First of all I would like to say that I am sorry for the repression and the people who have died in Tunisia but excited about the unexpected overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali by its own people.

While I am no expert on Tunisia and defer to others for an in depth analysis I have visited the country a few times as well as many other Arab/Muslim countries (Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt and others). Most Muslim nations have rulers for life and I am happy to see that for once, a corrupt dictator who has been in power since 1987 was thrown out by popular rebellion. And as this article explains it took the American diplomats and Wikileaks efforts to reveal what many Tunisians suspected and that is the extent of the government’s corruption and abuse and ignite the overthrow. Now the paradox here is obvious. USA spends hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of human lives are lost in a bloody military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq with very little success in establishing democracies. And instead, diplomats telling a detailed story about corruption in Tunisia and a group of determined journalist at Wikileaks and a hacker (Bradley Manning) accomplished what a decade of military intervention in the Middle East could not and that is a popular uprising against corruption and dictatorship. Yes, the realities of Afghanistan, Iraq and Tunisia are different but as this New York Times article explains, many in the Arab/Muslim world are watching Tunisia and wondering how long will they put up with their own “Ben Alis”. Especially in nearby Egypt.

It is interesting though that it took a combination of Wikileaks, US diplomacy and a dissident soldier to ignite the rebellion. Most likely if it had been Hillary Clinton alone telling this to the Tunisian people how corrupt Ben Ali was, it would have backfired. I think the State Department should learn a lot from Tunisia and rethink Wikileaks, cellular networks, social networks, and the power of the raw truth when dictators lose control of the popular message.

Here’s a slightly different version of this article in the Huffington Post

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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bob on January 15, 2011  · 

One observation: you are assuming that the stated goals of the US state department and their actual goals are identical.

If their goal was to rid such countries of their dictators, the dictators would be long gone.

What the US state department tells its own citizens is one thing, and reality is almost always another.

This is why many, many Americans can’t understand why they are hated around the world, and conclude that the world is just a place full of crazy bad people. Why? Because Americans – in general – believe what they are told i.e. that what the US is a force for good around the world and acts in the interests of people, liberty/freedom, etc.

What many people outside the US can’t understand is why so many Americans believe what their state department say! It’s a good question, and there are many views about this, but what’s your answer?

robin yates on January 15, 2011  · 

when I was a child my mother taught me to ask questions, and then question the answer.This is something Americans do not do, Knowledge is power !

Harold on January 15, 2011  · 

Congrats to Tunisia!

Obama and Biden couldn’t remove this dictator. Wikileaks, though, DID play a role!

Celebrate!

Teresa Santo on January 15, 2011  · 

There seems to be a celebratory ring to this piece which fails to understand the fact that countless people have been injured and at least 12 people have lost their lives. You are sorry for them? Yeah right! If you had reached a level of maturity in reporting or commentary you would realize that media orgs should take no credit,or play role in world events but merely report on them. One of the many reasons wiki leaks will not survive. It is too into itself and is an organization that creates chaos which is the last thing we need in this world at the moment. Surely we should aspire to overthrowing dictators in a way that doesn’t involve collatoral damage, after all isn’t that everyone’s bone of contention with the USA? Furthermore, people have been taking to the streets long before this rogue org came to be and I am delighted they will soon take to the streets to celebrate WL’s demise. What concerns people on both sides of the aisle and on the Atlantic is that people like you really believe this organization can make a positive difference. The media in the true sense of the world doesn’t threaten or bblackmail, it just tells the story. Now he’s threatening Murdoch, oh yeah Ruperts shaking..going to the outback to never return. It is all so proposterious. People threatening to disclose ‘nuclear pill’ type documents are evil. They don’t believe in democracy but instead in their own self styled dictatorships.They want the fame, throw away the facts. Well the fact is that WL’s has come, is going and has past its sell by date. It is purely and simply amateur dramactics and while it passed a few hurdles with mainstream media, it can not sustain the test of time. Trust me. What has happened in Tunisia has nothing to do with wikileaks but it doesn’t surprise me that the unpaid hired help will try and spin yet another yarn and another mention. Sadly the internet has turned everyone into a reporter and countless others into experts. Maybe if you had lived in Tunisia rather than visiting you would have also had time to realize that it is not an ‘arab’ country but is in North Africa. Yes, it has many muslims and is a muslim country, but not all muslims are arab. Arabic countries are the ones in the Middle East, around the Arab P. Just wanted to clarify for the next time you are in the hood.

