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Lessons in digital advocacy

I spent Friday at the Berkman Center with my friend Sami ben Gharbia, the director of Global Voices’ advocacy project. Of the hundreds of people I’ve met through GV, Sami is near the top of the list of people I’m always learning from. He’s channeled some of the energy from his personal passion for freedom in Tunisia into a campaign for free speech online for everyone, everywhere. And in the work he and his Tunisian colleagues do to promote freedom of expression in Tunisia is continuing to push the envelope of what’s possible in the world of digital advocacy.

Sami pointed me to a new campaign put together by his comrade in arms, Astrubal, the author of the Apple 1984 remix… the one that preceded the Obama remix by three years. The target of their campaign is Tunisian President Ben Ali and his private plane. The Tunisian press rarely reports on Ben Ali’s trips outside of Tunisia – as Sami put it in a blogpost, translated by Amira Al Hussaini for Global Voices: “As we all know, Tunisian President Ben Ali has cut down on his travels since 2005, as he rarely leaves his safe fortifications in Tunisia. Records also show that his trips to Europe during the time those pictures were taken did not exceed three. He visited Geneva in December 2003, Rome in May 2004 and Malta in June 2005.”

But Ben Ali’s plane has been to Europe far more often, raising questions about whether the official plane, fueled at taxpayer expense, is being used to accomodate vacations in the south of Spain or shopping excursions in the fashion centers of Europe. Astrubal and others have found numerous photos of the Presidential plane in European airports, photographed by amateurs and posted on sites like airliners.net and jetphotos.net. Using the photos, their locations and dates, Astrubal has built a flightplan for the Presidential jet, and rendered it in Google Earth, adding text, photos of the planes and a dramatic score.

The result is a little over the top, but it’s a compelling (and funny) way to draw attention to a situation that might represent abuse of presidential power. In an age where most advocacy groups are just starting to figure out how to use blogs or mailing lists, it’s impressive to see activists sewing together Google Earth, community photography sites and video authoring.

The Tunisian government may have thought it was compelling as well. Dailymotion, a popular French video sharing site, is once again blocked in Tunisia, possibly due to the presence of the video. There’s a subtext to the questions Astrubal is asking in his video, Sami tells me, undertones that would be clear to me if I knew more about Tunisian politics. Ben Ali is quite old and is believed to be somewhat infirm – frequent, unreported travel to Europe might indicate that he’s seeking medical care outside Tunisia. Or frequent trips to Malta might reflect that the plane is being used for business travel by the President’s wife.

Whether or not you’re worried about the use or abuse of the Tunisian president’s plane, there’s something very cool about seeing the wide range of tools Tunisian activists are willing to use to promote their struggle against a dictatorial government. I’m always learning from Sami, and advocates as a whole should be watching the Tunisian activists closely, looking for lessons in digital advocacy.

5 thoughts on “Lessons in digital advocacy”

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