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Held on March 24th-30th, as part of the World Social Forum 2013, in Tunisia, the meeting gave visibility to the repression suffered by communicators of the region, birthplace of the Arab Spring. (Translation: Diane Garceau)
TUNISIA – In its third world edition, the Free Media Forum arrived in Tunisia with a double mission. Inserted in the program of the Free Media Forum 2013, the WFMF had two main objectives. The first was to integrate actors, activists, organizations, alternative media and independants from the region of North Africa and the Middle East – who were at the heart of the ongoing revolutions in Maghreb-Machrek – with the international movement in defense of the right to communication. The second objective was to give visibility to its demands and most urgent needs, as part of a dynamic of international solidarity, without which no struggle can, in fact, be victorious.
This was no small challenge. Two years after the kick given to the Arab Spring, Tunisia is undergoing a complex, conflicting, and at times contradictory process. After the fall of dictator Ben Ali, the new conservative Islamic government did not break completely with the previous regime and continues to be questioned by the public, which demands liberty, dignity, and social justice, and which is constantly fighting in the streets against cultural hegemony and the values of the ruling elite. In a context of a strong ideological confrontation, and a loss of confidence in the institutions, the principal leader of the opposition, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated two months before the start of the WSF, in an attempt to silence the voice of those who were searching for real transformation and an establishment of democracy in the country. In this scenario, the struggle for freedom of expression and for the construction of free, alternative and independant media is becoming more and more strategic in the region.
Hence, The World Free Media Forum was constituted in an atmosphere of exchange and knowledge-building with respect to this global agenda. After two editions in Brazil (Belém 2009 and Rio de Janeiro 2012), where the debate centred around the experience of democratizing regulatory frameworks in Latin America, this time around, the WFMF recognized and gave voice to a new cycle of struggles and revolutions.
"The repression continues even after the fall of Ben Ali,” recounts Bessen Krifa, of the Tunisian Association of Bloggers, who was imprisoned twice during the dictatorship and once after the fall of the previous regime. “Censorship exists in the internet, including that of professional journalists, and mainly against investigative journalism. We urgently need accurate information. Our responsibility is to defend the truth, so that our call may be heard,” he affirmed.
“In a country like mine, in which democracy is scarcely a word, people are afraid to express themselves. Facing the fear of being attacked for saying what we think is, therefore, our first challenge,” added Victor Nzuzi, of Congo.
In both new and old media, the challenge is enormous. In Mali, the community radio station Kayira, created by the revolutionary leaders of 1991 who transfomed the country, is a testimony to 20 years of persecution against those who rise up against the dominant power. Last year, the radio station’s meeting rooms were burned down. On January 3rd of this year, a journalist of the station was hit by a bullet from a home-made rifle. In February, after receiving threats, the producer of the radio station was stabbed in the head and did not resist.
"Clearly it was a political assassination,” said Mahamadou Diarra, also criminalized and on bail. "Our radio station works with the women’s movement and the peasant movement. We do training sessions and encourage people to create local associations,” he explained. All this is troubling. At this moment, for example, Kayira publicly opposes French intervention in Mali. “An imported solution is not sustainable. We want a dialogue and a negotiation with all the groups in order to resolve the problem internally,” said Diarra. Yet, the radio station’s biggest struggle is for their own survival. "We need diversity of information, something that goes beyond RFI and France 24 (French radio programs transmitted in the country). The oral tradition is very important in Mali, so we need to discuss how to preserve our local media, and radio is important for the survival of this culture,” he affirms.
In the evaluation of Chilean, Maria Pia Matta, president of the World Association of Community Radio, the first mission of these stations is to promote the democratization of speech, which is becoming each day more concentrated in the hands of few. In Tunisia, Pia remembers that the concentration of media inhibited the existence of laws which guarantee democratic systems of communication.
