" Blocked websites are mostly anonymous websites used as a venue to slander and smear the reputation of private individuals, and often include threats from terrorist organisations " .
Oussama Romdhani Director General of the Tunisian External Communication Agency (ATCE)
Tunisia may appear on the surface as a modern country, living under the principles of liberalism and a free economy, a state that grants women many freedoms and rights that are not enjoyed by their counterparts in any other Arab state. In reality however, this is not the case. Tunisia , under the rule of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali who has been in rule since 1987, is strictly controlled by his ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally party.
Internet and Telecommunications Sector
Tunisia attempts to spread technology in a manner that will attract foreign investment. The government has issued a new communications law that aims to organise the communications sector and show its ‘openness' to the private sector. It has also established a national communications authority and liberated the market to allow free competition (1).
The Tunisian government also made important initiatives to spread the digital culture. The most prominent was the launching of the presidential project for family computers in 2001. Forty two thousand computers had been sold by 2004 (2). All universities, scientific laboratories, secondary schools and primary schools are connected to the internet (3).
According to the July 2006 statistics of the Ministry of Communication Technology, the number of terrestrial lines owned by TuniCom reached 1.2 million, while mobile lines (owned by TuniCom and Tunisiana) reached 6.5 million. In 2005, 569,000 computers had been sold (4).
In its latest statistics, the Tunisian Agency for Internet – the agency providing internet in Tunisia – the number of internet subscribers has exceeded 109 thousand. The number of users reached 1.148 million.
There is a large difference between the number of internet users and websites browsed because Tunisian internet users prefer to use foreign email accounts to avoid government censorship.
The internet entered Tunisian in 1991, making it the first Arab and African country to be connected. However, the internet was became widely used in only from 1996, when the Tunisian Agency for Internet was established to administer and market internet services and technology (5). According to the government, all the country now has access to the Internet and it is possible to subscribe to its different services via 12 providers, these include 7 providers that provide to public institutions and agencies, and 5 private companies providing the service to the wider market (6). The Tunisian Agency for the Internet is the main provider, connecting all internet providing companies to the Internet. This means that the agency is able to monitor any exchange of information. In addition, two of the service provider companies are headed by relatives of the Tunisian president (7).
Internet services are provided using dial-up and DSL lines. There is a reduced prices for family subscriptions as part of a special program for companies and citizens. The family subscription to the DSL service at a speed of 256k is 25 Tunisian Dinars in addition to 20 Dinars for telephone expenses (1 Tunisian Dinar = 0.75 US dollar). Individual subscription per month is for 50 Dinars plus 20 Dinars for telephone expenses (8).
Communication and Internet Law
The government issued a number of laws to administer this new communications tool. Ministerial decrees were issued following each law to put a framework for internet service providers and internet cafés. Many of the articles in these laws restrict freedom of expression and the exchange of information.
Presidential decree 501, issued on 14 March 1997 , stated that the production, provision, distribution, and posting of information will be administered according to the press law 32/1975 and the law concerning literary and artistic copyright (9).
The decree also obliged providers to remind subscribers and service users to abide by the laws, while maintaining the right to the Minister of Communication to monitor internet use at any time and using any means (10).
Eight days after the Presidential decree was passed, the Minister of Communication issued a decree on 22 March 1997 to further regulate internet use. Service providers, according to the decree, must provide the Tunisian Agency for Internet with the names of subscribers at the beginning of each month (11). With regards to content, the decree put the responsibility on the manager of the provider companies. In addition, subscribers, web-owners will be held responsible for any violation of the current law (12). The manager is obliged to constantly monitor content. In this manner, the regulations make the manger censor content and information to avoid any being held responsibility by the state authorities.
In September 1997, a ministerial decree was issued to administer the use of coding on the web. Any provider wishing to receive or send coded information must first receive a license. Once the license is granted, the provider is not allowed to use codes for any purpose but those mentioned in the application. The minister of communication has the right to withdraw the license if ‘national security' or ‘public order' are thought to be threatened (13).
This decree was amended by ministerial decree 2727/2001. Conditions and regulations for coding were changed as a committee was formed. The committee includes officials from the Ministry of Interior in addition to those from the Ministry of Communication (14).
With regards to internet cafes, a ministerial decree was issued in 1998 describing conditions that cafés must meet. These included articles that the café owner or an assistant must be present at all times (15). The café owner must hang a clear sign stating users are responsible for any violation to the law which should be visible to all visitors (16).
The government also issued laws administering e-trade, such as law 83/2000 regarding electronic trade, and law 57/2000 regarding electronic documents and documentation (17).
