Today, the Internet is being heavily censored. More heavily censored than usual. The presidential elections are going on and web sites like Aljazeera, and Facebook are either not loading at all, loading only partially, or loading very slowly. Certain web sites appear to have disappeared altogether. Earlier this morning, John saw an article by the New York Times about Tunisia’s instability amidst the election process, but when he clicked on it, he couldn’t access it. Later, he tried to do a search for it, but couldn’t find it. Several hours later, the article reappeared and he was able to read it. Clearly it had been “white-listed”.
All of this censorship hub-bub makes me nervous, to say the least, but I think retrospectively, after we leave Tunisia (hopefully unharmed, of course), I’ll look back on the experience of censorship “from the inside” with a new view of the experience “from the outside”. In India, the news was also censored, but at the same time, it was utterly shocking. Though the political information was skewed, there were still true stories that were horrifying in the paper: the story of a girl who was tied to a tree and then “poked to death” with torches after being gang raped (her father had had a land dispute with some neighbors), the story of an elderly woman who had been hacked to pieces with an axe in her tiny, squalid home (the authorities didn’t arrived to do an investigation until three days after her death), the story of a man who’s wife and two-year-old daughter had been thrown from a moped to their death (the story blamed potholes for the problem). In contrast to the Indian news, which mostly censored just political problems, presenting civilian person-to-person issues in the full glare of daylight, the news in Tunisia has been totally sterilized. The TV is on, but the show is muted.
One of my favorite things to do in foreign countries is read the newspapers. Every country has their own way of portraying newsworthy events. In the United States, sensationalism sells. Events are hyped. Fear and drama is what sells. In Mexico, bloody images of dead bodies (decapitated, beaten, blown apart, or what-have-you) sell newspapers. In Canada, there’s little news, but most of it involves wild animals, especially the further north you go. In India, there are few images, but the stories themselves were horrifying in their portrayals of death. In Nepal, I only found one small three-page newspaper that only contained Associated Press stories. Not very many people in Nepal can read.
The way that news is reported says a lot about what people in a particular place are interested in, but it also says a lot about what scares the government and how corrupt governments keep people distracted from the real problems in their country. I get irritated with the media in the United States for its one-sidedness and lack of cogency, but information is available to Americans at least as of 2015. It’s true that we’re being watched by our government. Our internet behaviors aren’t “private”. What we click on and what we buy, can theoretically be used by the government or large corporations to manipulate us. But I can write what I’m thinking and publish it and people will see it. I can choose what I read and I can choose to think about what I read. Large corporations may try to use my buying habits, my internet search habits, etc. to try to manipulate me. These are definitely the negatives of a lack of privacy. But the information that I want to find is always there in the United States. And if I choose, I can use it to think. But what about when you don’t have facts? When people who speak out disappear suddenly and never return? As Americans, we worry about our privacy, but I feel a sense of relief knowing that the U.S. government is watching potential terrorist activity on on the internet. By making all of the information available to us, the government can watch to see who stays within the lines and who veers outside of them. It’s a big job, but God help us, if someone doesn’t do it, the people who censor and oppress will take over.
In Tunisia before 2011 when the young vegetable merchant Bouazizi set himself on fire, sparking the revolution in Tunisia, the internet was censored. Outgoing emails, Facebook, everything was censored. A person had to set himself on fire to get the word of mouth going enough to make changes! In 2011, the censorship was overthrown and Tunisia had its first glimpse at internet without it’s filters. But in 2013, censorship was brought back to the country and commentators noted that the situation mirrored that of 2011 prior to the revolution. According to some political analysts, if Essebsi wins the election today, Tunisia will go back to a dictatorship and the Arab Spring will be over here, which is the most likely outcome since Tunisians seem to be yearning for someone with a strong hand to put an end to instability here. On the other hand, if Marzouki wins, there’s a fear of Islamist uprisings. Realistically, no one really knows what’s best for this country because they don’t have any information to make informed decisions.
It’s unclear how the Tunisian election will affect our experience of the world as American citizens. A number of Tunisian groups are decidedly infuriated by our western-ness. The United States and other western countries regularly misunderstand the needs of Middle Eastern countries, projecting western ways of doing things onto a system that doesn’t fit our mold. Tunisia is a place that needs a customized, distinctively Middle Eastern solution to its political woes, but government corruption keeps getting in the way.
The tension in Tunisia right now isn’t as high in Tunis as it was in the southern part of the country near Douz especially. I hope we can make it through the last 9 days of our time here without having to leave early. We’ll be packing up our bags today so that we can leave at a moment’s notice if things turn sour. I’m missing the clean streets and unlimited internet access in the states right now. And I hope that Egypt will be better (although I seriously doubt that it will be).