Country Spotlight: Tunisia
Tunisia has one of the most well-developed telecommunications markets in Africa, relatively low broadband prices, and one of the fastest internet connection speeds on the continent. At the same time, the country is known for its pervasive internet monitoring and filtering, which threatens the work of activists and community organizers.
In this report, learn about the government’s efforts to quash online dissent and how Tunisian citizens are fighting back. You can also download this report as a PDF here.
Out of a population of 10.4 million, around 34 percent of Tunisians are internet users (3.6 million as of June 2010). The share of internet users has grown rapidly in the past decade—it stood at just 6.3 percent in 2003—and the growth can be attributed to government-led initiatives to build the ICT sector. The mobile penetration rate is around 80 percent.
With greater access, though, have come increased efforts by the government to control citizens' online activities. The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) was established by the Tunisian Ministry of Communications in 1996 to regulate internet services. All internet service providers (ISPs) must submit IP addresses and other identifying information to the government on a regular basis. Internet traffic flows through a central network, which enables the government to filter content and monitor e-mails. Filtering is pervasive. YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook are among the websites frequently reported to be inaccessible. The websites of opposition news sites and parties, as well as sites belonging to international human rights groups, are also frequently blocked. Joining the list of blocked sites are numerous blogs that are critical of the government and its policies. Tunisia ranks seventh on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) list of the top 10 worst countries to be a blogger.
According to the CPJ, in a March 2009 address, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (currently serving his fifth consecutive five-year term as president) warned writers against examining government “mistakes and violations,” saying it was “an activity that is unbecoming of our society and is not an expression of freedom or democracy.”
While Article 1 of the Tunisian constitution and Article 8 of the Press Code guarantee freedom of speech and the press, these freedoms are clearly under threat, as these protections are not respected by the government in practice.
Self-censorship is commonplace. According to Freedom House, “Due to harassment and the fear of arrest, journalists hesitate to report on sensitive political topics and generally wait for official accounts from the government’s Tunis Afrique Presse agency before issuing their own coverage.”
A number of tactics are employed by the state to harass and intimidate bloggers and online journalists including surveillance, travel restrictions, and arrest. Many online dissidents have faced jail time. Among some of the more notable cases:
In 2005, Mohamed Abbou was jailed for more than two years after contributing articles to the locally blocked news website Tunisnews. In his writings, he compared torture in Tunisia's prisons to conditions in Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison and denounced the subservience of Tunisia's judiciary to the executive branch of government.
Slim Boukhdhir received a year-long jail sentence in 2007. While the state said he was incarcerated for “insulting a police officer,” Boukhdhir was punished for criticizing President Ben Ali and his family members.
Journalist-blogger Zied el-Heni was “strip-searched by Tunisian authorities and his documents were confiscated upon his return from an International Federation of Journalists conference in Jordan. Several days later, el-Heni was beaten by unidentified assailants, and his blog was subsequently closed down by officials.”
In October 2009 Tunisian activist Mohamed Soudani disappeared. It was later discovered that he had been arrested for speaking with two French journalists about the repression of university students.
In November 2009, blogger Fatma Riahi, known by the pen name Arabicca, was questioned by the police and also had her home searched. Authorities confiscated her computer and requested access to her social networking accounts. Arabicca’s blog was blocked three days before her arrest and has been frequently monitored by the government.
Learn about other bloggers who have been threatened and arrested at Global Voices’s Threatened Voices page. Tunisian activists Sami Ben Gharbia and others frequently update an index of censored blogs and websites in Tunisia, as well.
Fed up with the government's actions, a number of Tunisian netizens have organized various campaigns to raise awareness about state censorship and voice their dissent. The anticensorship movement has included:
- A Facebook petition against censorship that has received more than 11,000 signatures
- A White Note campaign that got bloggers to post the campaign logo with the caption "For freedom of expression and blogging" on their entries
- Uniting around the cause by creating "Ammar404," an imaginary person symbolizing the country’s filtering of the internet and "a pun on error 404 users get when they try to access censored content online”
- The Sayyeb Sal7 campaign (an expletive in Tunisian dialect that means "Leave me in peace!"), with a blog that collects images from anticensorship supporters
In another effort to get around government censorship of video sharing sites like DailyMotion and YouTube, Tunisian cyberactivists from Nawaat.org took place in "Google Earth bombing" by placing video testimonies of former political prisoners and human rights activists on a Google map of the presidential palace.
Following a massive wave of censorship in late April 2010, new efforts were taken to move the protest offline. Activists/bloggers Slim Amamou and Yassin Ayari called for a rally in front of the Ministry of Communications for May 22, 2010 to denounce the government's policies. However, while trying to get a permit for the demonstration, they were detained and interrogated and were forced by Tunisian security forces to call off the protest. At the demand of the police, one of the organizers/bloggers, Slim Amamou recorded a video asking people not to show up for the event. In this video, they tell the story behind their attempt to hold the rally:
On May 22, 2010, since the official rally was called off, supporters came up with an alternative, to "walk on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, in downtown Tunis, wearing white shirts and sit in the cafes on May 22 at 3 p.m., as a symbolic act to protest internet censorship." Dozens of Tunisian activists took part in the gathering. Tunisians abroad also marched in front of their country's consulates and embassies in Paris, Bonn, and New York.
"Why should you take part? Because I want to express myself, to talk, to express my concerns. You don’t like the weather; the pavement is bad. What do I have to write? Anything. The blog is not necessarily so serious and following strict rules. You can talk about your mother pushing you to get married, or your job that you don’t like. Concerning the technical part of things: It is like creating an e-mail account. Anyone can do it. You don’t need great knowledge in IT. The rich, the poor, teachers, physicians, engineers, the unemployed, the married, the single, the young, the old, the retired, and the bored, every one of us can launch a blog. If you are still hesitating, a group of old bloggers will write posts and will help you to write. After that, things will be easier."
So far, nearly 100 blogs have been created.
By all indications, there has been little government reaction to these efforts. In early November, President Ben Ali remarked that “he is committed to greater freedom and respect for human rights in the north African country.” Netizens remain focused on speaking out against government censorship and human rights violations. Given the government’s track record with regards to its treatment of activists, bloggers, and journalists, how likely is it that the status quo will change in Tunisia? As censorship increases, will average citizens join the activist base in both online and offline protests?
There are a number of websites, blogs, and activist sites to check out, including:
Nawaat, a collective blog about Tunisian news and politics
Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian blogger based in the Netherlands and the advocacy director at Global Voices
Slim Amamou, a Tunisan consultant and activist against censorship