For the past two weeks, Tunisia has been racked with unrest following the December 17 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young, educated vendor whose produce stand was confiscated because Bouazizi failed to show a permit. The protests sweeping the country have resulted in further censorship from authorities, whose stronghold on the Internet has increased as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are blocked.
In the past year since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought Internet freedom to pertinence in her much-lauded speech at the Newseum, the rhetoric surrounding net freedom has continued to focus mainly on Iran and China.
Though Tunisia has always been part of the rhetoric–Clinton mentioned it twice, in reference both to increased filtering and to the effects of censorship on business–it has never been at the forefront of the net freedom discussion, despite evidence that its censors are among the most sophisticated and the most pervasive in the world. Despite being under the guise of democracy (not unlike Iran) and secularism (not unlike Syria), Tunisia censors media and Internet at the surface level, and also regularly imprisons those who speak out or protest against the regime, including bloggers (in 2009, Tunisia was ranked by CPJ as one of the ten worst places to be a blogger).
The State Department’s Internet freedom policy, to many, appears generally to reflect broader U.S. policy. We want to overturn Iran’s regime, so we make special requests to Twitter to ensure it’s not shut down during crucial periods, but we ignore the interrogation and arrests of bloggers in our ally, Egypt. We want to save the Iranians, so we loosen up export controls to allow junk products like Haystack to reach them, while doing nothing about the similar restrictions placed upon Syrians. When we look to China, we see business opportunities, and so we focus on strengthening those through freeing up the Internet, while secular allies like Tunisia–which do a great job of faking progress to the world–go largely ignored.
And it’s not as if we can pretend we had no idea: In a recently-released WikiLeaks cable, our own diplomats can be seen referring to Tunisia as a “police state,” with “little freedom of expression.” We’ve known that, and we’ve said nothing.
The State Department is not the media, but when Hillary Clinton calls out a country (as she has done with both China and Iran), the media listens. And as of yet, the media has barely touched on either the protests or the pervasive censorship happening in Tunisia. The Guardian‘s Brian Whitaker (who, to his credit, recognizes what a big deal this is) asks whether media coverage really matters (after all, the media coverage given to Iran did nothing to overturn the regime). Though I think Whitaker certainly has a point, I think what matters more is the awareness that such media coverage creates. Two years ago, most Americans knew little about Iran: now they know that a large swath of the populace is fighting against their regime. Most Americans know very little about Tunisia, but the awareness that media coverage would create would teach them. And perhaps that awareness would then push people to fight harder for an egalitarian Internet freedom initiative from their own government.
And this is why I don’t believe in the Net Freedom agenda anymore. If we as a nation truly believed in Internet freedom, then we would focus not only on those countries that might benefit us (a free Iran, a capitalist China) but on all of those nations where citizens are restricted from speaking out. We would loosen the export controls on Syria–not just Iran–to allow Syrian citizens access to communications and circumvention tools, and we would give our ally Tunisia–secular, egalitarian Tunisia–incentive to stop oppressing its citizens. If the United States of America were still truly about freedom, we would do these things, because an ally that oppresses its citizens is no ally at all.