A national day of protest against censorship in Tunisia, staged on December 25th, has turned into debate among bloggers.Tunisians mounted a new online protest on December 25th, inviting bloggers to publish a blank post signifying censorship. Critics say the issue requires more direct action.

A national day of protest against censorship in Tunisia, staged on December 25th, has prompted criticism from some bloggers who feel the effort is misplaced.

Even though he participated, blogger Anis considered “Action Blank Post 2008” – in which writers published a blank blog entry to signify censorship – a waste of time. He was disappointed that bloggers were mobilised “for such futilities” instead of “for people that were unfairly imprisoned”.

Fellow blogger Saloua derided the idea, saying that Tunisians should instead increase their writing on that day; “otherwise we shall be deemed as practicing internal censorship, especially as we are exposed to censorship every day”.

Achour Neji, or exmouslem, called for an expanded mission for the protest. “As we are preparing for the blogging day against blocking,” he wrote, “I believe that we must also stand against… false allegation of speaking in the name of God and people, and also where there are express threats of violence.”

In Neji’s opinion, requests to remove articles or posts and the accompanying threats are merely “the tip of the iceberg of violence that has spread in the veins of Islamist ideology”.

Since 2006, bloggers in Tunisia have used December 25th to raise awareness of the banning and manipulation of online writing. An estimated 160 bloggers participated in this year’s demonstration.

Numerous bloggers complained in 2008 of intrusions and blockages of websites by the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI). Many Tunisians also accuse ATI of supporting bans on a number of popular websites. It was this issue that prompted journalist Ziad El Heni to file a lawsuit against the agency, accusing it of blocking the social networking website Facebook before it was re-opened last August based on an order from the President. El Heni lost the case in a lower court, and is preparing himself for an appeal.

Many Tunisians consider blogging to be their last venue for expressing their opinions and attitudes.

“No one can deny that the closure of the traditional venues of expression in the face of Tunisian has made them resort to blogging,” wrote blogger Monia Ferjani. “However, I think that Tunisians wouldn’t have resorted to blogging if they hadn’t been interested in technology and if they hadn’t been convinced that this method was effective.”

The increase in bloggers, she continued, “is a healthy phenomenon in the body of Tunisian culture and political awareness… citizens have kept a safe distance from [traditional] media because they found the alternative to be better.”

Academic Adel Hadj Salem believes the prevalence of blogs in Tunisia is a normal thing. “In countries where there is multiple and objective media, we note an increase of blogging; how then about a country like ours where the political authorities monopolise all venues of mass expression?”

Lotfi Azzouz, Director of Amnesty International’s Tunisia branch, thinks the spread of blogs is a good thing, based on their content and the reality of censorship in the country. The Amnesty International website in Tunisia was blocked, he said, after a member posted a controversial statement.

“There is a blog for our branch where I’m keen to post all materials related to Tunisia,” he said. “We don’t have the right to defend prisoners in Tunisia, but we have the right to publish reports or press releases that are issued by our organisation on Tunisia. Therefore, there is no news in our blog on the mining basin events although our organisation issued many statements on that issue; we don’t also publish news on torture.”

Bloggers from Egypt joined their Tunisian fellows this year for Action Blank Post. Marwa Rakha called for support for the Tunisian cause, condemning online censorship. “Young Tunisians mastered technology and transcended traditional media channels,” she wrote, “creating a medium of self-expression characterised by honesty, transparency, and spontaneity, and attracting an audience that got fed up with formal speeches.”

“The success of Arab blogs did not go unpunished in countries that do not support freedom of expression – many blogs were blocked… [and] Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco witnessed cases of detained bloggers,” she continued.

“I hereby invite all Arab blogs to take part in our peaceful initiative to protest against blocking blogs and harassing bloggers in their respective countries.”

From Magharebia (version française)

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