The government issues directives to ISPs concerning four types of content that are deemed undesirable: pornography or sexually explicit material, expressions of political opposition to the government, discussions of human rights in Tunisia (including on the websites of many nongovernmental organizations), and tools or technology that enable users to circumvent the government’s controls. Directives are not issued to address specific events, since ISPs—along with online news outlets, journalists, and bloggers—are expected to be aware of the standing taboos and deal with new developments accordingly. In late 2010, the authorities also blocked access to news outlets that posted confidential cables from the U.S. Embassy, originally published by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, which described deeply-rooted corruption and excessive lifestyle by President Zine El Abidine Bin Ali, his wife, and their inner circle.All of Tunisia’s internet traffic flows through a single gateway controlled by the ATI, which employs SmartFilter software to limit access to specified content. URLs are blocked selectively in some cases, affecting certain pages on Wikipedia or particular videos on YouTube, for example. The authorities can also block an entire domain and the subdomains attached to it. This is the most common filtering technique, used especially to block blogs Jillian York, “Tunisia and Bahrain Block Individual Twitter Pages,” Global Voices Advocacy, January 4, 2010, http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2010/01/04/tunisia-and-bahrain-block-individual-twitter-pages/.
Ian Black, “WikiLeaks Cables: Tunisia Blocks Site Reporting Hatred of First Lady,” Guardian.co.uk, December 7, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/07/wikileaks-tunisia-first-lady.
TUNISIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net and pages on Facebook and Twitter. The third technique targets the internet protocol (IP) addresses of websites, and has been used to block YouTube and Dailymotion. Finally, censors can employ keyword filtering, blocking access to any URL path containing a given keyword.9 Tunisians who wish to explore the internet and visit censored websites are forced to use proxies and anonymizers. However, proxies are themselves continuously “blacklisted” by the Tunisian government, and users risk repercussions if they are caught searching for or using this technology.
Postpublication censorship can take a number of forms. Individual blog entries may be deleted, in most instances within 24 to 48 hours of their posting. In other cases, entire blogs may be shut down by service providers or through hacking. The blog Mawtini (My Homeland), for instance, was shut down in March 2010, just after the publication of a post denouncing the censorship of another blog, A Tunisian Girl.10 Search engines filter results to exclude those that are censored or that do not favor the Tunisian government’s perspective.
In addition to preventing certain content from appearing on the internet in Tunisia, the government three years ago began to proactively shape public opinion online. In 2007 it organized a small group of people to visit websites and guide discussions in a progovernment direction. This group has progressively enlarged its activities, and many blogs are created specifically to insult dissident bloggers or praise the government. Several videos promoting the idea that Tunisians enjoy political freedom and freedom of speech have been uploaded to Facebook and other websites. The authorities have also extended their control over traditional media to online news outlets by strongly encouraging them to obtain their articles from Tunisia Africa Press, the state news agency. Even independent bloggers and internet users practice varying degrees of self-censorship to avoid criminal sanctions.
The Tunisian blogosphere is still young, having taken root only in 2006, and comparatively small, with about 500 active blogs in 2010, partly due to heavy government censorship. Nevertheless, it serves as a dynamic alternative forum for the practice of free speech. Blogs have begun to play an important role in addressing issues and events that are considered to lie beyond the “red lines” observed by traditional media, such as the labor riots that took place in the Gafsa mining area in early 2008. Videos and press reports were published online on a daily basis, and a blog was created to gather all the information related to this event. In 2010, bloggers mounted a campaign against the imprisonment of a group of students after their participation in a sit-in asserting the rights of female students. Blogs covering red-line issues always find themselves censored eventually, but the deterrent effect is negligible, as bloggers simply move to another site. Some bloggers have started as many as nine blogs in an attempt to maintain their outlet for expression in the face of persistent censorship. Others have developed more creative techniques. The blog NormalLand discusses Sami Ben Gharbia, “A First Glimpse at the Internet Filtering in Tunisia,” Global Voices Advocacy, August 18, 2010, http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2010/08/18/a-first-glimpse-on-the-internet-filtering-in-tunisia/.
