Blogging in Tunisia has traditionally been a risky business. Online activists have been subject to harassment, imprisonment and targeted “phishing” attacks by the government in the past. But this week's turmoil has ushered in a period of relative openness. Lina Ben Mhenni runs the blog A Tunisian Girl, which, until now, was banned in her own country. During the protests, she risked her safety, criticized the government on her blog and published images of the dead.
President, Your People are Dying
Artist: Hamada Ben-Amor
Artist: Emiliana Torrini
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Several bloggers and online activists were imprisoned during the protests this month, normal practice in a country rife with censorship. Twenty-two-year-old Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben-Amor, also known as “The General,” was arrested because of a viral video of his song called President, Your People are Dying.
[SONG: PRESIDENT, YOUR PEOPLE ARE DYING]
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] The General has since been released from prison, along with numerous bloggers, as the wave of protests forced the government to ease its restrictions. This makes it easier for Lina Ben Mhenni to run her blog, A Tunisian Girl, which until now has been banned in her own country. She also had her Facebook and email hijacked by the government earlier this month. Recently she’s put her safety on the line, filling her blog with scenes from the streets of the dead and the dying. Lina, welcome to the show.
LINA BEN MHENNI: Thanks, thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: During the protests, what sources have Tunisians primarily relied on to get their information? Is everyone looking for news on Facebook and Twitter?
LINA BEN MHENNI: Yes, Twitter and Facebook played a big and important role in the spread of the information. The two first weeks, foreign media was following everything on Facebook and Twitter. Starting from two weeks ago, they started to come to Tunisia to cover the events.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you worry that there is a problem when foreign media rely on such sources as Facebook and Twitter, because people can so easily make things up?
LINA BEN MHENNI: We didn't spread information without linking it to videos and pictures showing that this really happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about government hijacking sites and using it to spread misinformation?
LINA BEN MHENNI: They started hijacking and hacking websites but it wasn't to spread misinformation, but indeed it was to try to dissuade people who were covering the events. For example, I discovered that my email and my Facebook page had been hijacked, but they didn't use them to spread misinformation. They just shut them down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you personally had any direct contact with the Tunisian police?
LINA BEN MHENNI: [LAUGHS] They are following me every day, so yes, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have they spoken to you?
LINA BEN MHENNI: Yes, they were trying to harass me verbally. For example – this is very funny – one day I was going out to buy some coffee and they, they just want to provoke me, so one looked to the other, two police officers, said, look, this is Lina, she was in the United States, and she’s got AIDS.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sh - they said you had AIDS?
LINA BEN MHENNI: Yes, just to bother me, to drive me crazy. But I never talked to them, I never answered them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you experiencing then a sense of freedom now that didn't exist before the protests began earlier this month?
LINA BEN MHENNI: Yes, now journalists are walking more freely. For example, now journalists can take pictures easily in the streets, and even the official medias are now interviewing dissidents, and all the people are invited to speak on Tunisian TVs, on radio stations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even you.
LINA BEN MHENNI: [LAUGHS] Even me, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about your blog and your Twitter account and Facebook, are they no longer censored?
LINA BEN MHENNI: No, they are no longer censored. There is no censorship anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Lina, for most of the time you've been blogging it’s really mostly foreigners or Tunisians living abroad who have had access to your blog. Now you can blog for Tunisians, inside Tunisia. How does that feel?
LINA BEN MHENNI: I was looking up the statistics of my blog, of the audience for my blog. I see that in - there are more and more Tunisians who are reading the blog, and this makes me happy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you want to tell them, first of all?
LINA BEN MHENNI: Okay, I'm proud to be Tunisian and I am proud that Tunisian citizens succeeded in their revolution. [LAUGHS]
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lina, thank you very much.
LINA BEN MHENNI: You are welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tunisian blogger and linguistics teacher, Lina Ben Mhenni.