|Access to information was a tipping point in mobilising Tunisians for the revolution [GALLO/GETTY]|
TUNIS, Tunisia – As history has shown repeatedly, access to information can play a decisive role in triggering social change.
The publication of leaked diplomatic cables by the whistle-blowing organisation WikiLeaks has been controversial.
But as a panel at the Third Arab Bloggers’ Meeting affirmed this week, the monopoly of state media in most authoritian Arab regimes had been progressively undermined for several years as citizens sought alternative information from dissident bloggers and television.
WikiLeaks, if anything, offered the final blow, and, in fact, found partners in the Arab world in the alternative media.
In North America and Europe, WikiLeaks formed partnerships with major news organisations. But in Tunisia the whistle-blowing organisation entrusted the diplomatic cables to the dissident website, Nawaat.
Sami Ben Gharbia, Nawaat’s co-founder, explained how they took the time to read the documents, before publishing them in context and translating them into French to allow Tunisian readers to understand them.
As agreed, the first TuniLeaks went live less than an hour after WikiLeaks had published the diplomatic cables on its own site on November 28, 2010.
“Everyone could read the documents, they helped tip the balance,” Gharbia said, particularly by helping to turn bourgeois Tunisians against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime.
“Everyone could read the documents, they helped tip the balance.“
– Sami Ben Gharbia, Nawaat’s co-founder
Al Jazeera Arabic hosted a series of debates around some of the revelations made in the diplomatic cables, helping ensure that many Tunisians were aware of the affirmation that their government was being run by a corrupt and nepotistic extended family.
While most Tunisians suspected as much, for the first time they had all the juicy details on the extent of the worst excesses by Ben Ali and his family.
WikiLeaks also found a partner in the Arab-language, left-leaning Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar.
Mansour Aziz, described as “the geek behind Al-Akhbar“, headed the project in his position as the paper’s online manager.
Shortly after the cables went online in early December, Al-Akhbar’s website was hacked and hit with a direct denial of service attack.
The power of WikiLeaks
Aziz said it was too early to understand the real role WikiLeaks documents played in sparking the uprisings, but cited the considerable repercussions of the Pentagon Papers as an example of how leaked information can change the course of history.
Panellists discussed Julian Assange’s controversial comments in a spoof video, in which the WikiLeak’s founder apparently takes credit for the Arab uprisings (“Changing the course of history? Priceless.”)
The Tor Project’s Jacob Appelbaum, who has worked closely with the WikiLeak’s team, said that Assange “doesn’t take credit for the Arab Spring”.
Indeed, the cables concerning Tunisia and other Arab states may have been published just weeks before Tunisia’s uprising, but bloggers in the region had been exposing their governments’ hypocrisy for several years.
Award-winning Egyptian blogger, Wael Abbas, explained how his reputation for daring to throw the spotlight on issues no one else would touch led Egyptians to start leaking him controversial material.
“People started sending me leaked videos of torture.”
– Wael Abbas, Egyptian blogger
“People started sending me leaked videos of torture,” he told Al Jazeera.
While mainstream media in Egypt turned a blind eye to social realities like torture and sexual harassment, Abbas was willing to post videos and information on his blog, misrdigital.com, showing readers what was really happening in their country.
“Everybody knew that this was happening, but then you have a video on the internet actually showing it,” he said, referring to the videos of police brutality that led many Egyptians to support his anti-torture campaign.
“[The blogosphere in the Middle East and North Africa] has played an important role for civil society, not only in terms of media, but also in push the envelope. It paved the way for Facebook and Twitter,” he said.