In 2003, Tunisia issued a counter-terrorism law - a law described by human rights activists as highly restrictive of the basic rights of citizens and of the peaceful activities of civil society. The law is framed so that it can consider any opinion, image, symbol referring to a person, organisation, or a call for a protest or assembly, as sufficient to describe such an act as an act of terrorism. (18)
Censorship and Website Blocking
Human rights organisations strongly criticised the United Nations for choosing Tunisia to host the World Summit for Information Society (WSIS) on 16-18 November 2005. Tunisia has a terrible record for curtailing basic freedoms and freedom of expression. Kofi Annan, however, beleived that the selection of Tunisia would put it under the spot light and thus the government would have to revise its policies that violate human rights (19). However, oppressive policies continue. Several journalists were attacked and beaten and Robert Ménard head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was banned from entering the country (20).
Tunisian legislation upholds freedom of expression and basic rights as stated in the constitution (21). Furthermore, President Ben Ali claimed in his 2004 presidential campaign the right of the citizen to enjoy free communication services without censorship (22). In reality, however, communication and the internet are restricted and websites, especially opposition websites, are blocked and in many instances web-editors and writers are arrested and imprisoned.
A study presented to the WSIS stated that 10% of 2,000 websites tested by the researchers are blocked in Tunisia ; most of these are political, opposition, human rights, or pornographic websites (23). A report issued by the Tunisia Monitoring group in May 2006 confirmed that at least two websites are blocked ( www.hrinfo.net and www.amisnet.org ). However, Oussama Romdhani, Director General of the Tunisian External Communication Agency (ATCE) insisted " Blocked websites are mostly anonymous websites used as venue to slander and smear the reputation of private individuals, and often include threats from terrorist organisations " (24).
Neila Charchour Hachicha , founder of the Liberal Mediterranean party , insisted that her website was blocked after it posted a statement made by the 18th of October movement. The block was lifted when the US State Department issued a statement on the issue. However, the government later re-blocked the website (25).
Many activists who met with the TMG mission complained about the difficult they face in accessing the internet despite the fact that they have a DSL line. Members of the mission attempted to access the internet from the headquarters of Observatory for Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation (OLPEC) and were unable to access any website. Rachid Khechana , editor in chief of Al-Maoukif newspaper and Neila Charchour Hachicha also complained that they cannot access the internet (26).
News websites are also blocked. The website alarabiya.net was blocked by authorities in Tunisia starting on 12 November 2005 . Following a decree that was issued banning any newspaper from mentioning the website's name (27). The news website Al-Watan Voice was blocked in 2004 for unknown reasons (28). The most recent case was that of Misryoom, an Egyptian news website. The decision to block the website came three days after it posted a report about a stolen boat that was found to be with a member of the President's family (29).
The Tunisian government does not admit the fact that it censors the internet and insists that it only blocks pornographic and terrorist websites. However, websites such as www.fdtl.org , www.nadha.net , and www.albadil.org , all political websites of opposition groups are blocked and remained so even during the WSIS (30).
The Tunisian activist, Sihem Bin Sedrine says that there are more than 400 employees at the Ministry of Communication whose work is to monitor internet users and the content they browse. They have full freedom to oppress freedom of information exchange and expression (31).
The first electronic political asylum
The last few years have witnessed an increasing in blogging. However, the Tunisian government was able to control this new phenomenon because the website that includes all blog addresses, http://tn-blogs.com , refuses to include any opposition blogs. These included the blog of Judge Mokhtar Yehyai, and that of the emigrant Sami Ben Gharbia (32). As result, Ben Gharbia, requested the first ever electronic political asylum when the blog www.manalaa.net , which carries all Egyptian blogs, decided to accepted his blog and publish it (33).
Ben Gharbia co-founded the first website for protests, www.yezzi.org , during the WSIS. The website allows all those who wish to protest the rule of Ben Ali to post a picture of the protester carrying a sign calling on the president to step down. The website was blocked only 18 hours after it was launched (34).
Posting information on the internet is very dangerous in Tunisia and often results in serious consequences as was the case with Naziha Rajiba, also known as Umm Zied, who posted an open letter in 2003 to the Minister of Education criticising the system of education in the country. She announced her resignation after 34 years of teaching. She was sentenced to one year suspended sentence after being accused of violating regulations of information exchange (35).
In light of these circumstances it was natural that Tunisia would host the conference of Arab Ministers of the Interior in January 2006. The conference welcomed the recommendation of the Egyptian Foreign Minister to block all websites supporting terrorism and inciting hatred. However, the group did not provide a clear definition of "terrorism". A vague definition ratified in 1988 was used. The definition is very vague and allows for violations of freedom of expression and the right to exchange information, which are basic rights systematically violated by Arab governments (36).
The Egyptian Minister of Interior recommended that unity of Arab efforts to push the Security Council to pass a resolution by which all large international companies are to block websites posting information on making and using weapons and bombs in addition to those that propagate fundamentalist ideas and ideologies (37).
Seventeen human rights organization criticized such attempts especially that the Egyptian and Tunisian governments are infamous for their animosity towards the internet (38).
