Friday, October 7, 2011

‘Arab Bloggers’ convene following some regional success

Bloggers, social media activists, and digital journalists convened in Tunis this week to discuss their role, responsibility, and challenges following the surprise, although incomplete, success of what many have termed the ‘Arab Spring.’

The ‘Third Arab Bloggers Meeting,’ the first to be held in almost two years, brought together voices from across the region, each telling their stories about how they have witnessed, recounted and participated in assertions of civic identities in what had previously been a region devoid of a strong civil society.

A Syrian woman, Razan Ghazzawi, who in recent months has begun to write on the political situation, braved speaking about her country’s domestic turmoil.

“Some people were against the protests. So many denied the protests,” She said.

It was difficult for many in Syria to believe that there were people demonstrating against the government, as, she says, protests taking place were often “flash protests,” dissolving after 2, 3 or 10 minutes. However, the fact that images of the protests were posted on the internet and social media websites refuted official narratives that there was no civic strife.

“The image brought down the lie,” said Ghazzawi.

Meanwhile Libyan blogger and essayist Ghazi Gheblawi, working from London to publicize the Libyan revolution, said that social media networks played an important role in pushing the cause of the revolution.

“The internet played a major role when Benghazi was totally isolated,” said Gheblawi. “Many people were smuggling videos [from Libya] – first to Tunisia, then uploaded to Youtube and Twitter. Youtube and Twitter magnified the events.”

A Blogger Nobel Peace Prize nominee?

Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, who, according to rumors was in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize, was also in attendance at the blogger meetings. She expressed to this journalist how happy she was to have been nominated, but is disturbed and confused by increasing attacks on her by the Tunisian media.

She warns that Tunisian bloggers still face challenges following an uprising that resulted in the ouster of longtime dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali earlier this year.

“Yes we are free, but you know, some two weeks ago a blogger was beaten by the police. Sometimes they just arrest bloggers because they are taking photos,” said Ben Mhenni. “[There is] no more censorship, but aggression is continuing.”

An Unexpected Visitor

Despite the concerns of some Tunisians that the January ‘revolution’ did not secure freedom of speech for all Tunisians, dramatic changes have taken place. The Tunisian government body charged with overseeing and censoring internet in Tunisia, made an appearance at Monday’s opening session, not to shut down the meeting, but to lend support to the conference. Moez Chackchouk, CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency, or ATI, said that his agency, following the ‘revolution,’ was no longer the enemy of internet activists or free speech.

“We were the enemy of internet activists, but, after the revolution, we were able to open our doors to you,” Chakchouk told the stunned audience at Cite Des Sciences conference hall in Tunis.

While Chakchouk says that “the Ben Ali regime subsidized the development of a sophisticated censorship system” for the internet, he insists that now, “there is no taboo subject anymore for the new ATI.”

Several bloggers stood up after Chakchouk’s presentation, expressing their happy surprise at the fact that a government official was joining them at the conference.

“Eight or nine months ago, I would not have believed a government official would be talking like this,” said one blogger who addressed the audience.

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