In Tunísia itself, where alternative media was widely used in the revolutionary process, there is no legislation that guarantees the freedom of expression, and the family of Ben Ali continues to control big media. After the 2011 elections, three bills were drafted: one focussing on access to information, another on freedom of press, and the last dealing with a system of the independant regulation of broadcasting. Only the first was passed. In Egypt, despite the fact that eight new TV stations were created after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, public space continues to be controlled by big media corporations. “Many goverments do not recognize communication as a human right. But it is the right to speech which enables us to protest and to have the right to other things,” recalls Maria Pía Matta.
In occupied Palestine, one of the central themes in this edition of the World Social Forum, alternative communication is proving to be fundamental in demystifying what big media relates in a homogenous way: “a uniform Arab world, where there are only terrorists, barbarians who have not developed, and where the women are submissive. But the reality is another thing. The role of women in the struggle against occuption and for free and independant media is historic. Israel has reinforced the prisons and there are dozens of journalists who have been detained for defending freedom of expression. In this sense, the international solidarity of free media is fundamental in the Palestinian struggle,” admitted Soraya Misleh, of the Palestian Movement for All.
Memory and free knowledge
In one of its six most symbolic moments, the 3rd World Forum of Free Media, in a memorial designed by Ciranda International of Shared Communication, paid homage to those throughout the world, who have fallen while exercising their freedom of expression. One of these names was Fidan Dogan, of Kurdistan. The activist participated in the 2nd World Free Media Forum, held last June at the People’s Summit Rio +20. She was seeking visibility in the struggle of the Kurdish poor, which had been ignored by traditional press. Fidan was responsible for the Kurdistan Information Centre in Paris, where she was executed in January of this year, beside another two militants who were fighting for the stateless poor, for political recognition and for freedom. In the memorial exposition, alongside Fidan Dogan, was a photo of Aaron Swartz, American cyberactivist who committed suicide in January at the age of 26. Aaron was on trial and could have been charged $1 million in fines and sentenced to up to 35 years in prison for downloading scientific articles from a journal of the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT), whose access he claimed should have been free. He left his mark in numerous tools for sharing the contents of the internet. Swartz assisted in the creation of the RSS system and was one of the founders of the social network Reddit – an information sharing site – and of the activist organization Demand Progress, which promotes online campaigns related to social issues.
After his death, the federal prosecutor in Boston withdrew his accusations against Aaron Swartz. But the threats to internet freedom continue to grow in the world, and have become the theme of numerous debates at the World Free Media Forum in Tunisia. The effort is to bring together social movements that are using cooperative solutions, and software, network and free technology activists, in order to work together for social transformation.
“It is necessary to seek coherency between the idea that we want to transmit and the media that we are using to transmit it. And, when we are talking about media, not knowing the tools that we are using is a disadvantage for us. Each action that we take has an impact on today’s world and on the world of the future that we are building.” warned Luis Anibal, of the Hipatia collective from Uruguay. “Our data and memories are too important to be controlled by the Zuckerberg firm [owner of Facebook],” added Alexia Haché, of the Lorea collective, from Catalonia, who promoted a series of workshops in the Hacklab – a hacker laboratory of the World Free Media Forum.
In the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez, the process of nationalizing petroleum ran the risk of being blocked by the actions of American companies which own the intellectual property of petroleum exploration software. The action of hackers and the development of free software turned the tables and made it possible for the country to have sovereignty over its own energy and technology. The incident became known as the rescue of PDVSA’s brain.
“Venezuelan Minister of Development, Felipe Perez Marti, understood that if there was anything that could solve Venezuela’s problem, it was free software. In one week, hackers broke the owner’s code and all the technology of the petroleum industry was migrated to free software,” said Juan Carlos Gentile Fagundez, also of Hipatia and advisor to Chávez in this process. Like the bloggers and the broadcasters of Maghreb-Machrek, Gentile endured sabotage and received death threats for putting access to knowledge above the commodification of a public good.
“Ultimately, this is not about a debate restricted to platforms, but about the values that we wish for the world,” explained Rita Freire, of Ciranda. “More than tools, free software has priniciples and a model for creation based on the common good. It is important then to look beyond the appropriation of technology to the potential for transformation within these values. This is what we are searching for here,” concluded Stephane Couture, of the Koumbit collective from Canada.