Rima Sghaier is a human rights activist and researcher who works at the intersection of technology and human rights, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.
Rima grew up in Tunisia under the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which lasted for twenty-four years. Although Tunisia was among the earliest countries in its region to connect to the internet (in 1991), its use by dissidents and subcultures led to the government increasingly restricting access to information and communications tools. By the end of 2010, Tunisians had had enough and overthrew the Ben Ali government in a popular revolution that kicked off what some have referred to as the "Arab Spring."
For Rima, the experience of censorship—and the fear that it invokes—affected her from an early age, and shaped her views about freedom of expression. For the past few years, she has lived in Italy and has worked with the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, which has brought her into the global digital rights community and challenged her thinking about where societies should draw lines when it comes to free speech.
For many free expression advocates, this is the ultimate question. While some may invoke Evelyn Beatrice Hall (and through her Voltaire) in their defense of speech, claiming "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," others would not take such a strong stance of defense, but nevertheless are uncomfortable with the idea of any authority being imbued with the power to decide for the rest of society what is or is not appropriate speech.
In our flowing conversation, we also touch on platform censorship, speech regulations, the role that Wikileaks played in the Tunisian revolution, and who Rima sees as the true heroes of free expression.
Jillian C. York: So let’s get down to it! My first question is, what does free speech, or free expression, mean to you?
I use ‘freedom of expression’ more than I do freedom of expression, because that’s what’s used in Tunisia, in the sense of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And for me, personally—I don’t know if you’ve had this reaction from other interviewees—if you’re someone who really believes in expression, when you’re asked to define it, it surprises you. It happened to me [in a job interview]. It’s something I defend and advocate for, but I’ve never actually had to explain what it means!
If I have to give a definition that isn’t the legal definition, for me it means freedom from any fear, when expressing and articulating your thoughts and opinions, but also when accessing and sharing information.
York: I like that definition a lot. Would you say that you identify as a free expression advocate, or defender?
Yes. It’s a part of who I am right now, and it’s really special for someone who was born and lived under a dictatorship for eighteen years. It’s still personal, because I lived and was raised for so many years with things I could not say, and so my own personal freedom of expression is about being able to say things that I couldn’t.
York: Wow, I love that too. Is there anything else you want to say about that experience?
To get personal, I can say that I had a family member who was in the political opposition to the regime. At one point, he was invited for police questioning. He worked under the cover of cultural reasons, but also gave advice on political issues and the political situation in Tunisia. I remember one thing that was often repeated when I was a child, when the topics of politics or the economy came up, your family would say ‘the walls have ears.’ You weren’t supposed to worry about politics, those things were taken care of by the Ben Ali government. You weren’t supposed to think about that.
If I asked why someone was absent, I was told that the person didn’t respect limits, that they were causing trouble. Speaking up was causing trouble. It was a weird thing, because it intersected with other oppression mechanisms—so it’s not only politics, but the patriarchy, what you can or can’t talk about as a woman, what’s ladylike or not, what’s educated or not, and many things, like full equality between women and men, gender and sexuality … we don’t even have words for those things, it’s a work in progress in Arabic right now.
Some people just take those rules, this system of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ and go with it, but for me and many other young people, it was so frustrating. I wanted to talk about things like why YouTube was censored. We used to have censorship levels that equalled Cuba’s. For me, I sometimes doubted if there were other countries in the world, because it was so closed, you didn’t know if you were alone. You didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t.
On evening TV, it was all about what the president or his wife did, everything was so beautiful and colorful, while around you, people were suffering. So in that moment in December 2010, until January 2011 [when the regime was toppled], I was in high school, and many of the people in my high school, especially with the parts of the internet that people couldn’t really censor, it was the only space where you could hear a report by Amnesty International, and not the one in Tunis [which didn’t exist yet]. [The internet] was the only place where you could get access to that kind of information.
In those days, I felt like suddenly there was freedom of expression without fear. Everyone was expressing their opinion, that they wanted the regime out, that they wanted freedom and democracy and all that. Going through the process, and since that moment, we’re slowly building this democracy that’s built on this strong need for freedom of expression along with other freedoms, of course.
York: Thank you for sharing that. I really like what you said about the role of freedom of expression in building democracy. So let’s move past politics for a minute and talk about the role of government, and companies, when it comes to free expression. How do you think that speech online should, or shouldn’t, be regulated?
