Operation: Tunisia Cyberwar

Note: This was originally posted on "Project: Carousel" a student led online community working under the auspices of The Centre for Media and Film Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
Any form of speech used for pulling communities together to criticize a government or ruling group’s action has historically met with tightening of laws, suppression of freedom and unjust actions at the hands of the rulers. Growing tensions in Tunisia over the dissatisfaction of Tunisians over poverty and soaring unemployment coupled with the unproportional wealth of the ruling elite in their country are increasingly catching much needed attention but perhaps still not as much as is necessary. Only very recently has the international world begun to take notice of the disturbances in Tunisia and it could be thanks to the cyber world ensuring the protests make it to the eyes of the outside world.
Anti-goverment protests triggered after  young unemployed university graduate named Mohammed Bouazizia set himself alight in frustration on December 17, 2010. He died while being treated in a hospital near Tunis, the capital, on January 5, according to family members.  Since then scores of others who were part of the protests against poor living conditions and policies that favor the elite of the country have either been lost their lives at the hands of government forces. The president of the country Ben Ali has been in power for the last 30 years and many resent the wealth that the ruling family owns in comparison to the living conditions for the people of the country.
Not surprisingly, the government has managed to clamp down media activities covering the protests and defaming the ruling party. That should not be a difficult task considering even private television channels are owned by members or friends of the ruling family. Online efforts by activists are meeting ugly fate too. Government agents are hacking activists’ networks and tracking down citizen journalists. Most video-sharing sites are being censored now in Tunisia along with news websites like Nawaat, Al Jazeera Arabic, and, even Al Jazeera English.  Tunisian activists set up “Tunileaks” on the model of Wikileaks which was banned immediately by the authorities. Index on Censorship has discovered that independent journalists in Tunisia including print and television ones as well as online citizen journalists are routinely tracked down and persecuted.
But what Tunisia is seeing is a pulling-together of a counter-cyber war parallel to the battle being fought by Tunisian citizens in the offline-world in the villages and towns.  Bloggers, website owners and online activists are finding ways to break proxies and launch their online campaigns for freedom of speech in Tunisia. Foreign hackers, dubbed “hacktivists” and functioning under the banner name of “Anonymous” are reacting to government online actions by sabotaging the state’s own sites.
#Sidibouzid has become the Twitter tag attached to the voices of the protectors. Dedicated twitter users are tweeting as and when things happen being the first ones to announce names of protestors who die at the hands of the troops. “Weddady” tweeted saying he has been an activist for 20 yrs but has not witnessed anything like whats happening in Tunisia before. On Facebook too, Tunisians continue to share videos of victims’ funerals, protests and mistreatment at the hands of government troops.
Social media in this context not only becomes a perfect alternative space when traditional media is clamped down but also a vital right-hand to traditional media as well as the actual movement underway. I do not agree with opinion-holders that social networks can have limited impact on change in Tunisia. Whether the online activists within Tunisia are well-connected or not, the tweeting, re-tweeting, posting and sharing of posts is what traditional media from outside of Tunisia’s borders relies on when home television channels and print medium are censored by the government.
CNN’s Octavia Nasr considers that despite the fact that the internet is longer and more broadly established in Tunisia than in most Arab countries, its online activists are not so well personally connected.  On the other hand though, what we are already seeing is Algerian online activists using Facebook, Twitter and blogs to draw paralles between their struggles and that of Tunisians’ although both are undergoing trouble at home due to different reasons. The ability for social media to win supporters outside of imaginable borders is what makes it a tough opponent. Tourism industry in Tunisia can easily be hampered by the word of mouth effect of social media. Given what we saw earlier in 2010 in Iran and now what tremendous strength Tunisians are showing online, it is important to realize that social media is not just an alternative medium but an un-ignorable tool that goes hand in hand with all forms of media to function well.
It is ironic that in today’s world besides the ever growing presence of media, lives lost over hatred and bigotry make greater spectacle but hundreds of thousands lives lost due to hunger and poverty are often forgotten. It takes a young, university graduate to give up his precious life for others to speak up and it probably takes still a lot more before the news makes it even bigger in global media.


Popular posts from this blog

Why the urge to burn a Holy Book?

Celebrating my friends this Ramadan

You may be kicked for mourning in Turkey