steve on January 15, 2011  · 

Seems like Wikipedia thinks there is some Arabs in North Africa.

CheckYourFacts on January 15, 2011  · 

Wikipedia article on Tunisian demographics states 98% of modern Tunisians are Arabs or Arabized Berber and speak Arabic. They are also a member of the Arab League and consider themselves Arabs. Those who do not know and do not bother to check , should stick to commentary . Ignorance is easily cured , but stupidity remains uncurable.

bob on January 15, 2011  · 

@ Teresa Santo: Haha. You post is hilarious. Where does one start? 12 dead in Tunisia over the huge number of lives lost in the name of US (and other Western) interests is a drop in the ocean. There are probably more killed in vehicle accidents in Tunis every day. Where’s your grave concern? No? I thought not. Your banter is illogical and myopic. For example, the US has supported murderous thug dictators for a long time, and continues to do so. Further, your idiotic statements about the “evil” that is Wikileaks are bizarre and nonsensical. If Wikileaks has broken any laws then by all means, get stuck in and prosecute them. Otherwise, go away, and spare us the Neocon “good vs. evil” dualistic claptrap. Nobody anywhere, including the US DoD have produced a shred of evidence that anybody has been harmed through Wikileaks’ activities, let alone killed. There’s nothing evil about Wikileaks at all – it’s all in your mind. The US department of “defense” – now there’s a purely evil organisation. And your comments about Arabs and muslims are those of a confused and deluded moron. Oh well, at least they are consistent with the rest of your post. Full marks for consistency!

bob on January 15, 2011  · 

@TS: I don’t like people going away ignorant and feeling sorry for thmselves. So, for a contrasting view (to yours), read this: enlightenment

Adam L. on January 15, 2011  · 

I appreciate the sentiment, and even sympathize with the idea that wikileaks may have influenced the situation in Tunisia. But Tunisia can hardly be compared with Iraq or Afghanistan.

But congratulations to whatever role you’ve played in exchanging one corrupt, secret-keeping government with another in Tunis. :)

C on January 15, 2011  · 

I suggest you correct (i.e. remove) your use of the term “hackers” in relation to WikiLeaks, at least in the context of this story, since Wikileaks did not do any “hacking” to obtain these documents.

Though the term “hacking” has come to mean any sophisticated technological activity, and WikiLeaks has certainly shown itself capable of that, and despite the fact that Assange was/is a hacker and that there may be others on staff who were/are, using the term as as you did (“a group of determined journalist/hackers”) implies that WikiLeaks obtained these documents themselves through acts of hacking, which no one serious has even alleged (including the US government, at least, so far). Even if you meant the term as a compliment, it muddies water that need absolutely no further muddying.

Martin Varsavsky on January 15, 2011  · 

What I should clarify and I will, is that in the case the journalists are Wikileaks and the hacker is Bradley Manning. Bradley Manning did obtain the cables in a way that I would refer to as “hacking”.

Fredric L. Rice on January 15, 2011  · 

Tunisia’s citizens have found courage to rise up against their despotic rulers who perpetuate the economic bifurcation between the rich 1% of their populace and the abject poverty of all the rest.

