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Sami ben Gharbia and video activism

I’m in Turkey this week participating in a Berkman conference on internet and democracy – it’s a meeting of activists from almost twenty countries, talking about ways that activists can use the internet to promote democratic movements. Many of the sessions are off the record or under Chatham Rules, to protect the identity of people speaking here. But the first speaker this morning is Sami ben Gharbia, the leader of Global Voices Advocacy and a leading Tunisian free speech advocate, and he’s not exactly a shy guy. :-)

Sami’s presentation is on video advocacy and mashups, with a focus on advocacy in Tunisia. While Sami and other Tunisian activists have worked hard on other free speech campaigns around the world, this presentation focuses specifically on activism in Tunisia, specifically around the legislative and presidential elections of 2004 and the World Summit on Internet and Society in 2005. Sami and other activists were urging a boycott of the 2004 elections, which they expected to be rigged. And they wanted to ensure that the political and internet leaders from around the world who came to Tunisia in 2005 would encounter the Yezzi Fock Ben Ali (Enough is enough, Ben Ali) campaign that they were running.

Sami argues that Tunisia is one of the most successful propoganda machines in the world – despite being a highly repressive nation, it’s rarely criticized by Europe and North America – he believes that Tunisia is viewed as a model for repressive dictatorships. To take on such a propoganda machine, Sami argues that you need to create your own propoganda, including video, which is easy for non-activists to understand and be moved by.

He shows some early videos, often flash animations that have turned into videos distributed on YouTube and DailyMotion. One shows Ben Ali in a washing machine, making the point that a military dictator can’t wash off his military and security background. Another shows reports of human rights organizations about Tunisia and urges Tunisian internet users to “enlarge their vision.”

Several of Sami’s videos use footage of animals. One shows a gorilla looking directly at a camera. Her motions are subtitled and tell the viewer, “I’m a primate, you’re not a primate. You’ve got the power to vote for someone other than Ben Ali.” Another video uses footage of lions chasing and killing a zebra – the point is that manufacturers of filtering and censorship software are chasing down and killing freedom of speech. The film ends with a slide that says, “Smartfilter – your dirty business is killing our freedom of expression”.

A video I’ve written about at length is Astrubal’s remix of the Apple 1984 commercial. Years before American activists remixed the Apple ad to promote Obama over Hillary Clinton, Astrubal used the commercial to protest against Ben Ali’s never-ending presidency. Another video focuses on the 404 error page – a page the Tunisian internet authorities show when a site is blocked, to try to fool users into believing that the internet is experiencing a technical problem, rather than being censored. Sami tells us that “404” evokes a Peugeot motor car, and offers a video clip from a 1962 commercial parodying these 404 errors.

Much of the Tunisian video activism focuses on humor. Sami points to an article that appeared in Tunisian newspaper La Presse – “the Pravda of Tunisia” – that reported that a city in Italy had named an avenue for Tunisian president Ben Ali. Sami and others researched the street using Google Maps and discovered that the “avenue” was actually a small alley, a dead end, in a tiny village. To show the disparity, they created a video that highlighted the claim in the newspaper and then showed the actual road on an online map.

Google Maps and Google Earth are increasingly popular in Tunisian activism. A new video uses the theme of 1001 Nights and features Ben Ali and his wife on a flying carpet, touring Tunisian presidential palaces via Google Maps. Another video looks at the use of the Tunisian presidential plane. Sami and Astrubal started searching for images of the Tunisian presidential plane on “planespotter” websites – they discovered that the plane had made at least 13 trips outside the country in an interval when onl one official trip had been reported. They used Google Earth to show the thirteen trips and raise the question about who was using the plane and why.

Sami mentions that the video was blocked in Tunisia within five days – the Tunisian authorities blocked DailyMotion, where it had been posted. (Oddly enough, they haven’t blocked either Google Maps or Google Earth.) But Sami had been promoting the video on his blog in Arabic, and Astrubal promoted it on his in French. When Global Voices picked up the story, it became accessible to the Anglophone world as well. Sami credits my blog post on the situation with bringing the story to the attention of Foreign Policy magazine, which has now reported both on the Tunisian activism, and offered advice on how you, too, can become a presidential plane spotter.

One of the questions offered after the talk is whether video advocacy is appropriate for low-bandwidth environments. There’s evidence that videos, once they go viral, are shared even by people who don’t have high bandwdith – Sami has seen some of the videos he’s made being distributed on DVD in Tunisia.

2 thoughts on “Sami ben Gharbia and video activism”

  1. in Egypt bluetooth phones capable of playing videos are very common so that’s another avenue for distributing videos. an added bonus is bluetooth is such a decentralized network there is no way for it to be censored or controlled.

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