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Tunisia: Opening prisons to the world

At this site, I’m trying to show videos that show or speak about human rights abuses, and – as in the Tunisian video above – the impact of human rights abuses on ordinary people. I don’t speak Arabic, so how do I know what this video’s about?

It's thanks to Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia, who this Monday launched Tunisian Prisoners Map, which shows the prisons where a number of political and other prisoners are being held in Tunisia. The site, which — like sites such as ChicagoCrime.org – uses a Google Maps mashup, gives a brief case history for each prisoner, relevant external links, and, where Sami can find it, online video of their families – in the case of the video above it's Mohamed Abbou. The videos are in Arabic, so I can’t give you more detail (any helpers?), but there’s some background in English in the case histories Sami provides.

tunisianprisonmap.thumbnail.jpg

Sami, who lives in exile in the Netherlands, talks in an article he posted in French and Arabic of the culture of official secrecy around even the existence of these prisons, the considerable obstacles to finding out more, and the repercussions for those who have requested information from the government. There is no definitive list of civil prisons in Tunisia, and Tunisian Prisoners Map tries to make a dent in that by mapping cases at about 25 detention facilities. You can see some of the prisons in impressive detail if you zoom in, but many of the locations are approximate.

Commenting on the map at nawaat.org, the site Sami runs, astrubal is pretty scathing about Tunisian bloggers’ reaction to the new site – he says there has not been one mention of the site since it was launched a few days ago, and calls the Tunisian blogosphere the ‘lobotomisphere’. Bear in mind that, according to some sources, the Tunisian government is currently holding an estimated 350 political prisoners in prisons around the country, and there are regular human rights reports focusing on the treatment and welfare of the prisoners. Something you’d think was a really major topic of interest for Tunisian bloggers, but astrubal seems to be right – when I checked just now, not one of the French or English blogs aggregated at the Tunisian Blogs aggregator mentioned or linked to Sami’s site. I asked Sami by email why he thought this was the case:

I really do not expect to see the so-called “Tunisian bloggers” or Blogosphere talking about this issue. Most of them have chosen the self censorship and have decided to avoid discussing and writing about political content that may hurt the Tunisian regime. They talk about everything except Tunisians’ interior affaires. It is The Taboo of the Tunisian blogosphere. Besides, I'm part of the banned bloggers who do not save the Tunisian regime and who are not recognized as “member” of the Tunisian blogosphere. As the blogger and journalist Wael Abass wrote last week on the Deutsche Presse Agentur: “Sami Bin Gharbia, the Tunisian owner of Kitab.nl, is destined to become a refugee both physically and virtually. He lives in Holland as a political refugee and he is banned from the Tunisian blog aggregator (…) so he took refuge in the Egyptian blog aggregator hosted by Manalaa.net.”

Not only we are censored in Tunisia, we have also been censored on the Tunisian blogger aggregator and even on the periodic “Echoes from the Tunisian blogosphere” which is published on Global Voices. They do not hear our “Echoes” only because we write politics! We do understand their fear to talk about those issues, especially those living in Tunisia. Hopefully, they understand our concern to defend our citizenship and rights? Remember, this is the Web! And we are committed to defend this extraordinary tool against the censorship and its passive ally: the self censorship.

As Sami says, those within Tunisia who speak out on human rights live in a climate of fear. During the World Summit on the Information Society, Ethan Zuckerman gave a vivid account of meeting with the Tunisian Human Rights League. Tunisian bloggers may not yet be in a position to create or discuss a site like Sami's, but according to one site that linked to Tunisian Prisoners Map, users from Tunisian ISPs are clicking through.

As the technology becomes more and more accessible, the more of these kinds of sites will inevitably spring up, pulling together maps, case histories, background research documents, advocacy tools, and, yes, videos, and the simpler it becomes to try to shine a light… I'd be interested to learn of similar initiatives from around the world, so get in touch if you know of one.

In the meantime, Tunisian Prisoners Map is a great attempt to raise debate outside Tunisia about the human rights situation inside the country, and maybe crank up some international pressure on President Zinedine Ben Ali. And while Tunisia's bloggers may not be trumpeting the site on their blogs, links to Sami's site from sites such as this help them combat the culture of secrecy and fear that keeps them in silence.

20 comments

  • Dear Sameer,

    thank you for this great post and for your expression of interest in the Tunisian human rights situation.