Let us hope that the people of the United States learn from Tunisia and do likewise.

bob on January 15, 2011  · 

@MV: Mmmmm. So we’re down to semantics. “Hacking” is widely understood to mean gaining access to systems without proper authorisation via the exploitation of technological weaknesses. For example, hacking one’s way into a badly-maintained server that hasn’t been kept up to date with security patches, etc. Strictly-speaking, if the vector for release of these cables was Manning copying them to a CDR labeled “Lady Gaga” and then removing that from secure premises and passing it on to a third party, then I suppose you can call it hacking, but seriously, I’d just call it copying data onto a CD and walking off with it.

bob on January 15, 2011  · 

Looks like Ben “President for Life” Ali has fled to be with friends. Where? The same place that similar thugs, like Uganda’s Idi Amin – flee to when their populations have had enough of their corruption, thuggery and deceit: Saudi Arabia.

C on January 15, 2011  · 

@Martin re: Hacking – Thanks. I can live with Manning being described that way, and appreciate the but I would lean toward bob’s point, since for me “hacking” implies a violation or an infiltration, and Manning did have fully-legal access to the documents. Daniel Ellsberg didn’t “hack” the Pentagon Papers, he just copied them. Allegedly, Bradley Manning performed the 21st century equivalent of copying: burning a CD (which is not to equate the two leaks). It was, admittedly, surreptitious. But he didn’t copy down someone else’s password, or sneak in after hours, or use a forbidden computer, etc. (well, as far as we know.)

I only harp on it because one of the key misunderstandings in all this (a so-called “zombie lie”) is that WikiLeaks themselves procured the documents (illicitly, at that, or at the least in collusion with Manning.) The more people associate “hacking” with this story (even just with Manning), the easier it is to cast shadowy aspersions on WikiLeaks, and the easier it is to draw mostly-arbitrary lines between WikiLeaks and big media organizations (NYT et. al.) that publish the cables or any other classified information. The basic story really has nothing to do with hacking, except on the periphery, so what purpose does it serve to cast the leak in the light of “hacking”?

Of course, in time we may learn more about how the documents were leaked, how WikiLeaks operated, and so on, and I wouldn’t be stunned to learn that hacking was involved somewhere, but for now it seems like a bad choice of wording. Arguably accurate, but it paints a misleading picture.

Thanks again,
-C

C on January 15, 2011  · 

Edit: change first sentence to: “I can live with Manning being described that way, and appreciate the clarification, but….”

Thor K on January 15, 2011  · 

@Teresa Santo

Thanks for you ill-informed, petulant, but sometimes entertaining comment.

> media orgs should take no credit,or play role in world events but merely report on them

This is precicely the US State Departments view. Robert Gibbs has declared that Mr. Assange is not a journalist, because he has an agenda. Nonsense. People with agendas can be accurate and valuable reporters although they are likely to cover topics and events that further their cause. Nothing wrong with that. The US corporate media certainly have on it’s agenda to maintain the power and profits of the handful of conglomerates that own them.

> Surely we should aspire to overthrowing dictators in a way that doesn’t involve collatoral damage, after all isn’t that everyone’s bone of contention with the USA?

Are your saying the destruction of Iraq was too high a price for ousting Saddam? Welcome to the club. But what is wrong with giving the population of a country the information it needs to go out into the streets and demand their rights? At least it is the people themselves who decide to risk their lives, not a foreign invader.

> I am delighted they will soon take to the streets to celebrate WL’s demise.

That is a joke, right?

> What concerns people on both sides of the aisle and on the Atlantic is that people like you really believe this organization can make a positive difference.

It goes to show that the “two sides of the aisle” are really on the same side most of the time and don’t reflect the diversity of opintions and interests in US society.

It is true that the blatant propaganda in US press has soured Americans attitude to the latest Wikilieaks release. but a a CNN poll revails that in Britain “More people agree than disagree that Wikileaks was right to release the cables, by 42% to 33%. The remainder, 25%, don’t have a position.” (http://tinyurl.com/wlukpoll)

Elsewhere in Europe and and in the rest of the world Wikileaks are likelly to be even more welcomed.

> Now he’s threatening Murdoch

Please elaborate.

> They want the fame, throw away the facts.

What facts where thrown away?