Hmm, I don’t know. Every time I see an attempt at regulating speech, it’s really failing. I feel really clueless, because when I look at freedom of expression, I look at it as a principle. I know that it should be the same principle for physical and digital spaces, but I understand that there is a lot of tension about how extreme speech, dangerous speech, or whatever terminology you prefer, is spreading a lot faster through the use of social media. If we talk about freedom, it should protect and consider individuals, but we don’t always know who’s behind what.
There’s always the challenge of who should have the responsibility. When you put the responsibility on a company or a forum owner to control every piece of content on their platform, this results in a lot of policing and a lot of control and isn’t working out. I don’t know what should be done, but I think we should just stop trying to regulate it, while anything that would be prohibited in a newspaper should also be prohibited on social media, [like bullying or harassment].
The other thing that comes into my mind is social media trying to exonerate politicians from their rules. Politicians can say things that are extreme or calling for violence, or messages of discrimination, and I think this is not okay.
I [would like to understand more about regulation], but I don’t feel like it’s working.
York: [laughs] I wouldn’t worry about not knowing enough, if we knew the answers to these questions, we wouldn’t be having centuries-long debates about them. You’re probably a lot more informed than you think you are. But more specifically, I’m curious what role you think companies like Facebook and YouTube should play in regulating expression.
I mean, I’ve been to your talks [laughs].
York: It’s totally fine to disagree with me though!
I know how content moderation work is being implemented, and I know how hard it must be to make the decision, in a few seconds, if something should be left on or off a platform. I do think that if there’s any way for technology to be smarter—not the way it is right now, removing fruit thinking it’s nudity, or removing evidence of [war crimes] as violence—it would be good for it be used to remove certain things.
But again, I always find myself a little clueless about how to do it in a way that is fair. I know social media companies are working on better automated detection of certain content, but I think that something that needs [a lot more work] is context. For example, if Syrian Archive or independent media is trying to document things.
I’ve seen in protests against intermittent internet shutdowns, or when the Egyptian government tried to limit access to certain websites, the quickest thing to get things out over social media, and so it’s really important to take context into consideration.
York: You’ve talked quite a bit about your experience as a Tunisian, but I’d like to know more about how you discovered internet censorship. Tunisia before the revolution was one of the world’s strictest internet censors. What was your experience with that like?
I discovered censorship when people abroad were posting links on social media that for me were quatre cent quatre, 404 errors [ed. note: The Ben Ali regime used the 404 error page, rather than a transparent notification of blocking, to signal to users that a website was blocked]. I’m sure you’ve heard that there were songs, artists that made fun of censorship. We knew that we were basically closed off to the whole world. Any media that criticized or was objective about what was happening in Tunisia [was blocked]. I remember that as a very young person, I was using proxies, trying to access [blocked] content. My dad was like ‘you shouldn’t do that, they’ll arrest you!’
So, for sure, social media was an uncensored part of the internet. Even if a website was blocked, people found ways to share it.
York: I remember in 2008, when Tunisia blocked Facebook for two weeks…
Yes, you may remember also Wikileaks, the leaks about Tunisia had a huge impact on Tunisian news. Nawaat [ed. note: Nawaat was a 2011 Pioneer Award winner] had stories about how Ben Ali abused his power, how he had stolen public money.
York: Yes, I remember that. I was just telling somebody the other day about the story where the presidential plane was used by the president’s wife to go shopping.
Yeah, and the boats, the yachts, the fights with Italy. Nobody heard about these things in Tunisia, but they were all over the international press as scandals. Those leaks somehow made those stories shift from being a rumor—because there was no proof the citizen could have access to—that shift happened when Wikileaks happened.
York: Yes, I remember that, it’s so true. What about you personally? Is there a defining moment in your life that led you to advocate for freedom of expression?
Freedom of expression in my life and upbringing, one of the most defining moments was when, as a teenager, my [conservative] dad had a rule where if he said no, it meant “no.” I didn’t have the right to ask why, or engage in any kind of dialogue. This meant I couldn’t go on school trips, or travel, or go to a friend’s place. It was such a controlled environment. My brother, on the other hand, could do what he wanted.
The first moments where I started to say “no” and “why?” and demand explanations was seeing that my brother could go out without asking for permission. For me, building my freedom of expression was through breaking rules that have been ingrained since your childhood. Trying to challenge any form of power and oppression, and understanding what that oppression is.
York: Thank you for sharing that, Rima. Okay, here’s a question I ask everyone. Do you have a free speech hero?
