Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

How WikiLeaks Rocked Tunisia

Activist translated secret cables to show Tunisians the extent of government misdeeds.
By Sofiane Ben Haj M'Hamed
  • WikiLeaks provided confirmation of what Tunisians already knew. (Photo: Nasser Nouri/Flickr)
    WikiLeaks provided confirmation of what Tunisians already knew. (Photo: Nasser Nouri/Flickr)

By the time WikiLeaks arrived in Tunisia, several incidents had already taken place, such as the death of Mohamad Bouazi, the vegetable-seller who set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzi. There had been opposition to the regime for a long time, but now people took to the streets.

It was a Tunisian group that created a web page called “Tunileaks” where they published all the reports on Tunisia from WikiLeaks, which point to the corruption of the former authorities.

When the regime blocked this website, I – using the name Hamadi Kaloutcha - took the initiative to translate the wiki cables about Tunisia into French through Google translate, and then distribute this information on Facebook. The page I created “Tunisie Wikileaks”, got 170,000 visitors during the first three days.

The objective was not just to inform the Tunisian people about the content of the WikiLeaks cables, but to have it confirmed by official sources.

Tunisians were fully aware of the power of deposed president Ben Ali`s family, including the quasi-mafia that was associated with him, responsible for a network of highly-organised corruption.

Finally, through WikiLeaks, international diplomats confirmed what ordinary Tunisians had suspected for a long time.

Despite the efforts of the dictatorship to limit our freedom of speech, the internet and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter allowed us to come together and galvanise efforts to bring about change.

WikiLeaks came at the right moment; the regime did not have any internal popular legitimacy, though foreign governments believed that Ben Ali was supported by his population. WikiLeaks taught the Tunisian people that even foreign diplomats from the West, among them the Americans, were not on good terms with the regime.

When Tunisians realised that their suspicions had grounds and were even well documented by foreign diplomats, there was no longer any excuse - the regime had to change.

In January, I was picked up by the police and held in custody. Although I was not sent to prison, I had to go through three days of interrogation. They straight away started questioning me about the Facebook page I had created, but they were also keen to know my real identity – they only knew me as Hamadi.

I don’t take precautions to hide my identity anymore, because everyone knows who I am. Today, it is not about being careful to remain anonymous – rather, it is all about standing up in society, and being able to express your opinions without hiding. Now, I defend the right to free speech. No one has the right to put people in prison because of their opinion, whatever these opinions are.

But there have been some worrying incidents – in May, for instance, Samir Feriani, a senior official in the interior ministry, was arrested and taken to a military barracks in Tunis for making some negative comments about the Tunisian police force.

And there is no faith in the judicial system either. The process of Ben Ali’s trial was assumed by Tunisians to be just another set-up. In the end, people are not very interested in the ongoing process, because the accused himself is not present.

Having said this, there is a general consent that elections are indeed necessary.

We are struggling now to gain a sense of security and stability - but first and foremost we are fighting repression and still working hard to make activism thrive in Tunisian society.

Sofiane Ben Haj M’Hamed is a Tunisian cyberactivist.

As told to Mariann Markseth Omholt, an IWPR editorial intern in London. 

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