> Sadly the internet has turned everyone into a reporter and countless others into experts. Maybe if you had lived in Tunisia rather than visiting you would have also had time to realize that it is not an ‘arab’ country but is in North Africa. Yes, it has many muslims and is a muslim country, but not all muslims are arab. Arabic countries are the ones in the Middle East, around the Arab P. Just wanted to clarify for the next time you are in the hood.

You are a merciless lampooner of yourself. Decrying fake reporters and experts while boldly proclaiming that Tunisia isn’t an arab country.

Do everyone a favour. Inform yourself.

Roberto on January 15, 2011  · 

Well, I am now concerned about the future of Tunesia. While dictatorship is never justified, Tunesia still doubled its GDP and general income in the last couple of year. Economically – the biggest problem was the high unemployment rate with young Tunesians.

I am really concerned these young people will now provoke a sharp turn in politics. This could lead to economic decline and to destabilization of the country by radical muslim fundamentalists. 1987..

Carsten on January 15, 2011  · 

Bradly is a thief. Or how would you call someone that you entrust with your own information and how takes it and runs off with it? Just because it is government info that doesn’t make it a free for all.

Wikileaks is a data dump not a journalist. Nyt, guardian … Did the journalistic work. Just getting data and making it available is not journalism.

bob on January 15, 2011  · 

@Carsten: Close, but no cigar. You obviously have no idea how the world actually turns. Leaks are undertaken, selectively of course, all the time, by everybody in power. That’s the model that has evolved over time, it’s just that on this occasion, those who have been doing the leaking and ngaging in duplicity are having their information leaked, and they’re not happy about it.

Talking about Wikileaks as a “data dump” orgaisation is to peddle the falsehood that Wikileaks “indescriminantly” dumped a whole lot of secret information. Also, Wikileaks have been providing commentary on the material they have been leaking for years. My guess is that your knowledge of Wikileaks is very shallow and gleaned from those who choose to spin your understanding, and it seems you have been well-spun …

bob on January 15, 2011  · 

@Carsten & others who say Wikileaks isn’t a publisher/media organisation:

There is a critical element underlying all the established powers’ efforts in relation to Wikileaks: to deny it the protections afforded to media organisations. This is what is behind the drive to present Wikileaks as a rogue, indiscriminate data-dumping hacker guy in Assange. It’s plainly obvious. So let’s consider the organisations who are considered “media”. CNN, Fox, CNBC, NYT, and even, in the UK, The Sun and The Daily Mail. Now, clearly, there are differing amounts of spin and journalism going on in this “media” space, but what is common to all of them is that they outsource/contract, to varying extents, their “media” activities. The UK papers are full of freelance contractors writing columns and features. It makes up a huge proportion of their content. Anyway, the point is that all media organisations, and businesses in general, partner with other parties in their businesses. The notion that Wikileaks isn’t a “media” organisation or publisher is a lie. Wikileaks both provides analysis/commentary on material as well as uses third-party media parters.

The point is perhaps driven home by considering what a “publisher” is. The vast majority of “publishers” in the world solely employ writers/creators of content for the raw material for them to publish, and much of that activity is carried out by partners and contractors.

clazy8 on January 15, 2011  · 

Bob (#1), considering how long it took to remove Saddam, your faith in the powers of the US government sound downright delusional.

C on January 15, 2011  · 

@Carsten: I wouldn’t have objected to Manning being described as an “alleged data thief”… he is alleged to have taken the data outside the area he was permitted to access it and giving to someone, so that would be a fair-enough description, if not optimal; even so, “hacker” != “data thief”. E.g. me taking someone’s thumb drive from the library computer lab doesn’t make me a hacker. Or, even if it *does* arguably fall under “hacker” simply because it’s digital data, using the term in the article carries with it a host of associations that aren’t helpful to readers understanding this situation.

