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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011 at 9:03 AM
Lina Ben Mhenni
… is a Tunisian assistant lecturer in linguistics at Tunis University and a blogger. Lina is mainly blogging about freedom of speech, human rights (especially women’s rights and students’ rights), social problems, and organ donation awareness. She likes photography, reading, writing, watching movies. Lina is also an athlete but within a special team: The Tunisian National Organ Transplant Team.
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In Tunisia two weeks ago unrest started when a young Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the country’s high unemployment rate. The incident, which took place in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, became the catalyst that sparked widespread protest and riots that have become a referendum on the government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Protesters are calling for an end to corruption, nepotism, and restrictions on basic freedoms. There have been reports of Tunisian security forces opening fire on protesters as well as large scale arrests and torture of prisoners. Although traditional media in Tunisia is heavily restricted and authorities have sophisticated methods for repressing internet freedom, reports of the protests have spread through non-traditional forms of media as bloggers and regular citizens have been tracking the events.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and association, the government uses an array of legal, penal and economic measures to silence dissenting voices. In June of this year, Tunisia’s Parliament passed a law that criminalizes opposition activities. Journalists and bloggers as well as human rights activists and voices of political dissent are routinely harassed, arrested and imprisoned. The state strictly monitors and severely curbs the work of opposition parties.
WE conducted this interview with Lina Ben Mhenni, a young Tunisian activist and blogger, on December 30, 2010, two and a half weeks after the unrest in Tunisia started.
By now it has spread to Egypt.
Lina, when did you start blogging and why?
Lina Ben Mhenni (Lina):
I started blogging in 2007. First I was expressing my thoughts and feelings on how we live in Tunisia. I wrote about small social problems. Sometimes I wrote poetry.
In 2008 I went to the US, I was lucky enough to get a Fullbright scholarship. Two weeks after my arrival I noticed the censorship of Facebook back home. With some bloggers we launched a campaign against the censorship of Facebook and I started to write about it. Then Sami Ben Gharbia, director of Global Voices Advocacy and Tunisian native, asked me to write for Global Voices. Back then I joined them and my first blogpost dealt with censorship in Tunisa.
Your personal blog is censored in Tunisia, isn’t it?
Yes. They blocked it in February 2009, as well as my Facebook profile and most recently, actually only 2 hours ago, they censored my Twitter account.
The very first time I experienced censorship at all was when I was running a blog together with a dissident journalist in 2008. They just shut it down … they don’t give you any kind of warning.
Why do you call the unrest in Tunisia a revolution and not riots?
Because it is coming from the citizens. It is not the opposition which is monitoring this. It is just the people who are fed up with dictatorship, they are tired of our current system. The people are expressing themselves and say no to the existing situation in the country. It is a grass roots movement – and this is why I want to call it revolution. And from the people’s side, it is a peaceful revolution.
How would you describe the current situation in Tunisia?
Let’s face the truth: Tunisia is a police state. There is no doubt on this. People are afraid of express-ing themselves, if they say anything wrong prison is waiting. This is tough! There is no freedom of speech in Tunisia. Media is controlled by the government. There are no independent TV channels or radio stations or newspapers. Even the so-called “private” media is owned by family members of the President.
And also the economic situation is not really good, even though Tunisia is doing well in comparison to other African countries. But people are suffering: unemployment rates are very high, living costs are very high – it is hard to make a living and to find a job!
Lina, could you please give us a brief timeline of what happened so far during this revolution?
The trigger for this revolution was the fact that a young unemployed man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set him- self on fire to protest the country’s high unemployment rate. This was in Sidi Bouzid. From there the riots spread to other areas in the country. And instead of trying to find a solution, the government repressed the movement and they even shot and killed some people.
After the first suicide, another young man killed himself. This second incident was in my eyes the main reason why the movement really expanded all over Tunisia. People were very angry and started protesting …
How is the situation right now in Tunis where you are based?
Protests started in Tunis last Saturday (Dec. 25 2010) to support the citizens of Sidi Bouzid. The police was trying to suppress the demonstrations in a very violent way. They were brutal. After that another demonstration was organized – at which the number of policemen outnumbered the protestors. Four demonstrators were seriously injured and the police prevented them from being taken to the hospital. Actually today two demonstrations were planned, but they didn’t happen because of the massive police presence.
As far as I am informed many lawyers take part in the protests. What role do they play?
On December 26, lawyers organized a demonstration in front of the court house of Tunis. They where shouting slogans against dictatorship, against unemployment, against the ruling family and the President. In the afternoon of the same day two lawyers were arrested and held overnight in prison. They were released the next morning and one of them was mistreated, bodily harmed.
How do protesters communicate between the cities from city to city?