Mawtini is located at http://unsimplemec.blogspot.com; A Tunisian Girl is located at http://www.atunisiangirl.blogspot.com.
TUNISIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net Tunisian politics by using a virtual country with a virtual leader, and with various government positions assigned to other Tunisian bloggers. NormalLand even has its own flag and national anthem modeled after the actual Tunisian versions.
Various social networking and new media sites have played an important role in the December 2010 protests, which were still ongoing at the end of the year. Activists’ tweets, blogging entries, videos, and Facebook posts became key sources of information for audiences inside and outside of Tunisia, particularly given the government’s tight grip on the traditional media. Bloggers, for example, wrote accounts of violence used by the police against the protestors,11 articulated dissatisfaction felt by the Tunisian youth, and posted photos of protests from across the country. Likewise, Twitter and Facebook users posted up-to-minute developments in their home cities. And despite the official blocking of YouTube, videos of protests and the security forces’ efforts to suppress them were circulated online.
VIOLATIONS OF USER RIGHTS Tunisian law allows the government to block or censor internet content that is deemed obscene or threatening to public order, or is defined as “incitement to hate, violence, terrorism, and all forms of discrimination and bigoted behavior that violate the integrity and dignity of the human person, or are prejudicial to children and adolescents.” A antiterrorism law created summary procedures for bringing terrorism suspects to trial, and stipulated that these procedures would also apply to those accused of “inciting hate or racial or religious fanaticism whatever the means used.” In June 2010, the Chamber of Deputies adopted an amendment to Article 61 bis of the penal code that will punish any Tunisian who establishes deliberate contacts with foreign parties that instigate harm to Tunisia’s vital interests and economic security. The existing article already punished “anyone who has undertaken, by any means whatsoever, to undermine the integrity of the Tunisian territory or has met agents of a foreign power, the purpose of the result of which is to undermine the military or diplomatic situation of Tunisia.” The new law erects an added barrier against freedom of speech as well as civic activism and advocacy.
The government also uses ordinary criminal charges, such as sexual harassment and defamation, to oppress online journalists and bloggers. Between 2005 and 2007, multiple activists were prosecuted and sentenced for up to one year in prison on charges ranging from defamation to violations of public morality standards. In 2008, blogger Ziad el-Heni filed the first-ever lawsuit against the ATI, claiming that the agency practiced illegal censorship and violated his right to free expression by blocking Facebook in August of that For example, see the post on A Tunisian Girl, http://atunisiangirl.blogspot.com/2010/12/une-journee-horrible-pour-lesavocats.html.
TUNISIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net year, but a court quickly dismissed the case.
More recently, in October 2009, the dissident journalist Taoufik Ben Brik was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail on trumped-up charges asserting that he had assaulted a woman after a traffic incident. Also that month, Zouhair Makhlouf, a human rights activist and correspondent for Assabil Online was arrested for posting a video report about environmental pollution in Nabeul, a coastal town in northeastern Tunisia. He was tried in November 2009 and sentenced to four months in jail.12 Similarly, in another politically motivated case, online journalist Mouldi Zouabi was charged in 2010 with aggravating assault against a ruling party member. In addition to long-term imprisonment, some internet users have been arbitrarily detained and questioned. In September 2009, blogger and former political prisoner Abdallah Zouari was detained for eight hours and questioned about his contributions on the banned website Tunisia Online. Zouari spent 11 years in prison before being released in 2002, but he is constantly harassed and monitored by the police, and deprived of access to the internet.14 Blogger and theater teacher Fatma Riahi, known online as Fatma Arabicca, was detained for five days in November 2009 and questioned about her online activities, and her computer was confiscated.The authorities have also taken measures to suppress civil society efforts to protest against online censorship. In May 2010, grassroots activists requested a permit for a peaceful rally against censorship, but on the day before the event, police detained two of the organizers who signed the request, Slim Amamou and Yassine Ayari. The two were held for more than 12 hours and forced to make videos announcing the cancelation of the rally. In August, activists against censorship decided to organize a flash mob—a sudden, unannounced public protest that is typically organized using social media. However, participants were surprised by the presence of plainclothes policemen in the secretly agreedupon location, who forced them to leave.
