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Another Tragedy in Tunisia Signals Again the Need for Change

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Today, a 17 year old student in Tunisia, Ayoub al-Hamidi, walked into his principle's office and set himself on fire because he was being restricted from attending the funeral of Mohammed Bouazizi whose own immolation late last year set off the recent protests. This event is yet another tragic consequence of the Government of Tunisia's (GOT) consistent choices over the last few weeks to repress dissent rather than to engage it. Obviously, the GOT's decisions have demonstrated a failure to understand the substance of the protest and even an unwillingness to try. Perhaps just as important though, the GOT has failed to grasp how the modern era of communications enables their citizen's outrage to rise from individual complaint to mass organized events to a global audience on the internet making the protest more sustainable and therefore something they may not be able to simply crush.

Tunisia has an increasingly well-educated population with rising expectations, for which they should be proud. Meanwhile, the President's family has a death-grip on the Government and limits freedom of expression. While in some places like Saudi Arabia, where a high standard of living for its citizens keeps a similar situation from combusting, Tunisia's economy cannot keep this tinder-box from lighting as we are seeing.

While in recent decades such a situation could be controlled by an army violently putting down demonstrations, the modern era of communications makes such brutal measures less effective. It's true that in this case the GOT has benefited because global media have not focused on the story, with the exception of the Guardian and Al-Jazeera. For example, as of late evening on the East Coast of the U.S. today, I could find only one or two stories about Al-Hamdi's self-immolation through a Google search.

It's also true that the GOT has attempted to head off any internet communication by and between activists. Sources in Tunisia tell me that the GOT has tried to censor Facebook groups and pages, as well as hack into Facebook profiles and Gmail accounts. They tried to block the upload widget for Facebook so that people could not upload pictures and video, but they apparently failed. Articles on the web dealing with "sidibouzid" are blocked and some news sources like Al-Jazeera are just outright blocked. Writers like Evgeny Morozov might argue that this demonstrates why the web is more useful to Government's as a tool of repression than for activists as a tool of expression, but the fact is that the protests have continued for weeks and the internet has played a role in enabling that because the activists find ways around the government's sloppy engagement. The activists have set up a private website for example to share information and are using advanced tactics to secure their email accounts. If events continue to happen and if the GOT continues to behave this way, the word will continue to get out and global media will once again catch up.

The GOT's failure to understand this new reality is representative of so many large organizations. When I ran Wal-Mart Watch, it was clear that Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters simply did not understand the power of the web to gather information and distribute it. It is why they were foolish enough to pay a Washington Post photographer to illegitimately portray himself as an objective supporter of the company going from store to store sharing stories of his observations. It's also why they were prevented from obtaining a license to start a bank in the United States even though such a regulatory matter should have been a piece of cake for such a powerful multi-national company.

Government's are now learning some of the same things that corporations have had to learn in the last five to ten years about how the internet has changed the nature of public relations. The web creates the potential for more transparency and those who fail to be transparent by choice may be forced to be transparent. The transparency and ability of citizens to engage with each other also creates more accountability and those who fail to be accountable may have to deal with more extreme measures by activists in the streets. In short, neither governments nor corporations can control information the way they are used to doing it. In fact, this article itself demonstrates that while the mainstream media may not be covering Tunisia, that doesn't mean the GOT can avoid disclosure of what is happening there to a global audience.