We are using Facebook, cell phones and twitter. But since two days all of these tools are censored – we cannot upload videos any more, our profiles are blocked, even our Twitter accounts are blocked. So communication becomes harder. Today they even shut down temporarily the mobile infrastructure, because we were live streaming with our cell phones from the events.
Who is going in the streets?
It depends on the areas. But usually they are young people, students. But there are also lawyers, doctors, teachers, unemployed men and women – all people are expressing their anger right now.
Is there any chance of the people succeeding?
Until today I would say YES, there is a real chance that change will happen.
After the President’s public speech on television in which he was threatening the people and putting pressure on them NOT to join the protests, people are still going out to demonstrate … this is new. We never experienced anything like that before!
In 2008 people went on the streets. But it remained local. It didn’t expand into other areas of the country. This time it is different – it is expanding all over Tunisia and people don’t allow the government to intimidate them.
This really gives me hope!
What kind of change do you want to see?
No more dictatorship! We want to get rid of the people who are ruling the country. We want to have freedom, we want to have justice. We want to be treated as free citizens! We don’t need corruption any more! The reigning family is controlling anything, they are stealing the country’s money. We don’t want this any more!
Why is this happening right NOW?
To be honest, I don’t know.
Maybe after 23 years of dictatorship, people are simply fed up. They are tired of all of this.
This young man who killed himself by setting himself on fire – he really made a point. This was real. It was tough and shocking! Such a thing never happened before. And somehow it sets people free. Now they show how they feel. Many of them are going out on the streets – people can’t stand the situation any more.
And of course the Internet and all the social media tools helped a lot. People are now able to see what is really happening in Sidi Bouzid, now they are aware of the real situation. No filters in between.
Until recently we only received the “official version” of what is going on. Officials were drawing “our” picture of Tunisia, everything in their documentaries seemed to be O.K.
But now with the development of the technology it is different. Government can’t lie any more! And if they do so, people will unveil it.
What are your personal expectations?
I hope that people will resist.
Tunisia has to overcome censorship.
We, the people want to see real solution – solutions based upon citizen needs, our needs. We really want things to start to change.
Is there any kind of dialogue going on between the government and the protestors?
No, not at all.
The only communication is the violence of the police!
Is there at least a chance for communication?
No, I don’t think so. The President’s speech – he gave one so far during the unrest, I think it was on December 27, 2010 – only aimed to threaten the demonstrators. No sign of giving in. He is not reaching out his hands to us …
What is going to happen next Lina?
Probably they will block more websites, once in a while they will shut down mobile communication …
I don’t know what is going to happen next.
I hope it will remain peaceful and that the violence won’t escalate.
What role does Tunisia play in Africa?
I am not sure how to answer this question.
I would say Tunisia is much more integrated and related to the Middle East than to Africa. We don’t really have big relationships with the rest of the continent. We are more an Arabic country …
What can foreign countries do to help the people in Tunisia?
The EU and the United States should put pressure on our government.
All we want is a basic human right: the freedom of speech. We, the people, need free media … Then our country can flourish. Not only the President’s family but WE as a democratic nation.
Thank you very much for this interview Lina. And all the best for you and your country!
Facts about Tunisia – according to Wikipedia:
Tunisia is the northernmost country in Africa. It is a Maghreb country, bordered by Algeria to the west, Libya to the southeast, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east. Its area is almost 165,000 km², with an estimated population of just over 10.3 million. Tunisia has close relations with both the European Union – with whom it has an association agreement – and the Arab world.
Tunisia has a diverse economy, ranging from agriculture, mining and manufacturing to petroleum products and tourism. The industrial sector is mainly made up of clothing and footwear manufacturing, production of car parts, and electrical machinery. Although Tunisia managed an average 5% growth over the last decade it continues to suffer from high unemployment especially among youth. Tunisia was ranked the most competitive economy in Africa and the 40th in the world by the World Economic Forum. Tunisia has managed to attract many international companies such as Airbus and Hewlett-Packard.
Since 1987 Tunisia has formally reformed its political system several times, abolishing life presidency and opening up the parliament to opposition parties. The President’s official speeches are full of references to the importance of democracy and freedom of speech.
According to Amnesty International, “the Tunisian government is misleading the world as it conveys a positive image of the human rights situation in the country while abuses by its security forces continue unabated and are committed with impunity”.
Tunisia practices some Internet censorship, including the blocking of certain websites, such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Daily Motion and others, Reporters Without Borders includes Tunisia in the country list of ‘Enemies of the Internet’ together with North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan. In January 2010 US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sighted Tunisia and China as the two countries with the greatest internet censorship.
The state owned ‘Publinet’ internet network has more than 1.1 million users. The Tunisian netizens are the most connected community on Facebook in North Africa.
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