Ever heard of the rebellious bloggers? Well, this is what some bloggers in the Middle East refer to themselves because they are breaking the norm – speaking their minds on blogs without censorship or editing but paying the price for the consequences of free speech later on.
Tunisian blogger Sami Ben Gharbia, who is also Global Voices Online Advocacy Manager, is one such blogger. Living in exile in The Netherlands, Ben Gharbia was invited to Dubai to take part in a television programme on Arab bloggers, following a surge in interest in the phenomena after Egyptian blogger Kareem Nabeel Sulaiman was sentenced to four years in prison because of posts he wrote on his personal blog.
Ben Gharbia, who spoke along with Syrian blogger Roukana Hamour and Egyptian blogger Rami Seyyam on the programme, gives us his take on that interview here.
The blogger admits he was enchanted by meeting the other two fellow bloggers more than appearing on the silver screen and preaching the viewers about the importance of blogs and citizen journalism.
“It was a great opportunity to meet two nice people, each with his own experience with blogging as well as their stress at being chased by security forces – a game our Arab regimes are only too familiar with. Despite their variety and differences amongst themselves, all the Arab governments seem to have agreed on confiscating freedom of speech to protect the states of administrative, political and financial corruption they have built. Roukana Hamour
, for instance, was kidnapped from her home last Ramadhan
and dragged onto the street in her sleeping gown after she was threatened by a firearm in front of her young children by members of the Criminal Security forces,” he writes.
Ben Gharbia then takes us to Syria and shows us why Hamour was dealt with in this manner.
“The process of kidnapping Ms Roukana which happened on October 15, 2006, without a juristic order, was as a direct result of her blogging. After failing to ensure the return of her rights by law, she started blogging her experiences with the law and exposing administrative, banking and juristic corruption by those who stood in her way in claiming her inheritance from her father’s estate. Her father was one of the leading businessmen in Syria. Due to a feud between her and her brothers, Roukana was denied her right to inherit $500,000 from her father’s fortune. She was denied justice because of the involvement of top judicial figures such as the Syrian Justice Minister, in her case. Roukana was subjected to a lot of harassment because of exposing corruption in the judiciary circle,” he explains.
Ben Gharbia claims that Hamour’s plight was given a cold shoulder by international media as well as blogs and aggregators, which usually rally for the support of other ‘more prominent’ bloggers.
“The strength with which Roukana faced the brutality of the Syrian financial corruption and security supremacy machines is considered one of the most striking examples of Arab blogging. Despite this, Roukana Hamour did not get any moral support from Western media outlets which cover the activities of ’star bloggers’. She also didn’t get any attention from alternative media sources which did not write one letter about her plight. On the contrary, Al Jazeera announced her arrest. International human rights organisations too did not take a second look at her ordeal and kidnapping while the media was busy protecting the rights of the famous bloggers of Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have successfully stolen the limelight and are reigning over the Middle Eastern Blogging throne. It has now become impossible to speak about blogging in the Middle East and North Africa without speaking about them,” he laments.
Moving from Syria, Ben Gharbia narrates to us the plight of Seyyam, who also had his stint behind bars.
“As for the Egyptian blogger Rami Seyyam, you will not find him among the stars of the Egyptian blogosphere despite the friendship he enjoys with most of them and his involvement along their side in all the political movements they took part in, such as organising demonstrations and taking part in them and the concert (Sing O Baheya) in support of the bloggers who were arrested for siding with the judiciary in 2006. Rami has not blogged since his arrest last year and since blogging about his time in jail. He doesn’t belief in the merit of blogging away from the street and sees himself more of an activist than a blogger,” he explains.
This talk with Seyyam, is giving Ben Gharbia thoughts, such as returning to his homeland and fighting his war on the ground.
“Seyyam has convinced me of the importance of the attachment of the blogger to the street.. to the extent that I am seriously thinking of returning to Tunisia and facing my destiny there – whatever it may be,” he writes.
Ben Gharbia, also shares with us his story – that of leaving his homeland and living abroad where he operates a virtual war to ensure a better home and more freedom and human rights for the people he has left behind. .
“My visit to Dubai is my first to an Arab country since seeking asylum in Holland in 1998. after fleeing Tunisia following my apprehension by the Security forces and their investigation with me, I was asked to report to the ill-reputed Interior Ministry investigators. I fled to Libya, passing by some Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Syria. It was a miserable trip, which I have written about in detail in my electronic book which can be found here
. During this journey, I was arrested in Libya, where I was questioned for five days because of the suspicions raised by my flight across the Sahara to Niger. As to Saudi Arabia, it wanted to return me to Tunisia which was only prevented by divine intervention which protected me from the Saudi border guards and sent me packing to Syria – which confiscated my passport and took me for questioning in Al Maza,” he says.
Sadly, his experience with Arab countries leaves him bitter and angry. .
“In summary, my experience with Arab countries was not exciting nor touristic at all. Entering Dubai with a Dutch passport which ensured that I got in without an entry Visa, nor questioning, nor investigation nor a look of disgust from the border police who are accustomed to dealing with Tunisians with suspicion, was enough to convince me that the Arab’s biggest enemies are the Arabs themselves. It also proves to me that I don’t need to retrieve my Tunisian passport which has brought nothing but trouble to me. Entering Arab countries is easier for us as Arabs when we don’t hold Arab passports!” concludes Ben Gharbia.