Wikileaks & Tunisia: A Case Study

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Transcript of Wikileaks & Tunisia: A Case Study

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    Tunisia and Wikileaks: A Case Study

    Jake Ader

    Roosevelt University

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    The intent of this paper is to identify if the cables pertaining to Tunisia were actually

    as large of a contributing factor in the countrys revolution occurring for the past year, or if in

    fact the cables were merely capricious documents that had little or no relevance to the events

    that played out. Why does this matter? As a whistle-blowing organization that releases often

    illegally obtained documents, it been praised by some as a peep-hole into the inner workings of

    authoritarian governments while being damned by others as a damaging exploit of confidential

    U.S. government documents, or otherwise a wasteful cluster of documents that bring nothing

    new to the table.

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    The self-immolation of a Tunisian citizen named Mohamed Bouazizi in protest of

    government corruption and the mass mistreatment of citizens in the country has been regarded by

    most as the event that sparked the mass of revolutions in the Middle East. The young marketeer

    doused himself in paint thinner and proceeded to light himself on fire, partly to express the level

    of his disgust with the current regime under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. While up until

    that point there was a collective murmur of resentment for Ben Ali, there was no uprising until

    after this key event and one other: the oft reported readings of the Tunis cables featured on the

    Internet by the infamous whistle-blowing publication, WikiLeaks. So what was the actual degree

    of influence WikiLeaks had on the birth of the revolution? Is there a firm enough basis to argue

    that the Cablegate debacle played such a large role in the 2010-2011 Tunisian Revolution? Is it

    clear that it actually even played a role at all?

    In order to argue if or if not the documents had a significant effect on the movement,

    one must first understand the dynamics of Tunisias government and the history of its leaders.

    Tunisias executive authority resides in the countrys presidency. In its contemporary setting,

    as established in the Tunisian constitution, the president is elected every five years by popular

    mandate. Tunisia has known only two presidents since independence: Habib Bourguiba

    (1956-1987) and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011). Throughout their presidential terms,

    subsequent constitutional amendments were introduced by both Bourguiba and Ben Ali which

    have significantly modified constitutional articles, commonly riddling them with ambiguity

    and de-facto reductions to freedom. These modifications strangling freedoms have been more

    frequently introduced and ratified under President Ben Ali. Attempts at asserting judicial

    independence have been fought off by the state executive several times in the past few decades.

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    In 1987 a Tunisian court made an attempt at asserting its authority to declare the actions of other

    governmental branches as unconstitutional. The response from the state was to quickly dampen

    the effects of the pronouncement. In July of 2001, a Tunisian Judge named Mukhtar Yahyaoui

    wrote an open letter to Ben Ali, requesting all state interference in judicial procedures to come

    to a halt, stating that the actions committed by the political authorities in practically dictating

    the verdicts to judges results in judicial decisions which, more often than not, reflect nothing

    but the interpretation of law that political authority wishes to impart. Shortly after the letter was

    received, the state attempted to bribe the judge to stop his campaign. When Yahyaoui persisted,

    the state swiftly opened a campaign of harassment and defamation, which led to Yahyaoui being

    stripped of his judgeship in 2001. It is clear from this example and many others like it that the

    Government of Tunisia (GOT) was an oppressive regime with the intent to silence those who

    spoke out against the actions and desires of Ben Ali and those in his favor.

    There are many examples of the human rights violations on behalf of the GOT,

    and more specifically the state authorities under Ben Ali. The problem with the dissemination of

    this information lies in the regulated state news of Tunisia. Although Ben Ali abolished

    measures which previously required government approval of any printed publications, there have

    still been many reported instances of the GOT doing just that. For example, According to

    Tunisias Corruption Timeline[1] featured on the independent government watchdog website

    Global Integrity Report, in March of 2008, Tunisian authorities censored public access to a

    French website known as "Come4News", and in doing so gave no explanation for the action.

    Tunisians were also experiencing severely censored email usage at the time. A month after this,

    authorities censored the publication of Al-Mawkif, Tunisias Progressive Democratic Party's

    weekly newspaper. The paper faced charges of civil defamation along with allegations

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    of spreading false information against many cooking oil companies. The damages against the

    publication would come to upwards of 500,000 Tunisian dinars (equivalent to $435,000 USD) if

    the newspaper were to be convicted. An unclassified document from the National Intelligence

    Open Source Center [2] continues with several other examples of censorship on behalf of the

    GOT, but goes into even further detail in explaining how strategies such as an extension of

    government takeover of the countrys media body, financial control, state-sanctioned campaigns

    of violence and surveillance, and the common use of imprisonment, detention, and physical

    harassment/violence against outspoken journalists were all used by the GOT before the

    revolution in order to control what was printed about Ben Ali and the government. In one

    specific case in September of 2009, plainclothes agents detained journalist/blogger Abdullah

    Zouari for three hours one month after he had just completed a seven-year sentence of house

    arrest, which took place almost immediately after an 11-year prison sentence for "belonging to

    an illegal organization. On the Global Integrity Reports Integrity Indicators summary (2008)

    graphic, Tunisia holds extremely low ratings in election integrity, legislative

    accountability, whistle-blowing measures, and anti-corruption agency [Appendix I]

    So how did the general public in Tunisia react to the actions of their government? Was

    there still a substantial number of Ben Ali/GOT loyalists? According to Jeffrey A Coupe, who

    writes a section on the history and social climate of Tunisia in Ellen Lusts The Middle East

    [3], there are two main perspectives on contemporary Tunisian politics and one offshoot of the

    second ideal. The first perspective deems the autocratic regime that has been established since

    Independence as a state headed towards a stalled but reasonable democratic transition with

    good governance, while the second perspective has a more negative view of the authoritarian

    rule, and claims that it is becoming progressively perverse and that tyrannical corruption is not

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    dissipating. The third perspective is perhaps the most interesting one. It is a spin on the second

    perspective, acknowledging that while the perverse authoritarian system exists, it is palatable as

    long as it promotes economic development and the rise of a strong middle class. Those who hold

    the this perspective in Tunisia tend to do so because they know that if it were not that system the

    likely alternative would be a hazy Islamist political order as to the place of the sharia, clerics,

    pluralism, women, relevant curriculum, and economic rights within it. Regardless of which

    position is taken on the GOT, it is apparent that most of the Tunisian public agrees that their

    government is both corrupt and flawed in one way or another. Coupe finished his section on

    Tunisia by practically calling out the GOT for its abuses, explaining that it is among the worst-

    performing nations on specific indices of political freedom, transparency, and rights and that

    the country lies between the top one-half and top one-third of nations on indicators of economic

    governance and freedom.

    Practically everyone in the country knows what greed lies behind the GOT, and they have

    known this for a long period of time. But it has taken certain tools to encourage the public to

    take action; a means to promote social awareness on a higher level. Acclaimed author and digital

    activism theorist Clay Shirkey explains how this is a common occurrence before revolutions

    occur [4].

    Shared awareness allows otherwise uncoordinated groups to begin to work together more quickly and effectively. This kind of social awareness has three levels: when everybody knows something, when everybody knows that everybody knows, and when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows.

    Taking Shirkeys three levels into consideration, one can observe that the idea that

    everyone figured out for themselves that the GOT was corrupt and guilty of violating human

    rights; this is the everyone knows. It wasnt long until individuals started figuring out that their

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    friends and neighbors knew just as well that the GOT cared very little about the general public,

    and some of th