The 24 years that Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was President of Tunisia brought immense oppression of the Tunisian people, undeniable corruption, and complete horizontal and vertical control over Tunisian industries and society. As Maha Azzam said in their CNN Opinion piece, “How WikiLeaks helped fuel Tunisian revolution,” “Anyone doing business in Tunisia, be they local or foreigner, would have been aware of the power and control of the Ben Alis, the Trabelsis and the coteries of power that surrounded them.” This corrupt rule led to an unemployment rate of 30%.
This authoritarianism is quantifiable through Ben Ali’s actions and policy—but it is also quantifiable through the lengths Tunisian citizens went to protest his rule.
In December of 2010, Muhammad Al Bouazizi—a fruit seller, determined to earn money to support his family—set himself on fire in front of a main government building in Tunisia. This, as journalists, human rights activists, and others have inferred, was his response to a police officer who took Al Bouazizi’s goods, claiming that the fruit seller did not have a permit. This drove Al Bouazizi to utter desperation, in a society where the government made no response to the citizens’ issues and needs.
This method of protesting was eye-catching, and for that reason, it was effective. But it was exponentially enhanced by internet and social media, which spread the visuals and the message throughout Tunisia and across the world. The ritual of lighting yourself on fire in front of a governing body sends a few direct messages: that the government is the direct cause of the protester’s anguish, and that the oppression the government has caused the protester is so drastic that dying from burning is a viable way out.
The protests in Tunisia and the subsequent similar protests in Egypt and Algeria speak volumes on the power of social media and citizen journalism—but even more so, the protests show the importance and driving force of independent media.
A defining characteristic of authoritarian regimes is their grasp on every balancing force of power, especially media. But the message this sends to journalists and citizens within those regimes is powerful: In time, it shows them that their voices are being pushed out of the mainstream, and it forces them to find a way of sharing their own voice. The members of the “Yo Soy 132” movement in Mexico used this powerful tool by streaming a fair debate over the internet in a time of extreme political control over the media. The rapid growth and spreading of these tools—social media, the internet, and all of the subsections offered by the web—have given journalists a new way to hold government accountable, and a way for citizens to join in and drive the conversation.