Cablegate: Secretary's Speech On Internet Freedoms Provokes Lively


DE RUEHTU #0053/01 0221727
O 221727Z JAN 10




E.O. 12958: N/A

Ref: STATE 4203

Sensitive but Unclassified. Please protect accordingly.

1. (SBU) Summary: Secretary Clinton's January 22 speech on Internet
freedom was well-regarded by Tunisian contacts, though it did not
receive any coverage in the official press, given government
oversight and censorship of Tunisian media. Discussions following
Embassy-sponsored speech viewing parties and informal conversations
following the speech revealed that Tunisians are frustrated with
what they see as heavy government and social influence over the
Internet and press, though some saw the wisdom of some sort of
Internet watchdog to prevent the spread of misinformation or
personal attacks. End summary.

2. (SBU) Embassy Tunis hosted six bloggers at a viewing party on a
large screen in the Embassy multipurpose room. Despite occasional
connection problems, the live speech and ensuing follow-up questions
were well-received by the group. A lively impromptu discussion in
French and Arabic about internet freedoms and challenges followed
the viewing. Internet freedom became a metaphor for freedom of
expression for the group. Though the bloggers ranged in age,
educational background, gender, and their blogs span topics as
diverse as analysis of Tunisian politics, personal anecdotes, and
intellectual criticism, all the bloggers agreed that the Tunisian
blogosphere has a problem with censorship, whether coming from the
government or - more perniciously - self-censorship. One blogger
noted that while she could easily change the name and location of
her blog following all-too-common government shutdowns of her site,
it is much harder for her to continue to post honestly after being
accused by visitors to her site of being a "kafir" or infidel due to
her liberal ideas about Islam and the veil. The group conceded that
the worst ambushes generally came from fellow Tunisians online, not
government interventions. However, the group agreed that the
Tunisian blogosphere was legally fragile, and at risk of government
control through subversion by online youth groups from the ruling
party, the RCD.

3. (SBU) A common conversation theme was that the web represents
democracy, as each individual can have an equal voice online, and
that this is especially important in the Arab World, where
governments often repress free speech of individuals and dissident
groups. Colorfully, one blogger delighted in the fact that "Anyone
can have a blog, whether you are a minister or a streetwalker."
Writing online, a woman said, was akin to being a true citizen
because it represented civic participation at its most essential.
One man likened the Tunisian blogosphere to a "vital bubble of
oxygen in an air-deprived country". They lauded the existence of
over 500 active blogs in Tunisia and that fact that over ten percent
of the country has a Facebook account as proof that freedom of
expression in Tunisia is not dead.

4. (SBU) Interestingly, while all of the bloggers followed each
other's work online, this event was the first time many of them had
met in person. The group came to the consensus that while Tunisia
surpassed Morocco in quality-of-life for most citizens, it suffered
by comparison to what they saw as Morocco's vastly more open space
for criticism and debate, whether in the written press or in the
blogosphere. One blogger commented that whereas Tunisians wait
anxiously to see when the president will die and who will replace
him, Moroccans know that their king will always be king and thus
they feel safe in pushing the boundaries of free speech and debate,
and are allowed to protest and organize legally. He cited the
existence of actual opposition newspapers as proof of the existence
of liberty in Morocco.

5. (SBU) The group noted that Facebook was not as useful an
organizing tool for activists as they had originally hoped. They
said that "groups" that form on Facebook do not generally lead to
action in Tunisia, as they have in Egypt in the form of protests and
demonstrations, as there are strict rules against the formation of
groups and societies by the Tunisian government. The bloggers
agreed that the creation of a pan-Mediterranean union of bloggers,
ranging across North Africa and perhaps based out of Marseille,
would strengthen the ability of Tunisian bloggers to bring their
intellectual debates to a broader audience, and make their work
safer from government censorship.

6. (SBU) Embassy Tunis also hosted a second successful viewing party
of the Secretary's Internet freedoms speech at the American Corner
at AMIDEAST in downtown Tunis. Over 20 students between the ages of
18 and 25 attended the speech and following conversation. Following
the speech, an Embassy officer engaged the group in a discussion of
their thoughts and reactions to the Secretary's speech. Several
were intrigued by the social entrepreneurial aspect of information
technology and impressed by what others had been able to accomplish
through Facebook and mobile phones.

7. (SBU) Audience members took particular note at Tunisia being

referenced in the speech as having "stepped up [its] censorship of
the Internet" in the past year, and acknowledged that there is still
a long way to go in their country before they will be able to enjoy
unrestricted access to the Internet and full freedom of expression.
However, the majority of the group did not see censorship as
necessarily a bad practice. First, they mentioned that censorship
does not pose many problems for them since they are all tech-savvy
and know how to use proxy servers to access YouTube and the like.
Furthermore, a large number voiced their opinion that some governing
body should be allowed to censor what material is available to the
public on the basis that some information is deleterious to society
and its citizens.

8. (SBU) During a dinner for visiting DAS Wittes, hosted by the
Ambassador on the evening of January 21, Tunisian civil society and
business contacts voiced lively opinions about the level of freedom
of expression and challenges to democratic development in Tunisia.
There was broad consensus among guests that Tunisia was far behind
the curve on democracy, but several gave credit to the Ben Ali
government for delivering relative prosperity and upholding
protections for women. Guests were very interested to hear about
the Secretary's speech and particularly her mention of Tunisia among
countries that need to do more on Internet freedom.

9. (SBU) Press coverage of the Secretary's speech was limited to a
single article in the French-language daily Le Quotidien referencing
the Secretary's criticism of China for hijacking the Google email
accounts of human-rights advocates. The blogosphere took notice,
however: links to videos of the speech were posted on several
blogs, along with photos of the Embassy viewing event taken by a
blogger who attended. Noting an empty chair next to a blogger in a
photo, one poster asked humorously, "Is this empty chair 'Auntie
Hillary's' seat?" Another noted, "Many others before [the blogger]
went to the [American] Embassy but at the end we can only rely on

10. (SBU) Comment: While the government-controlled Tunisian media
has not so far acknowledged Secretary Clinton's criticism of
Tunisian Internet freedoms in her January 21 speech, it is clear
that Tunisians are listening, and that their government's repression
of free speech on the Internet has not gone unnoticed or unopposed
by the Tunisian public. End comment.


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