I wouldn’t have bothered objecting to the current clarified wording in the article, but i don’t think it’s the best journalism possible. I’m not worried about the precise accuracy of “hacker” here as much as the crucial differences that shades of wording imply. The whole world seems confused about WL; sometimes it’s due to direct lying, but more often because of intentionally-manipulative or unintentionally-shoddy wording. An article like this, which appears to be a well-intentioned reasonable piece, doesn’t need to fall into the same hole.

Again: why use the term “hacker”? How does that help people understand the facts of the case? How does that help people understand how this case relates to Tunisia? Whether the author considers what Manning allegedly did as “hacking” or not isn’t especially relevant. Manning was a 22-year-old private who allegedly copied some data on to a CD. “Thief”? Ok. “Leaker/Whistle-blower”? Ok. “Activist soldier”? Ok. But “hacker” makes him sound like he had some technical prowess and used some clever tricks to ferret out the data, which is ridiculous, given what we know so far, and just feeds the fires of misunderstanding.

One thing I do still object to in the article is that there is no “alleged” in the description of Manning. Here in the US, even for Jared Loughner, the putative mass-murderer in Tuscon, widely-witnessed and basically-just-obviously-guilty, media reports always identify him as the “suspect” or “alleged shooter”. Manning rarely receives the same courtesy, despite the fact that as far as anyone knows it’s only the US government and Adrian Lamo that have fingered him (and some heavily-redacted text-only chat logs from Lamo). Manning has yet to be charged with any crime. He’s not even officially “alleged” by the government yet, as far as i’m aware! Just a person-of-interest in custody until they get the “investigation” under way.

So, zombie misunderstanding/lie #1: WL hacked/procured the documents. Cleared up.

bob clears up zombie #2, that WikiLeaks “crudely” dumped all the data (less than 1% have been published. WL undertook this media-partnership model because they acknowledged that they alone would be incapable of redacting enough material quickly enough to do justice to the leak in a safe way. They only publish the redacted forms given back to them by their media partners.) Perhaps the unredacted cables will eventually be “leaked from the leak” (as may be starting to happen… it’s unclear to me…) and we can then argue about whether or not WL “effectively” dumped all the cables through poor security, etc, but it’s neither their stated intent nor their effect at this point.

Zombie #3: that WikiLeaks isn’t a journalistic organization: demonstrably false, given lots of original work they have published on their site over the years (though much is not on the site currently). Whether it’s good journalism or terrible, it’s journalism, and the long list of journalists and 1st-amendment groups hopping on board the “defend WL” bandwagon attest to that. With this wave of documents, most (not all) of the journalism is being done by their media partners. It’s not terribly relevant (except in US courts) since the important question is “how is this sensitive material being handled” and it’s clear that it’s not being crudely dumped.

Of course there are many more…

-c

Lorne Marr on January 16, 2011  · 

But can you imagine that a similar overthrow happens in North Korea or Cuba? I think in these countries the leaders exercise much more control over their people. But the people of Tunisia have at least shown to the world that the there is a way to take their country on the path to democracy.

bob on January 16, 2011  · 

@clazy8:

Bob (#1), considering how long it took to remove Saddam, your faith in the powers of the US government sound downright delusional.

I’m not sure if this comment is directed at me, but in case it is, I have no faith in the powers of the US government to do anything useful in the world. Saddam was kept in power and supported by the US administration for years, despite his actions and that of his regime. They were only involved with his removal when Saddam positioned himself between the US and their local interests and that of the US “allies” (read “corrupt friends” in the region). If you read the cables released by Wikileaks that relate to the leadup to the first “gulf war” there is some very interesting detail there. The cables are pretty candid and well written.

Krikor Ohannessian on January 16, 2011  · 

@Martin : my comment will not be about Tunisia, but about that most of Lebanese will disagree with you when you put Lebanon in the list of Arab/Muslim countries.

I am sure you are aware of the special situation of Lebanon as a country in the Middle East. Most of Lebanese loudly proud about being Phoenicians and they can discuss for hours and days about their difference from Arabs.

