I believe in freedom of speech

What is happening in Tunisia after the revolution? Lars Mensel spoke with the Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni about the police state, the work of an internet activist and the right to internet access.

The European: Let us begin with the current events. What is happening in Tunisia right now?
Ben Mhenni: The overall situation is far from clear. The elections have been postponed and young people, who played an important role in the revolution, are trying to start another one. They are unhappy with the transitional government. Last night, another sit-in was organized by the people who already successfully did them before. The first one was to get rid of the first transitional government, which consisted of the people that had worked with Ben Ali. The second one happened to get rid of Ben Ali’s prime minister, who had simply stayed at the head of the transitional government. So now another sit-in just started to call for media independence, an independent justice, more transparency as well as the dissolution of the political police. They are being asked to stop the violence. And there are multiple new political parties emerging.

The European: Slim Amamou, the blogger-turned-minister, had said that before elections took place, the country would remain Ben Ali’s Tunesia. What is left of the old guard?
Ben Mhenni: They are everywhere! There are more than 2 million of them. Still, they are in charge of the ministries. We tried to prevent them from taking part in the political life but now we see that they are organizing themselves in new political parties. The very same people who used to belong to Ben Ali’s party are now trying to regain power. Still, they are able to manipulate the traditional media, television and newspapers, since the staff never changed. We can really feel this, even after the revolution.

“We need another revolution”

The European: Commentators from Egypt were saying that the ouster of Mubarak had sparked a new kind of protest culture there: People were very motivated to go on the streets since they had experienced that their voices would be heard. I guess the most absurd aspect of this was visible when the Egyptian police, who had helped in the crackdown of the protests, went on the streets to demand higher wages. Do you see something similar in Tunisia now?
Ben Mhenni: Actually, the same thing happened in Tunisia. The police successfully protested and got more money. Really, they benefitted from the protests because they went on strike several times, causing security problems and because of this pressure they got more money. Even worse, they are back to their old habits of violence and repression. There is definitely a culture of uprisings now, but we do need it. Since January 14th, Ben Ali might be gone but we need another revolution to get rid of his people.

The European: What about the voices, also from Egypt, who are saying that because of the protest it is hard to get any meaningful work done for the political transition?
Ben Mhenni: That is an argument you often hear from those people that belonged to the ousted presidents. People who really love their country understand that further protests are a necessity. Some are afraid of losing the privileges and benefits they have. They are afraid of being tried for the corruption and the crimes they committed.

*The European: Is there any progress concerning internet policies? In your book you talk about all the things that took place through the web and later you even call for a peoples’ right to internet access. A couple of other countries have enacted it, such as Estonia, France, Finland and Spain. Are there concrete steps in the transitional government to establish a right for internet access in Tunisia? *
Ben Mhenni: I think we really need it. It is incredibly important to have access to information. I worked for the government to reform media, information and communication law, mostly things related to blogs and electronic journalism. While I was working there, I had many discussions about establishing such a right and tried to push for it. I just resigned from this post, though. I was putting so much work and time into it, but found out that the government was not listening and only using me for my name. Like I wrote in my book, I think I can help the most working from the outside. When you are inside an official institution, there are so many people and things you need to keep in mind. But as a blogger you can say what you want.

“The Western media doesn’t focus on us”

The European: Stewart Brand famously coined the term that information wants to be free, which seems intrinsically true in your case. But why do you think we hear so little about the revolutions in the Arab world?
Ben Mhenni: I think it is because of the traditional media and what they think is interesting for the people. I spent a year in the United States, teaching Arabic, and people there did not even know that Tunisia was a country. There isn’t a lot of information in the media about our region and the media hardly focuses on it.

The European: In Bahrain, the uprisings were beaten down and since then we have not heard anything from there. Why do you think that is? Could it be because the United States has their 5th fleet stationed in the country?
Ben Mhenni: In the case of Bahrain, it is really the Saudis who are making sure that nothing comes out of the country. They are helping the Bahraini government deal with the protesters by arresting and torturing demonstrators. They sent in police forces and really succeeded in silencing the people. I think they are afraid of the protests moving into Saudi Arabia. Some cyber-activists from Saudi-Arabia had talked about starting a revolution there but were immediately arrested.

The European: After the events in Tunisia, Mubarak made sure that the internet was shut down so that protesters could not communicate. How much information even comes out of places like Libya, Syria or Yemen?
Ben Mhenni: Well, when Mubarak had the internet shut down, there were alternatives. For instance, Google helped by creating a connection through the phone and Egyptians succeeded in spreading the word. In Syria, it is different. People there can barely communicate with the outside. Nobody is helping them to get their voices heard through an alternative connection. They are fighting alone and there is not much coming out.

The European: In your book you write that the work of a blogger is never done. What is the future role of blogs in the media landscape?
Ben Mhenni: It is the same one that it has been during the revolution: To keep an eye on what is happening and try to help people understand everything. It can help mobilize people to do things such as the current sit-in. Right now, I don’t even have time to write on the blog, so I am using Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the people and to encourage them to act and not be frustrated. The departure of Ben Ali was just a small step; the hardest part is yet to come. We have to be patient and work on it.

The European: Obviously, here in Western Europe we do not face repercussions from the state like you describe. Still, legislators are trying to regulate the internet as well; recently Germany erupted in a debate when there were attempts by the government to block certain, albeit criminal, websites. Is it even possible for the state to meaningfully regulate the web?
Ben Mhenni: It should remain a free space. There are regular laws we can use to prosecute online criminals, but the wrong way would be to limit the internet. We should never do that. I believe in freedom of speech, it is as simple as that.

“The police know everything about us anyway”

The European: What about governments getting access to your information through social networks? People here are sometimes worried that governments would be able to gain access and find out everything about you.
Ben Mhenni: Our government already had that access! First, it blocked everything, but we found tricks to avoid the censorship. After Anonymous attacked the government websites in January, the government hijacked my email account, Facebook account and deleted all the pages for which I was an administrator. So it can do all this already, but 15 minutes later I was back online and continued to fight. In Tunisia, we don’t care so much about the information that we put on these networks, since the police already know everything about you – particularly, if you are an activist. So it doesn’t change a great deal when you put your information online, if anything, it can protect you. Whenever I was going to do anything or go anywhere, I put it on my Facebook, so people knew where I was supposed to be and the government would not have to kidnap me to find out. When I was going to Sidi Bouzid (where Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, sparking the protests), I was stopped by many policemen who checked my ID. It made no difference if I put anything online before or not, they knew where I was.

The European: In the end, the revolution was a success because the military cooperated with the people. How do you think they were reached?
Ben Mhenni: In Tunisia, the army was simply not present before January 14th. Ben Ali had made the police the most powerful force. So when Ben Ali gave them the order to react, they refused.

The European: In other countries, the army continues to kill scores of protesters. What future do you see for other protests of the Arab Spring?
Ben Mhenni: I don’t know what will happen, only that these crazy dictators will continue to kill more and more people. Right now, I think it is only a matter of time; especially Gaddafi doesn’t have much time left. Because of the foreign forces, it won’t be more than a month.

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