    I really do not know if something will really change by building the Tunisian prisoner map, except helping people, on the Web, knowing about the human rights situation in the country. People may know how touristy Tunisia is and they may admire its touristy map and network of hotels. But do they really realize that this small country is the 4th most repressive country in the world (253 prisoners per 100.000 people)? Even before China? Did they know that young pupils (Youth of Kef) have beem condemned for downloading an mp3 of a HipHop song criticizing the brutality of the Tunisian police service? Or lawyer Mohammed Abbou who is serving a 3 year prison sentence for publishing an article on the Web?

    So it was important for me to centralize and to contextualize the information about human rights abuses in Tunisia and to put them on an interactive and dynamic map with video, flash animation and links to other important sources of information. In this way, it may become a bit easier for people to be informed –to read, hear and watch on the same web page- about the human rights situation in the country, without doing a lot of research.

    Like I wrote in the accompanying backgrounder (it will soon be available in English), this map is not complete yet. Other information and application will be implemented in order to make it more effective and accurate. We read a lot of stuff about the social Web which fall under the Web 2.0 banner; and it is still a challenge for the Tunisian cyberactivists to use the internet for advocacy and to try this kind of public information sharing and promoting of human rights content. The Tunisia Prison map is certainly not the first and I’m sure it will not be the last project.

    Respectfully yours,

    sami

  • Try2BeHonest

    Excellent text. Excellent Tunisian Prison Map. Thanks, thanks Sami.
    Keep on going.

  • here is the translation of the video above.

    Spouse of political prisoner Mohamed Abbou (lawyer)

    “I do not know any thing about Mohamed [Lawyer Mohamed LaAbbou]! They do not inform us at all, like come to our home, or tell us orally, nor in writing, nor by phone. One can be kidnapped, a lawyer, during night time, like if he was a bandit, like in those mafia movies. Such behaviour is not worth of any government especially that it became obvious they dealt the same way not only with Mohamed but with many other prisoners. This is a common practice. It is sad, it is not a decent procedure.

    I am asking myself if they treated me like that, how about my husband? One told me: you are the wife of Mohamed? He threw me on the floor with rage, and was sweeping the floor with my body, my shoes were off, my bag dropped down, I was screaming until voiceless. He did not consider that I was a woman, that I did nothing to him, that I came for my husband. He had no respect neither for the court, nor the judge, nor the lawyers. These people know no limits, they are like beasts that were put on starvation for 3 days and then released after their victim.

    In the parlour there were always policemen, at least 3 and the maximum was 16. Some were standing next to me, some in the middle and others next to my husband Mohamed. “

  • Wow, Sami, thanks so much for that translation. It leaves me speechless.

    I wonder if we can find a way to take this translation and subtitle the video through http://dotsub.com ?

  • […] There’s a fascinating post over at Global Voices on the Tunisian blogosphere. As many of you know, Tunisia is one of the most information-repressive countries in the Arab world. It has what’s probably the most advanced censorship authorities in the region, and very actively monitors the internet, taps phones, follows dissidents and threatens them. The very nature of the regime is that it is a police state, run by the police for the police — this is not a military regime or ruling family type regime. […]

  • Hi Rebecca, I will take a look @. We have planned to subtitle the videos with QuickTime. We’ve done the translation of almost all the videos, to French and to English. Hope, it will be soon available online.

  • Merriadoc

    If you want to be listed in one aggregator, you have to ask, isn’t it ?

    Why not asking to Houssein, the man who launched tn-blogs.com, before talking about banishment ?
    I can’t read a line where you are saying that you’ve asked him, before writing your article.

    Maybe it would have been a good thing.

  • I’ve just read this piece by Houssein, over at Hou-Hou Blog [fr]:

    http://houblog.net/article/1110-tunisie-blogs-politique

    It’s a robust defence of why Sami’s video/Google Maps mashup hadn’t appeared on Tunisian blogs sooner. (Houssein set up TN-blogs.com which I mention above.)

  • Thanks Sameer. All I have to say is that I think you should have tried to discuss with some tunisian bloggers, and try to get the other side of the story before making any judgement.

  • Thanks to Alyssa, our colleague in nawaat, the English translation of the backgrounder is now available her:

    http://www.kitab.nl/2006/09/29/en-tunisian-prisons-map/

    To Merriadoc:

    How said that I did not ask Hussein to be listed in the tn-blogs aggregator.
    I did it but…
    More info about both side of the story here (see also the comments):
    http://www.kitab.nl/2005/12/20/blogs-tunisiens-des-zones-touristiques/

    I’m glad to announce that Tunisian Prison Map is featured as the mashup of the day (29 Sept 06) at ProgrammableWeb.com . It gets an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5.

    :)

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