Tunisia hits the headlines
As Tunisia's president sacks the government and calls an early election. Jillian C York reports on revolution the Western media almost missed Plus: Tunisia: The Middle East’s first cyberwar
14 Jan 11

As Tunisia’s president sacks the government, Jillian C York reports on the “revolution” the western media almost missed and argues it will take a global spotlight to hold Ben Ali to account

If you were to follow closely the western — and particularly the American — media coverage of Tunisia you might think that, following President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali’s concessionary speech on Thursday, 13 January, all was nearly well, the unrest abating. On the front page of the New York Times, Tunisia is only a tiny blurb, relegated to the bottom left corner in favour of a cover story on Hezbollah.

The unrest, which some western papers have dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution”, has consistently taken the name of Sidi Bouzid within Tunisia, after the town in which Mohamed Bouazizi attempted suicide, setting off a wave of protests that would escalate into a full-scale uprising. On social networks and blogs, Tunisians — whose internet penetration rate is now well over 30 per cent — have kept the world abreast of the situation in their country, posting often-graphic videos and photographs, as well as blog posts. The multilingual blogosphere has the capacity to reach audiences in French, Arabic and English.

Yet unlike the Iranian elections of 2009 — a time when seemingly every newspaper was quoting Twitter and the State Department famously intervened to stop the microblogging site from shutting down during a crucial time — little attention has been paid to the output of Tunisians online, which by many accounts is painting a far more accurate picture of the strife within Tunisia than the mainstream media.

Though Tunisia’s internet was — until yesterday — pervasively censored, it was still less so than print media, which is heavily controlled by the government. And despite the large-scale blocking and monitoring of websites like YouTube and Facebook, Tunisians have nonetheless found their way around the censorship by using circumvention tools.

Throughout the turmoil, sites like the collective blog Nawaat have kept French readers informed, while blogs like that of Lina Ben Mhenni have shared photographs that the papers wouldn’t print. Tunisia’s relatively large blogosphere and internet penetration rate (not to mention the hundreds of Tunisians and allies keeping the #sidibouzid hashtag alive on Twitter) have certainly helped spread the word, but not enough to capture the attention of the mainstream.

Some, like the Guardian’s Brian Whitaker, have suggested that the mainstream media is not only mostly ignoring Tunisia, but mis-reporting it as well. On his personal blog, he pointed out that, as of 10 January, Reuters and the BBC remained largely uncritical of the Ben Ali regime, with Reuters even quoting Ben Ali himself as calling the protests “unacceptable.” This, just three days before said protests provoked the unprecedented speech from the president.

The same Reuters piece, picked up by the New York Times, stated that the death count was around 14, quoting official government numbers; on the contrary, union officials from inside Tunisia cited the count as being close to 40 by that point. By 13 January, it was quoted as being closer to 60.

Though there are certainly geopolitical factors as to why Tunisia wasn’t initially making headlines, at least in comparison to the effects Iran has on the media (nuclear aspirations and Islamist politics are attention-grabbing; civil unrest under a secular regime apparently less so), but the lack of human interest is nonetheless confounding. Additionally, as blogger and researcher Ethan Zuckerman suggests, there’s a possibility that more interest from the West — and the United States in particular — could spark policy change: “If more people in the US were paying attention to the protests,” argues Zuckerman, “perhaps Secretary Clinton wouldn’t get away with declaring — absurdly — that Washington won’t take sides in the conflict, but hopes for ‘a peaceful solution.’”

Today, as protests in Tunis have led to the dismissal of parliament and a call for elections within six months (as well as 12 more deaths overnight, reports of five more this morning), Tunisians are finally beginning to capture the world’s attention, and perhaps just in time; as Ben Ali has just declared emergency law — a status used in both Algeria and Syria to justify human right abuses — global attention will be crucial in keeping the government accountable.

Jillian C York writes about free expression, politics, and the Internet, with particular focus on the Arab world.  She works at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.