Plus a big chunk of Lebanese are fighting since forever about their “Christianity Presence” in this hot spot of the world where all regional powers want to control more and more.

Haim on January 16, 2011  · 

Martin,

What a naive approach you have here! So you think that the tunisian needed to read in the internet what wikileak has to say in order to overthrown their dicator?
This kind of “revolutions” do not happen spontaneously. Some groups are leading it and these groups will take the power now.

Let’s see in a year what’s happening in Tunisia, and what kind of government they build for themselves.

Iran had its “revolution” , replaced the Sha with Khomeini without Wikileaks. And see what they got after it!

dobberpapa on January 16, 2011  · 

Looking at WL/Julian Assange, requires the clear view he has himself. So put of your sunglasses :->
Looking at Teresa Santo’s comment makes me remember the view of a red traffic-stop and after a while if i close eyes, viewin around green lights.. Teresa states a lot of beliefs (HER green light) and comments afterwards her view of the environment (,WL) as “red”.
If she solely would care her views to be in bright daylight, she would not find clear colours but too recover a fresh breath :-)

bob on January 17, 2011  · 

@ Haim: The documents released by Wikileaks have had contributed to shifts in power balances around the world to varying extents. This will continue. Of course the released documents didn’t cause anything on their own, per se.

Haim on January 17, 2011  · 

Bob,

Thanks for your comment, however, I don’t agree.
I believe that Wikileak is just a temporarily gossip, and people in the internet media overestimate the impact of this “phenomena”.
Julian Assange is not Emile Zola.
Time will tell…

bob on January 18, 2011  · 

@ Haim: Fine, we disagree. Wikileks publish documents where considerable effort and research are undertaken into their authenticity. It is not 100% guaranteed, perfect system, but it’s pretty good. So, the documents released are not “gossip”. But just assume for a moment that they are. Looking at the world through your prism, everything becomes “gossip”, especially “information” peddled by governments, business and organisations, all of whom consider “spinning” communication, and presenting distorted material are run-of-the-mill, par-for-the-course, acceptable behaviour. If you agree, and it’s all “gossip”, you may as well make up any word and call it all that, too. Oh, and Zola was French. Assange is Australian.

Martin Varsavsky on January 19, 2011  · 

I would also like to clarify the issue about Tunisia and Lebanon being/not being arab/muslim countries. Both are usually considered as Arab countries and are members of the Arab League, Tunisia since 1958 and Lebanon since 1945. I am also aware that not all muslims are arabs and not all arabs are muslims. For example in Lebanon, there are important Christian Communities, so that is why I wrote Arab/Muslim, so there is no controversy.

cynthia pfitzer on January 20, 2011  · 

i have a story about the crooked way human rights is handling complaints, i filled no witness were ever called, and i was working in ammunition plant that wanted me to send out faulty ammunition when i wouldn’t i was harrassed and when i filled complaint with company was retaliated against. i contacted justice department and president obama on more than one occcasion they are just covering up for it. i have all the papers i sent to all of these departments, with times and who i spoke with and nothing was ever done to the company either, on knowing faulty ammunition was going to our military. if you contact me, i dont have email at home so i dont check it often, my address is 314 1st Street South, Brandt, SD 57218

bob on January 20, 2011  · 

@cynthia pfitzer: be careful. You need to speak with somebody you trust (do some research) not just people in comments on a blog. Maybe go to your political representative (but then again, seeing as you’re in the US, that may not be very productive). Good luck.

haim on January 28, 2011  · 

Martin,

Wikileak o Shmikileaks. Look what is happening in the Arab world, without Assange gossip campaign.

This reminds me Iran of the 70′s. The pseudo-popular rebellions are generated by extremists and unfortunately they also end in the hands of extremists.

I am not against democracy on the arab world, but I do not believe these processes are leading toward stable democracies as we understand them in the western world, but Iran-like dictatorships.

It is very dangerous for the entire world to have a middle east with Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon and others in the area aligning with the Muslim fundamentalism.

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