Anonymity and the right to privacy are nonexistent in Tunisia. While the government does not expressly forbid anonymity and users can post anonymous comments on websites, the government has access to user information through ISPs and can trace a comment to its author. Each ISP is required to submit a list of its subscribers to the ATI on a monthly basis. Publinets are also monitored, and the managers are legally responsible for Sami Ben Gharbia, “Tunisia: Prominent Activist Arrested for Environmental Video Report Published Online,” Global Voices Advocacy, October 27, 2009, http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2009/10/27/tunisia-prominent-activist-arrested-forenvironmental-video-report-published-online/.
“Tunisia Should Drop Charges Again Mouldi Zouabi,” Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), December 6, 2010, http://cpj.org/2010/12/tunisia-should-drop-charges-against-mouldi-zouabi.php.
Sami Ben Gharbia, “Tunisia: Journalist and Blogger Abdallah Zouari Rearrested,” Global Voices Advocacy, September 17, 2009, http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2009/09/17/tunisia-journalist-and-bloggger-abdallah-zouari-rearrested/.
Sami Ben Gharbia, “Tunisia: Blogger Fatma Riahi Arrested and Could Face Criminal Libel Charge,” Global Voices Advocacy, November 6, 2009, http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2009/11/06/tunisia-blogger-fatma-riahi-arrested-and-could-facecriminal-libel-charge/.
TUNISIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net customers’ online activities. Owners commonly ask customers not to visit certain sites, displaying posters to remind users that pornographic and other objectionable sites are prohibited. Customers must present their identity cards to use publinet facilities, and the managers have the right to access anything saved to disk by their customers. Individuals are also required to present personal information prior to purchasing a mobile phone or SIM card, and text messaging is monitored for taboo topics in much the same way as the internet.
Online journalists and bloggers are commonly targeted with extralegal intimidation and physical violence. Sihem Bensedrine, editor in chief of the online news site Kalima, has been menaced for years with physical intimidation and smear campaigns; the site itself has been blocked since 1999. El-Heni, the journalist and blogger, has been censored more than 50 times and faces frequent intimidation and occasional physical aggression. Slim Boukhdhir, in addition to having been jailed for his writings in 2007-2008, has been repeatedly harassed by state officials. This reportedly included abuse and threats by prison guards during his seven months behind bars.
Targeted technical attacks have become a popular tool for intimidating and silencing ICT users. In 2007, Boukhdhir’s blog was hacked and deleted. In 2008, an attack on Kalimatunisie.com destroyed all content on the site, forcing it to be entirely rebuilt. The administrators of Nawaat.org reported the destruction of their website several times between 2009 and 2010. E-mail hacking is also common. Accounts that have no secured access are monitored, and important information may suddenly disappear. In 2010, many cases of phishing targeting users of Google’s Gmail service were reported.16 Similarly, during the protests at the year’s end, digital activists and online users reported widespread government hacking into their digital media accounts, sometimes deleting their profiles and blog entries. Apart from disrupting the networks of online activists and the free flow of information, the government’s goal has been to use these methods to conduct surveillance and obtain information about the people involved in protests and digital activism. Slim Amamou, “Mass Gmail Phishing in Tunisia,” Global Voices Advocacy, July 5, 2010, http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2010/07/05/mass-gmail-phishing-in-tunisia/.
For more information see, for example, posts by a Tunisian blogger called Astrubal found here :