Domain name : .tn
Population : 10 486 339
Internet-users : 3 600 000
Average charge for one hour’s connection at a cybercafé : between 0,68 and 1,37 US$
Average monthly salary : about 424 US$
Number of imprisoned netizens : 0
Deemed a potential threat to the country’s stability and image, the Internet is the target of pernicious censorship. Very strict filtering, opponent harassment and Big Brother-like surveillance enable the authorities to keep tight control over the news media.
Unsurprisingly, the presidential and legislative elections of October 25, 2009 led to the victory of outgoing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ushering in a period of repression against opponents and dissidents. The Internet was not spared. Any criticism of the regime, whether online or offline, exposes offenders to reprisals.
Strictly controlled growth
Pursuing an active infrastructures and communications development plan to attract foreign investors, Tunisia has acquired the status of IT leader in the region. Yet this plan does not at all encompass letting the Internet become a free expression Space.
In the last few years, Tunisia’s lower-cost Internet access policy has been pursued in tandem with strict content control. Bandwidth is owned by the Tunisian Internet Agency (TIA), under the control of the government, which imposes strict filtering. Both URL addresses and keywords are blocked. All of the country’s 12 state-owned or private Internet access providers are controlled directly or indirectly by the regime. Filtering is performed via SmartFilter and Websense software programs at the network entry level.
Authorities claim to target only pornographic or terrorist websites. However, censorship applies above all to political opposition, independent news, and human rights websites. Websites now inaccessible include those of Tunisnews, Nawaat, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDPinfo.org), the “Al-Nahda” (Renaissance”) movement, Tunisonline, Assabilonline, Reporters Without Borders, and Al-Jazeera in Arabic. Al-Jazeera in English, however, is still available.
Social networks and other participating websites whose mobilization /whose potential as a mobilization tool terrifies the regime are targeted when their users behave too boldly. Facebook was blocked in August 2008, raising a wave of general protests within Tunisian society. As a result, President Ben Ali ordered it to be unblocked. Interestingly, rich and fashionable young people as well as people close to the government use it regularly. The President’s own page has over 120,000 fans. However, frequent pirating of dissidents’ Facebook pages has been observed, as well as blockings of specific groups such as one created to call for the release of independent journalist Taoufik Ben Brik.
When an Internet user attempts to access a prohibited website, the following automatic error message appears: “Error 404: page not found,” without displaying the familiar “Error 403” more typical of a blocked site. Users thus do not know if the site has been blacklisted, or if it is simply a technical glitch. This strategy equates to a disguised form of censorship.
No one escapes such surveillance – certainly not dissidents, not top presidential advisors, nor even Tunisians based abroad.
The National Information Security Agency, whose official mandate is to protect clients from viruses, has turned into a cyber-police force for the surveillance of email boxes and Internet user websites – particularly those of dissidents. A ministerial order requires service providers to convey a list of their subscribers to the TIA. The filtering software can be used to monitor and intercept emails, as authorized by the 1998 Postal Code law prohibiting email deemed to “threaten the public order.”
Censorship does not create a pro-business environment. Businesses and embassies which cannot solely rely on the Tunisian network, and which need to maintain the confidentiality of their communications, are turning to secure connections via satellite.
However, private Internet connections via satellite are prohibited for individuals via land-line telephones. In order to more closely monitor dissidents, users keep the same IP address regardless of whether they are connecting from their homes or from their workplaces. Email boxes are also under surveillance.
Cybercafés have not escaped this oppressive surveillance: instructions about which websites should not be visited are posted on the walls. Managers are responsible for the content viewed by their customers, who usually need to show their IDs. All cybercafés were ordered to use the Publisoft software in 2009, several months before the elections, so that the authorities could spy on users and their online behavior.
Netizens imprisoned in the last few months
The authorities used the legislative arsenal at their disposal to silence dissidents online and put them behind bars, just like they were already doing with journalists. Zouhaïer Makhlouf, an online journalist for the news website Assabilonline, was released on February 12, 2010 after having spent nearly four months in prison. He had received a four-month jail term and been fined TND 6,000 (about USD 4,200) for his report on environmental conditions in the industrial zone of Nabeul. Well-known blogger Fatma Arabbica was detained for several days in November 2009 and is still being investigated.
Hacked websites and other harassments not deterring activist bloggers
Two blogs hosted on the RSFBlog platform were hacked in September 2009: http://tunisiawatch.rsfblog.org – the blog of former judge and human rights activist Mokhtar Yahiaoui – and http://www.moncefmarzouki.com, the blog of a Tunisian dissident, Dr Moncef Marzouki. Tunisian opposition news websites Tunisnews and Kalima, hosted abroad, are frequently hacked, most often by way of Ddos attacks, and deletion of content.
Other methods used against dissidents include: Internet connection cut-offs, port /no hyphen/blocking, virus and malware infections, infiltration of discussion forums. E-mails originating from “hostile” destinations cannot be viewed properly or at all. E-mails sent by Reporters Without Borders have been rendered illegible or have disappeared from inboxes.
The escalation of abuses and sanctions imposed might discourage netizens. But the Tunisian blogosphere is turning out to be energetic and ready to mobilize for certain causes. One example was in February 2010, when users rallied around a campaign to demand the release of Tunisian students arrested for having defended the right of female/important distinction/ students to obtain lodging. The censorship of the “Free Tunisian Students” blog – like that of Fatma Arabicca’s blog – triggered waves of protest in the blogosphere that, according to Global Voices, denounced the censorship of “Ammar Scissorhands” – the nickname given to Tunisia’s censorship machine.
http://www.kalimatunisie.com: website of online newspaper Kalima, critical of the government. (French and Arabic)
http://tn-blogs.com/: digest of Tunisian blogs (French and Arabic)
http://tunisiawatch.rsfblog.org/ : "For a free and democratic Tunisia”, website censored inside Tunisia.
https://www.sesawe.net/ (English): for more information about “individual connections”.