An Eye for An Eye:
Tunisia is infamous for being the first Arab country standing against the freedom of internet. It is also the first country to resort to the internet to get back at those who have criticized the government's oppression. The Tunisian government established websites defaming activists and attacking them. A Tunisian activist told the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information that the Tunisian Government and the Communications Authority, which is controlled by relatives of the Tunisian president, provides financial and information support to those websites so as to punish activists for their criticism (39).
Tunisian authorities have restricted internet users and have arrested and imprisoned some. In all the cases, the court sentences were excessive and disproportionate even for the alleged ‘crime'. The defendants did not have all legal rights. The following list is of those who have been arrested for using the internet and posting material on it.
• Mohammed Abbou
Mohammed Abbou posted articles criticising the Tunisian government for inviting the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to attend the WSIS. He also condemned the torture which takes place in Tunisian prisons. He was arrested and sentenced in April 2005 to 3 years and 6 months imprisonment after a trial that did not meet international standards of a fair trial. Currently, Abbou is imprisoned in the Kef prison, 200 km away from the Tunisian capital where his family reside. Authorities have repeatedly refused his lawyers permission to visit him.
- The Youths of Zarzis
Tunisian authorities arrested 8 youths in the city of Zarzis in the north of Tunisia . They were accused of terrorism. The only evidence was a group of files downloaded from the internet. Authorities accused the 8 Tunisians of having formed a terrorist group to terrorise the public, holding meetings without a license, theft, and preparation of explosives. On 16 April 2004 , the court sentenced 6 of the youth to 19 years of imprisonment. A seventh defendant was sentenced to 26 years of imprisonment as he was accused of being the leader of the group, while the eighth defendant, who was under age, was sentenced to 25 months imprisonment. Following appeals the sentences were reduce.
A presidential pardon on 27 February 2006 resulted in the release of six of the youth of Zarzis. However, they continue to face harassment.
In a similar case, authorities arrested 13 youths in February 2003 near the Tunisian capital. In June 2004 they were indicted of being members of a terrorist group. Evidence was that files had been downloaded from the internet. On 27 February 2006 , three were released.
• Ali Ramzi Bettibi
On 15 March 2005 authorities arrested Ali Ramzi Bettibi while he was in an internet café. He was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for re-publishing articles published by terrorist groups. The article promised to shed blood if Sharon attends the WSIS in Tunisia . Even though human rights organisations condemn incitement to violence, the right to freedom of expression is integral, especially since Bettibi was not the author.
Bettibi was treated violently and his books and CDs were confiscated from his home even though there was no court order to do take these items.
Since October 1988 internet cafés have existed in Tunisia . Currently there are some 300 cafés. The state supported the first 100 cafés set up in Tunisia by lending 50% of the investment and enabling the café owner to return the money in instalments over a period of 2 years.
Browsing the internet in internet cafés is much more difficult than from private homes despite the fact that internet cafés provide the service using ADSL. The Tunisian Agency for the Internet makes it difficult for café owners to get a license. In addition, owners must present a list of those who have used the internet in their café on a monthly basis. Even though it is not a requirement for internet cafes to register users, owners are responsible for the content browsed in their cafés. This has created a situation when café owners play the role of a censor, occasionally banning users from entering or asking them to leave. For example in Sfakes, owners insist that users hand in their identity cards. This information is then sent to the security bureaus. When a user is described as an opponent, they are banned from entering the café. In Tunis , the capital, authorities directly blocks access when it sees it as necessary.
1-Ministry of Communication Technology, http://www.infocom.tn/index.php?id=206
3-Tunisian Agency for Internet, Important Numbers, http://ati.tn/Defaulter.htm
4-Ministry of Communication Technology, http://www.infocom.tn/index.php?id=5
5-Tunisian Agency for Internet, The History of Internet in Tunisia , http://www.ati.nat.tn/ar/internet/historique/htm .
6-Ministry of Communication Technology, ibid.
7-Gamal Eid, The Internet in the Arab World: A New Space for Repression, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, pp. 29
8-Price list of Global Net, http://www.gnet.tn/html/redaction/ads_enterprise/adsl_enterprise.html
14-The Tunisian Agency for Internet, Legal framework, http://www.ati.nat.tn/ar/cadre-juridique
18-Tunisia : Censored Media, The Arab Organisation for Freedom of Press, http://www.apfw.org/indexarabic.asp?fname=report%5Carabic%5C2004%5Cspa10...
21-Tunisian Constitution, http://www.chambredesdeputes.tn/a_constit.html
37-Ahmed Moussa, The Tunisian President Calls for the Activation of …, Al-Ahram Newspaper, 31 January 2006 .
39-An interview with a Tunisian Activist on 14 May 2006 . HRinfo chose not to publicize these websites for the defamatory content they provide.