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Meet Sami Ben Gharbia, Global Voices’ new Advocacy Director

Global Voices is delighted to announce the appointment of Sami Ben Gharbia as Advocacy Director, and the attentive reader will already have noticed his posts on anti-censorship and free-speech issues.

Sami Ben Gharbia
Sami pictured next to a free-speech campaign slogan

Sami is an experienced human rights campaigner, a Tunisian who has lived in exile in the Netherlands for the past seven years. He first joined the GV community as a result of the comments thread when we featured his Tunisia Prison Map back in September 2006. This innovative and exciting mashup of different digital media and tools subsequently gained much attention in the media.

The aim of this new position is to allow Global Voices to act as a hub for communication between different anti-censorship and free speech initiatives around the world. It is the second “leg” of the GV “tripod” of amplification, advocacy and outreach.

To find out more about Sami's history, journey to this position and vision for the future, community member Mary Joyce put the following questions to him by e-mail:

When and how did you become interested in political activism?

Politics was already present in my parents’ house. My father, who died when I was 6, was a vibrant active member of the anti-colonial resistance against the French Protectorate. Every time I miss him I go to his archive of photos, magazines, books and letters; they all tell the story of the Tunisian resistance and the building of the new post-colonial Tunisia. My mother has the oral heritage of that same story, but with a strong tint of rebellion, feminism and disenchantment.

You are currently living in the Netherlands as a political refugee from Tunisia. Tell a little about how that happened.

In early 1998, I was arrested and interrogated by the State Security about my activities and travels. When I realized that this was just the beginning of a cycle of harassment and persecutions – since I was summoned to appear before the Interior Ministry – I fled Tunisia to Libya, and then to Africa and the Middle-East and finally to The Netherlands where I've applied for asylum.

When did you begin using the internet for activism?

I start using Internet for activism since 2002 on TUNeZINE.com which was founded by the Tunisian cyberdissident Zouhair Yahyaoui. He died in March 2005 at the age of 36, 18 months after his release from prison where he spent one and half years for “disseminating inaccurate news” on his site. In 2003 I started my personal homepage and published the first Tunisian e-book Borj Erroumi XL. Borg Erroumi is the name of a prison near my native town Bizerte – you can see the prison on the Tunisian prison map. The book tells the story of my flight from Tunisia and the journey to reach Europe and get asylum. I was also active within Tunisian cyberactivism groups and was involved in several projects like the online demonstration yezzi.org campaign, “Freedom of expression in mourning!“, the Tunisian page of the Blue Ribbon Action for online free speech, ATPD-Cyberspace (an alliance between Tunisian dissident bloggers to promote and defend the Tunisian cyberspace), and the Tunisian Prisons Map.

Why did you become a blogger?

I grew up in a country and region where freedom of speech is the biggest enemy and threat to despotic regimes. The old Islamic philosophers and logicians used to present Man as a “speaking animal.” Blogging gives me back the quintessence of my humanity. I don't see our societies resolving their problems without granting freedom of speech. And nowadays, I don't see any freedom of speech happening without blogging.

When did you decide to participate in Global Voices?

I was invited by Haitham Sabbah the former Middle East and North Africa regional editor to cover the Tunisian blogsphere on Global Voices. I accepted because I've always believed that the Tunisian dissident bloggers, the ones who dare write about politics, were ignored and under represented on Global Voices. In a way, it was an opportunity to give a deeper insight into what is really happening on the Tunisian blogsphere and to show that is not a frivolous one.

Why did you apply to be Advocacy Director?

Actually there are a lot of reasons why I applied to be Advocacy Director. The first is personal. I see this responsibility as a revenge on censorship. As one of the earliest censored bloggers in the Arab world and the first censored Tunisian blogger [blocked in Tunisia] – my blog has been censored since 2003 – it would be great if I could contribute on a global scale in fighting censorship – and why not in defeating it! – and in defending freedom of speech on the Internet.

The other reason is that I really want to be among the Global Voices team because I believe that it is a unique initiative which is shaping the future of global citizen journalism. When I was covering the Tunisian blogsphere on Global Voices, I always had a problem talking about football, festivities and other “common” subjects they were blogging about. I simply can't do that. The Advocacy Director position gives me an unbelievable ability to continue writing on Global Voices, but about issues that really matter to me. Another important thing is that this is giving me the chance to make a living at what I enjoy doing.

What are your priorities as Advocacy Director?

The first priorities are to bring the existing anti-censorship groups and activists together. We need to know each other, to learn from each other's experiences, to specify our needs, share our knowledge, identify the challenges we're facing, build a global network and come up with new and global strategies and tactics for fighting censorship/webfiltering and supporting persecuted bloggers, writers and cyberactivistes.

This goes in parallel with another priority: introducing the existing anti-censorship experiences to the Global Voices readers by writing about their efforts in defending freedom of expression on the Internet.

And since I am a fan of the frivolous side of blogging I added some questions of my own. From the answers I can tell you he's a pretty good cook, an autodidact who likes to read Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Iraqi poet Mudhaffar al Nawab and watch Denzel Washington movies.

Sailing is his favourite sport and it's something he actively enjoys. And he's really in love with the music of the Lebanese diva Fairuz. “It's an alchemy of love, patriotism, nostalgia, nature, faith and defiance”, he says. “Her music forms a huge element of my ‘emotional identity'”.

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