'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.
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 free speech, 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.'
Read more: Speaking Freely: Interview on Censorship and Oppression With Human Rights Activist Rima Sghaier