A free speech hero...Yeah, I would say my first is Sami Ben Gharbia. That’s because I’m very close to [2011 EFF Pioneer Award winner] Nawaat, they were my first eye on what was happening in Tunisia before the revolution. When you’re really concerned, you’re following and really engaged in what’s happening worldwide, there are so many people on the daily, journalists and human rights activists, speaking up because they think it’s important and they don’t accept the status quo.
Raif El Badawi in Saudi Arabia, that’s another one. I would sometimes say Julian Assange, although not who he is as a person. Whistleblowers, who share information with the public, defending and advocating for freedom of expression. All the activists I speak with in Egypt, who are still working and trying to get the news out about arrests and torture.
Women and LGBT people in countries and environments were they do not have the right to exist, and who try their best, despite everything, to exist and build a beautiful life and build communities and solidarity in situations where it’s very risky. For the LGBT community, [the internet] also allowed anyone who couldn’t have any existence in the real world be able to create their personas. They could share intimate photos, share their sexual or gender orientation, express their religious or non-religious views, and share them in a way that they were able to control with whom they shared them.
And finally, Zouhair Yahyaoui. His legacy, more after the revolution than before it, was massive. He was the moderator of TUNeZINE [ed. Note: TUNeZINE was an early online forum that broke many of Tunisia’s red lines. Yahyaoui, who created and then moderated the platform anonymously, was eventually arrested and died not long after his release from prison of a heart attack. He was 37 years old.]
I actually spent a lot of time after 2011 going through the TUNeZINE archive and I cannot describe what 18 years under the Ben Ali regime felt like because I just cannot describe how I saw Tunisia and the world because everything was so censored and filtered that it just felt unreal. Being able to have that space, a huge archive where there were monthly updates, human rights violations reporting, a lot of art and poetry...for me one of the most amazing things was reading through the work of those anonymous cyberdissidents, their poetry in Tunisian and French where they couldn’t say and express their opinions directly but they had these implicit and creative ways to criticize the regime, as well as painful ways that move your emotions.
The digital space is changing a lot and we’re no longer doing forums and anonymous contributors, so most of what was happening in those forums is now on social media. So I have to mention Zouhair Yahyaoui because he really used the internet to document violations, to give a space for all those in civil society and political actors working in secrecy to talk about their work, name the political prisoners and ask for help, connect people with the international community that was in solidarity with Tunisians. This legacy is a huge part of our history, but there’s still a lot that has to be done for it not to be forgotten.
So really, there are so many. For me, there are so many names and they all matter. The definition for me is all of these people who are speaking up despite fear and danger.
York: I love that too, that’s so important. Was there anything else that you wanted to add that we haven’t covered?
I’m so eager to keep learning about regulation, what’s okay to say and what isn’t. If I sat at a table with say, three members of my family and a professor and a colleague and a fellow activist, and four strangers, everyone would have a different definition of what’s okay. My dad would say cursing isn’t okay, while another person might say that if you’re not cursing a person you know, but rather a situation or a public figure, it’s not the same.
There have actually been posts taken down from Twitter for using an ‘inappropriate’ word. There are people who might say it’s okay to make jokes about Muslims or people of color. Others would say only if [you’re part of the in-group], whereas still others would say it’s never okay.
For myself, I think there should be more consciousness about how people, how other humans might be affected, that’s really important. It should be clear what discrimination or hate speech, or extremist speech is. But also, there are so many people on the other side who overreact, who take things too personally, and I don’t know where that line is. I wish it was more clear.
I just posted something publicly on Facebook saying that I was so happy that [Moroccan journalist Hajar Raissouni, who was arrested for allegedly having an illegal abortion] was pardoned by the king, and I wrote ‘Long live freedom of expression, Moroccan feminists, and international solidarity’ and I already received so many comments criticizing me, saying things like ‘Why are you praising international NGOs? Why are you [undermining] the king?’
I know this [isn’t really about free speech] but if you’re a person actively talking about politics, you get this kind of criticism … If you, for example, talk about freedom for Raif Badawi, there were many people saying ‘With your message for his freedom, you’re attacking Islam and encouraging blasphemy.’ There were so many Saudis mass-reporting us, and harassing us. So I think that if there’s any kind of regulation, it should be the kind that protects us from that sort of coordinated harassment. This is exactly what shouldn’t be happening. [Companies] shouldn’t be collaborating with a repressive regime.
York: Yes, I absolutely agree with that! Well, I think that’s all the time we have today. Thank you so much Rima, this has been great.