Update – February 17, 2010: Youtube has restored the rejected video and nawaat’s account. Thank you Google for the understanding and thank you all for the support.

Today we got a message from Youtube informing us that the ability to post new videos on Youtube has been temporarily disabled for violating the YouTube Community Guidelines because of a video deemed “inappropriate.” We are pretty sure that some Tunisian pro-government users have flagged it as inappropriate, even we cannot prove it. This is the message we received:

The following video(s) from your account have been disabled for violating the YouTube Community Guidelines:

Tunise : enfants des zones défavorisées (Nawaat)

While it might not seem fair to say you can’t show something because of what viewers theoretically might do in response, we draw the line at content that’s intended to incite violence or encourage dangerous, illegal activities that have an inherent risk of serious physical harm or death. It’s not okay to post videos showing bad stuff like animal abuse, drug abuse, under-age drinking and smoking, or bomb making. Any depictions like these should be educational or documentary and shouldn’t be designed to help or encourage others to imitate them.

This is the second Community Guidelines warning sanction your account has received within six months. Accordingly, the ability to post new content to YouTube from this account has been disabled and will not return until two weeks after you acknowledge this message. Please review the YouTube Community Guidelines and refrain from further violations, which may result in the termination of your account(s).

Click to enlarge

The video in question (also available on our Posterous page), titled Tunise : enfants des zones défavorisées (Tunisia: Children from disadvantaged areas), shows a groupd of 6 – 7 year old Tunisian kids inhaling glue and talking about why and from where they’re getting the substance. Sniffing glue, which is considered gateway drug, is a very dangerous practice among Tunisian teens and kids from disadvantaged areas and we don’t understand why the video has been found to violate Youtube Terms of Use! Though one can legitimately ask if the video of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death on June 20, 2009 on Youtube was not inappropriate or graphic? Does it not violate Youtube Terms of Use or is it ‘Too Distressing to Ignore‘ as Mashabe described it?

By rejecting our video, which caused the temporary suspension of our account on its platform, Google is banning what is considered to be the first citizen video that tries to document this practice and share it among our fellow citizens and with the world. By publishing it on Youtube and other video-sharing websites, Nawaat is not encouraging drug abuse nor helping others to imitate those poor kids. This is not nawaat’s mission. Nawaat has been launched to help Tunisians and their friends get access to all kind of barred information. We are providing a platform to anyone who wants to express his or her idea freely without censorship or fear. While we are and intend to remain independent of any political party or NGO, we opened our platform as a space to support democracy and protest human rights abuses in our country. One of our goals is to build an anti-propaganda machine against the very sophisticated and quite crafty official Tunisian propaganda. And precisely that rejected video was meant to counter Tunisia’s official discourse on Child protection and health.

It’s worth mentioning here that this is not the first time that Youtube administrators shut down human rights activists accounts because of inappropriate content. In late 2007, our Egyptian friend, blogger and journalist, Wael Abbas, who documents human rights abuses by Egyptian police, temporarily had his Youtube account suspended after publishing the infamous video of an Egyptian bus driver being sodomized with a stick by the Egyptian police officers. Let us also recall that it was thanks to that same video published on Youtube that justice was served and that the two Egyptian torturers were sentenced to three years in jail for sodomizing and torturing the driver.

The irony is that during the Breaking Borders event that was organized by Google in november last year to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of Berlin wall, I answered a question, on how to support online free speech, asked by Rachel Whetstone Vice President, Public Policy and Communications at Google, by saying that Google should not suspend human rights activists accounts like what happened with the aforementioned case of my friend Wael Abbas (I also highlighted the importance of adding https to blogspot blogging platform, a step which I still believe is crucial to help protect the identity of anonymous bloggers under repressive regimes – The video of the panel discussion during the Breaking Borders event is availbale on Google Freedom of Expression@Google YouTube-Channel).

Now that our ability to publish new content on Youtube has been disabled, temporarily, for two weeks, and threatened to be terminated in case we publish another “inappropriate” video (and we certainly will), what are the lessons that we should learn from this incident:

– activist should consider hosting their video materials on Witness’ The HUB, which I believe is a very good alternative to Youtube, as it is a global platform totally dedicated to human rights media.

– activists should host their own content, if they can afford it (we cannot), or publish it on multiple platforms, not only as a long-term backup strategy but as a viral strategy as well. The sword of a sudden suspension of their account can fall at any time, especially if you are not an activist from Iran or China, countries that score high on the Index of what I call the “business of online free speech and digital activism”. Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Libya, etc., are forgotten cases; Unfortunately, we do not attract enough media attention and we won’t, we are not sexy enough, not only for the average online freedom of expression “advocates”, but for the most dedicated ones as well, those self-proclaimed “Meta-activists” and social media gurus! The few good exceptions that are doing their best to raise awareness and support our causes are our only allies who have been at our side in all tragic events. All the rest are a lost case, you cannot rely on them during difficult situations, especially the NGO’s world. Digital activism, Twitter Revolution, Internet equal democracy bullshit, all that hype is only an unprecedented opportunity for raising money, promoting own agenda (political, ideological), building over inflated egos- you name it.

– We, grassroots, self-funded and independent activists and administrators of 100% independent social media and activism projects, urgently need to unpack the unstated motives in NGOs, companies and governments Internet freedom policies, if I may borrow the expression from my friend Ethan Zuckerman in his excellent and eye-opening article. We need to understand, demystify and navigate very carefully this field that starts to be hijacked by some Super-powers, global web 2.0 giants, funders and NGO’s that are using it for their own political, economic and geo-strategic agendas. Internet freedom is a very beautiful and attractive slogan that can hide its worst enemies. And to all our westerns friends who are willing to help us sincerely, please focus on the western companies that are making money by selling censor-wares to our authoritarian regimes. Don’t look only at Nokia/Siemens role in Iran and overlook Secure Computing, Websense, Mcafee and Sisco System roles in Tunisia, Syria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE…

I’m very sorry if my conclusions sound harsh, but how else can one describe this bitterness. The team of Nawaat has been fighting very hard to keep its site and all its online initiatives and projects alive. We have been struggling against censorship, daily hacking and DDos attacks for the last 6 years, since it was blocked few weeks after its launch in 2004. Not only our collective blog and all its mirror websites are blocked, but also all the personal blogs of its administrators are banned and hacked– for more than seven years. Nawaat’s twitter account was the first twitter page to be blocked in Tunisia and so its Posterous numerous pages, its facebook page, Cybversion.org, nawaat’s project that monitors online censorship in Tunsia, Yezzi, the online protest against Ben Ali, blocked then hacked at the 20th occasion of Ben Ali’s rule. Even Youtube and Dailymotion were blocked in Tunisia because of the videos published their by our team.

And while we are not complaining about all the censorship and attacks targeting us, as we are totally aware that these are the consequences of the fight we are waging against the Tunisian regime to win back our freedom of expression, we really don’t want and don’t expect to see this battle front extended to Google services.