Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: #sidibouzid

#Hashtagging Real Life

Ever since my good friend Zeynep Tufekci brought me a revolutionary t-shirt from Egypt, I’ve been fascinated by the popularization of hashtags outside of Twitter. And by outside, I don’t mean on blogs, Facebook, and Flickr, where they’re increasingly appearing, but offline. T-shirts, posters, graffiti, and protest signs all make use of hashtag symbolism; rather than long slogans (or in most cases, in addition to), we’ve cut down our symbols into bite-sized pieces, for better or worse. Even the Obama campaign has a hashtag-themed fundraising t-shirt. Here are just a few samplings (photos are from around the blogosphere):

A solidarity march for Morocco's #feb20 or #fev20 movement in Boston

A photo of a protest sign (presumably) taken in Egypt

An Occupy Wall Street protester (from the Boston Globe)

A Libya t-shirt utilizes Feb 17, popularized by the hashtag

This tattoo apparently belongs to @ClinicEscort

Photo of #jan25 T-shirts by 0oshi on Flickr

Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff has popularized hashtag imagery in his art

Sami Ben Gharbia wears a SidiBouzid t-shirt on Al Jazeera

From a Paris protest in January, by kaïs miled on Flickr

Anti-SCAF street art in Cairo, photographed by Hossam Hamalawy

If you have any other excellent examples (particularly from Syria), do send them my way.

Iran but not Tunisia: Where’s the outrage?

I fear this post will raise more questions than it will provide answers.  I know that I will likely come across as naive, not able to grasp realpolitik.  I’m angry, on behalf of my friends in and exiled from Tunisia, as to why so little attention is being paid to the current situation (in case you’re amongst those non-observers, read this overview by NDI’s Katherine Maher).

I’ve been away from home for over two weeks now with far less Internet and television access than usual, so it’s difficult for me to gauge what the American reaction has been to the strife in Tunisia thus far.  A quick Google search shows me a decent amount of US media coverage of the situation–both online and offline–though considerably less attention than was paid to the Iranian elections of 2009, which were undeniably ubiquitous in all forms of media, garnering widespread awareness of the situation.

Though I don’t like or agree with it one bit, I understand why the US government focuses disproportionately on Iran: fear of nuclear weapons, fear of attacks on Israel, fear of Islam.  I don’t understand, however, why public and media attention is equally disproportionate.  If media is not a mouthpiece of the government, then shouldn’t our outrage be equal?

The online media coverage of the Tunisian events may well be adequate (though is likely not), but where it the outrage we saw in 2009 vis-à-vis Iran?  Where are the ubiquitous hashtags?  Both the Iranian Green movement and the current outrage emanating from Tunisia are homegrown, native, huge, and yet, one garnered widespread international support while attention to the other is limited to a small transnational network, as far as I can see.

I very much understand the current outrage from my Tunisian friends, particularly as it is leveled at the US government in respect to Internet freedom.  While the US stepped forward to help Iranians (whether by fast-tracking circumvention tools for export or asking Twitter to halt its updates), little had been said publicly over the years regarding Tunisian censorship, nor the American companies that make it possible (Tunisia, like several other countries in the region, uses McAfee’s SmartFilter software to block a vast swath of websites, and does so with impunity).  Europe, on the other hand, has spoken up this time around.

Forget the government – where is the media outrage?  Sometimes I think the media has forgotten who it works for.  This isn’t Tunisia, we have a free press.  What’s their excuse?

Now, with the arrest of Slim Amamou, I call on my friends once again to speak out, loudly.  If you have connections to the media, use them.  If you have questions, I can put you in touch with people on the ground in Tunisia.  Don’t let this go ignored.

Why I Don’t Believe in “Net Freedom”

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.

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