“The difference between Arab Bloggers 2009 and Arab Bloggers 2011 is that we are no longer the 100/200 crazy people who thought change is evitable” those blogger’s words registered in the head. After two years on the last meeting in Beirut, the Arab Bloggers meet in the “free” Tunisia after three successful revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and other in process in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. The Arab spring that has started since Bou Azizi struck fire to himself, few hours away from where the Arab Bloggers are meeting has given hope for more democratic and freedom respecting regimes. Tunisia and Egypt were supposed to be one of them, but certain indicators prove not! Imad Bazzi (@trella), a Lebanese blogger was denied entry to Egypt last month, and was sent back home from Cairo International Airport. Speculations are that this refusal (after many entries post January 25 revolution) is because of the visit Imad did to Michael Nabil, an Egyptian blogger arrested post-revolution for his opinions against the Army Council. Now comes Tunisia turn, Arab Bloggers meeting was supposed to host eleven Palestinian representatives (several bloggers and two employees in the Heinrich Boel – Ramallah; one of the organizers of the event), but only one showed up. The reasons behind the refusal of issuing the visa for the Palestinians are still uncertain. The Palestinian bloggers said that the embassy told them that the refusal came from the Ministry of Interior.
This decision has shed shadows on the conference were many of the side discussions, live coverage on twitter and posts dealt with the issue of banning the Palestinian bloggers from entering Tunisian borders. Many of the tweets rotated around the idea that an Arab bloggers conference without the Palestinian participation remains lacking and represents a strike to the values of democracy after the Arab spring. In Gaza and Ramallah, most of the bloggers followed the conference stream, commenting and interacting with the discussions and talks. Some of the bloggers also contacted main stream media both online and offline to voice their concern about refusal of granting them a visa. For them it was a state in a time where most of the world countries are supporting Palestinian rights to be a nation, while a fellow state refuses to grant its’ citizens visas. AFP, Reuters, Al Arabiya and many other media platforms published quotes for Saleh Dawabsheh, one of these Palestinian bloggers, stated that the “all the Palestinian applicants were denied visa except for one blogger” who applied for it before the rest. Racha Hilwi added: “we are accustomed by refusal of granting visas for Palestinians, but from an Arab state that achieved a revolution, we expected that the treatment would be better”.
The organizers of the Arab Bloggers meeting have issued a statement on October 3rd mentioning the names of the Palestinian bloggers who could not attend. On the following day, Heinrech Boel, Nawat.org and Global Voices published another statement condemning the ministry of interior decision and announcing a Skype video conference with some of the Palestinian bloggers. The official statement mentioned: “We demand an explanation from the Tunisian Interior Ministry and seek clarification as to why Palestinian participants’ were denied. Among those denied visas were two key organizers of the conference, who are employees of the Heinrich Boell office in Ramallah; a Palestinian living in Egypt was also denied by the Tunisian Embassy of Cairo.” The online activists also created a campaign “Bloggers Rejected” including a Google document, a Facebook fan page, and a twitter hashtagh #visarejected and online petition to voice this case to the rest of the world. Many blog posts were also published about this matter, one of which is Abir Kopty’s: An insult to Arab Spring: Palestinian bloggers denied visa.
Saed Karzoun was the only Palestinian blogger that made it to the conference, he commented: “I am feeling bad about the banning, but yet I am happy to be at least able to represent Palestine in the AB11 conference”. Saed has applied for the visa before the rest of his peers. When he got his visa, they told him that he was the “first among the applicants to get it”. Malek Khadrawi, coordinator of Arab Bloggers Forum said that the Ministry of Interior told him that even Saed’s visa was going to be pulled back from him. The participants in the event also decided to raise the matter of Palestinian absence by issuing a statement to be signed, circulated and sent to the respective authorities. Ramsey George, co-founder of 7iber.com, a Jordanian online citizen journalism website, said: “The Palestinians are living under siege and occupation; they seldom get the chance to express themselves and exchange experiences, banning them from showing up hurts”. Dina Najm, an Iraqi blogger added: “It is expected that we the Arabs should support the Palestinians since we already know what they are getting through, I was looking forward to meet some fellow bloggers from Palestine but unfortunately my hopes did not see light”.
The Arab Bloggers conference continues its events until the final session on Thursday, allowing activists from different Arab countries to connect and learn from experiences. Many bloggers from Lebanon, GCC and Maghreb area are eager to know how their fellows in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya made the revolution and to learn methods of fighting censorship, lobbying for social justice and spreading values of freedom. But in looking backward at the recent events against online and offline activists in these countries, it is apparent that there is still so much work to get off the controlling and censorship mentalities. Finding out that Tunisia (and maybe other Arab countries) has tested censorship software’s for western companies (revealed in AB11), we won’t be surprised how many yet-to-be-revealed censorship mechanisms will be discovered!