Two internet activists in Tunisia have been sentenced to prison sentences because they published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Tunisian bloggers are disillusioned. Their revolution appears to have failed.
Souhaib Zammel types on his iPad, glancing around nervously. Again and again he reaches for his mobile phone. The Tunisian living in exile is a blogger and was visiting DW's Global Media Forum in Bonn to meet like-minded people from around the globe. Zammel has been studying in Germany since 2003. His German is very good; only a slight French accent is audible. Zammel published his first blog when the initial sparks of revolution flew in Tunisia.
"I could finally put into words everything that had built up in the past 20 years," he said. Zammel published texts about burning houses on Facebook and various blogs, passed the information on to his fellow countrymen to let them know what was happening.
"Our flow of information does not move like in Germany," Zammel said. "The people living in the countryside often remain uninformed." A short time later, he took the initiative and flew home to Tunisia. "I tried to document what was happening back home," he said. Zammel took pictures of burning police stations and hotels. "They hadn't even been published in Tunisia yet."
Zammel is proud that he contributed a little bit to getting the revolution in Tunisia going. When the protests in the capital Tunis on January 14, 2011 mobilized the masses, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled.
Today, Zammel is disillusioned. Two young men in his home country have been sentenced to long prison terms because they allegedly posted naked depictions of the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook.
"This incident shows me how selective the government and the public prosecutor's office is now," he said. Thousands of death threats, instructions for building bombs and calls for violence had been published on Facebook. "But nothing happened - no legal action, they didn't do anything."
While caricaturist Jabeur Mejri has been in prison since the end of March, his friend Ghazi Beji was able to flee to Europe after the charges were filed. Zammel is most angered by the selectivity of the authorities. Even if he personally does not agree with the statements by Mejri and Beji, they "have the right" to express their opinions. According to Zammel, only ideological and political motives could lie behind the verdict.
Anis Ayadi is shocked, as well. "The revolution was made to provide more freedom, so that you can express your opinion." Ayadi also lives in Germany and was attending DW's Global Media Forum. He turned his back on Tunisia in 2007. The educational opportunities were just too poor. Today, he studies in Cologne. He is also frustrated about the situation in his home country. The struggle of the past months has made him tired and the current situation in Tunisia saddens him.
"It used to be that the regime controlled us, now the government controls us through people who are disguised as bloggers," Ayadi said. He said there are blogs that are infiltrated, and Facebook profiles of government critics that are so besieged with spam that Facebook shuts them down automatically. This is censorship in the year 2012, he said.
Islamists took over power in Tunisia in 2011 after Ben Ali was overthrown. Since then, there have been growing numbers of cases involving alleged violations of morals and values. In February, authorities filed criminal charges against a newspaper publisher and two journalists for republishing a photograph of German-Tunisian soccer player Sami Khedira and his girlfriend Lena Gercke.
The Arabic daily Attounissia reprinted a photo originally published in the magazine GQ showing Gercke, a model, naked with only Khedira's hands covering her breasts. A Tunis court fined publisher Nasreddine Ben Saida 500 euros ($625) for "disrupting public order and decency."
Earlier this month, riot police in Tunis clashed with Salafists angered by an art exhibition they claimed insulted Islam
Blogger Anis Ayadi has also been a victim of personal attacks. Salafists threatened him and his sister during a visit to Tunisia because she was not wearing a headscarf.
"They insulted me because I told them my opinion," Ayadi said. Zammel's story isn't much different. He is threatened and his blogs are criticized.
"I feel bitter and I also don't like what I hear from my friends in Tunisia," Zammel said. He has had to cut down on his activities. His studies have suffered too much recently.
Government propaganda online
Fatma Riahi was the first Arab blogger to go to jail. In 2009, she published texts against the regime, and publicly exposed nepotism in Tunisia. She was a thorn in the side of the government in Tunis and subsequently spent one week in jail. During this time, she experienced a wave of solidarity by her fellow Tunisians. But despite the revolution and the freedom of speech, Riahi is not at peace.
"Today many sides present me as being loyal to Ben Ali," Riahi said. "That is utter nonsense. I was never on his side." Her theory is that the government has tasked some bloggers to spread bad vibes about critics. She said she is disillusioned.
"The revolution is a monstrosity," she said. "It's not enough to cut off the ogre's head. The entire body must be brought down and rebuilt." Ayadi said he is truly worried about his country. The educational system is too poor and the Salafists now only want to build Islamist and religious schools.
"I am scared for Tunisia," he said. "But the hope still lies with the youth. What we need now is a new revolution."
Author: Arne Lichtenberg / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge