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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 – 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.


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, 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, 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”

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.


  • […] Moja ya mambo ambayo Sami ameweza kufanya kuonyesha jinsi ambavyo teknolojia hizi zinaweza kuwa nyenzo za kutoa elimu na taarifa kuhusu masuala ya haki za binadamu. Akitumia teknolojia ya blogu, video, flash, na ramani-google, anaonyesha ukiukwaji wa haki za binadamu nchini Tunisia. Bonyeza hapa uone Tunisia Prison Map. Bonyeza hapa usome zaidi kuhusu habari hiyo ya Tunisia Prison Map toka Global Voices na mradi wa Witness. Mradi wa Witness unawezesha watu wa kawaida kuripoti unyama na madhambi ya watawala kwa kutumia teknolojia ya video. Hivi sasa mradi huu unashirikiana na Global Voices, bonyeza hapa utazame kazi za ushirikiano huu. […]

  • […] Commenting Affaire de microcosms [Fr] (a text that Houssein published following the article of Sameer Padania on Global Voices) Leilouta noted that few Tunisian bloggers deleted her from their blogroll [Fr] after she has posted a photoshopped picture of the Tunisian president Ben Ali. I asked her by mail if she can explain this action: “Maybe they were part of Ben Ali’s family! Or they were addicted to my blog and just needed to go cold turkey to get on with their lives. Seriously, I think it’s understandable given the situation. Voicing opposing views or having fun with photoshop can cause ‘problems’ and it may not be worth the risk for everyone. I don’t think my pictures were risky but…not everyone reading has the same sense of humor I do.” […]

  • […] The following is an extract from the rough translation that was published previously on Global Voices: 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. […]

  • […] Sami is an experienced human rights campaigner, a Tunisian who has lived in exile in the Netherlands for the past seven years. He first joined the GV community as a result of the comments thread when we featured his Tunisia Prison Map back in September 2006. This innovative and exciting mashup of different digital media and tools subsequently gained much attention in the media. […]

  • […] 27, 2006 in Human Rights [Originally published here as part of WITNESS’s collaboration with Global Voices […]

  • aleisha

    I am very concerned having read these posts and looked at the videos. I am worried about a friend in Tunis who I am trying to help at the moment. He has been arrested and is waiting for judgement. Can anyone give me an honest and generic explanation of what will happen to him and if the police are as brutal as is suggested will he have to raise Bail and money in order to be released, because that is what I have been informed. I am very worried about him ..Thanks

  • […] Tunisia: Opening prisons to the world · Global Voices #Tunisia has come a long, long way since this: #humanrights (tags: humanrights Tunisia via:twitter) […]

  • […] published here as part of WITNESS's collaboration with Global Voices […]

  • […] published here as part of WITNESS's collaboration with Global Voices […]

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