopedias, through posting photos and writing, translating or fact-checking articles.
“OpenGov is based on three principles: transparency, participation and cooperation with civil society and government representatives,” said Bousrih. The initiative consists in making government related data, such as budgets, projects, statistics and reports accessible to citizens. Some applications of open-source data are less political. For example, “Wikies for Cities” is a project that aims at collecting data about city monuments, street names, historical background of towns and even cemeteries.
Sayada, a small town on the Tunisian coast, led a successful OpenGov project that was launched by active locals Nizar Kerkeni and Habib Mhenni, whose passion to preserve their hometown’s history brought them together. “During the recent OpenGov congress in the US, the Sayada project was highly praised. I hope other towns will follow its lead,” stated Ben Abdallah.
Wael Ghabara, another young cyber-activist who recently graduated as a dentist, spoke on the importance of strengthening the Wikimedia.tn community. Bringing bloggers together could help the group evolve into an official Tunisian chapter, following the model of western countries such as France. “I think Tunisia has a good chance of having its own chapter, thus setting an example in the Arab world,” he added.
Ghabara shared Chourabi’s view about the evolving role of bloggers. “We should blog about specific issues that the media does not cover today, as they focus on news or content that attracts large viewership.”
However, just as impediments have kept the country from a completely smooth transition, similar problems have surfaced for Tunisia’s blogging community. “Unfortunately, transparency seems to be new to our culture… I am disappointed open data has not become successful nationwide still, since the revolution,” said Bousrih. Citizen participation in political decision-making and open access to government data, he argued, is not a favor but a right.