Tuesday, 5 November 2002

Tunisia Stifles Web Publications

This article ran in Online Journalism Review on 5 November 2002.

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Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine ben Ali brooks no online opposition; on top of other heavy-handed efforts against the Web, his regime has now jailed its first cyber-dissident...

Zouhair Yahyaoui attained the unfortunate distinction this summer of becoming Tunisia’s first Internet journalist to be imprisoned for his online work. It’s pretty clear he won’t be the last, if President Zine al-Abidine ben Ali’s harsh approach to online publishing continues.

Yahyaoui’s path to prison played out as a self-fulfilling prophecy to such an extent that it would be farce if it weren’t tragedy. His TUNeZINE criticism of the brutal regime was as creative as it was blunt and honest.

In late May, for example, the satirical online magazine hosted a Web poll asking readers to vote whether Tunisia was a republic, a kingdom, a zoo or a prison. Yahyaoui also openly discussed a tourist boycott of Tunisia in protest of the country’s human rights record -- a particularly touchy subject for the regime as tourism is a key sector of the Tunisian economy and one that has already been hit hard in the past year in the aftermath of 9/11.

Yahyaoui’s downfall, however, was probably his publishing of an online article, actually a letter by his uncle, Mokhtar Yahyaoui, a former judge, saying the Tunisian judiciary showed a total lack of independence.

As if to present the most convincing proof of that argument, the authorities arrested Zouhair Yahyaoui on June 4, 2002 and soon jailed him for 28 months (later reduced to 24) on charges of “spreading false information.”

Both his lawyer and close friends say Yahyaoui was tortured while in police custody; his interrogators used physical punishment to force him to reveal the access password to his site. After that experience, Yahyaoui didn’t bother attending court to hear the final verdict. He already knew what the decision would be from the presidential arm of power known as the Tunisian judiciary -- that was, after all, what he had been writing about in the first place.

His arrest, alleged torture and sentencing brought about the usual condemnations from international organizations concerned with abuses of human rights and press freedom, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), International PEN’s Digital Freedom Network (DFN) and Index on Censorship.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) lashed out at the arrest, calling it “scandalous” and demanding his release. RSF Secretary General Robert Menard said it was clear Yahyaoui was “paying for the fact that he is the nephew of Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, another of the president’s critics.”

Widening the Net

The authorities’ treatment of Yahyaoui represents a continuation of its ruthless crushing of dissent and free speech; the only new factor this time is that the regime has extended its media suffocation tactics to Web publications. Well before this case, RSF had already identified Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine ben Ali -- a man who seriously tries to convince the world he wins elections with 99.9% of the vote -- as one of the world’s “Predators of press freedom.”

Indeed, several years ago, Human Rights Watch issued a report recognizing that it was only a matter of time before Tunisia’s restrictive press laws were extended to cover Internet publishers. Tunisia’s then-new Internet regulations, HRW said, “reflect the government’s restrictive approach to freedom of expression and intolerance of dissent. In Tunisia, all news media promote the official line and avoid news and commentary that imply criticism of government policies.”

Yahyaoui is in good company in prison; Tunisia currently has about 1,000 political prisoners, according to Amnesty International, and journalists are a favorite target for the authorities. The pattern is clear if we look at a few previous examples.

One of the most infamous and long-standing cases is that of the journalist for the al-Fajr weekly, Abdallah Zouari, detained again in August, 2002. Following more than a decade behind bars, Zouari was heading back to prison after only two months of freedom, because he refused to move to the south of the country (less politically important than his family’s home in the capital, Tunis), as the authorities demanded.

Zouari was originally sentenced in 1992 along with hundreds of others for belonging to the banned Ennahda Islamic Movement. He was accused of weapons and explosives possession, but according to RSF, which has been following the case for years: “This man is a journalist, not a terrorist. The drive against terrorism since the 11 September attacks is once again being used as an excuse to clamp down on regime opponents.”

The regime is particularly frightened of potential political competition; other prisoners have included political opposition leaders like Hamma Hammami, head of the outlawed Communist Workers’ Party.

Zouhair Yahyaoui is the first online journalist in Tunisia to be imprisoned for his online works, but he is not exactly the first Internet journalist to be imprisoned by the harsh regime of ben Ali. Though not arrested for her Web work, editor of the Internet magazine Kalima and human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine was jailed for six weeks last summer. She provoked the regime’s ire with her criticism made during a London TV appearance.

To add injury to injury, the police also physically attacked Bensendrine, along with a group of supporters, husband and 13-year-old daughter, while celebrating her release just five days previous. Despite the release and beating, she still faced charges of “undermining the authority of the judiciary and spreading false information with the aim of undermining public authority.”

It doesn’t take too many examples like these to understand why President ben Ali has been on CPJ’s list of the “Ten Worst Enemies of the Press” for four years in a row and why Reporters without Borders ranked Tunisia 128th out of 139 countries in its recent Worldwide Press Freedom Index.

Tunisia online

In addition to the heavy-handed approach, the regime in Tunisia also attempts technical controls of the Internet, including filtering content, monitoring users and actively posting online propaganda.

Tunisian filtering is a straightforward game of ownership and influence, similar to that seen in other countries, such as Kazakhstan. Most Internet providers are run by friends and relatives of the president, and their monopoly on the provision of connections to the outside world means that many sites, including foreign-hosted Tunisian opposition Web sites, foreign media and, of course, TUNeZINE (now hosted in France by Voila) are generally unreachable from within Tunisia.

Monitoring users is equally simple. Home access is expensive, and while there are plenty of Internet cafes in Tunis, they have signs on the wall reminding users that, “connecting to prohibited Websites is strictly forbidden.” These “prohibited sites” are supposed to be porno sites, but it is understood to be much more risky to try connecting to something like Amnesty International’s Web site.

The Amnesty site itself is a good example of how the regime tries to use online propaganda to counter its opponents. In 1998, friends of the Tunisian government launched a false Amnesty Web site to challenge Amnesty International’s real one in an effort to deflect attention from Amnesty’s coverage of the country’s appalling human rights record.

But while these attempts to censor words and intimidate or confuse online readers may be effective, a harsh regime’s efforts to control information can be much more simple. As we’ve pointed out in OJR before, censorship of the Internet need not take the form of high-tech filtering. The easiest way to control what people say in public is often the old-fashioned one: violence and the threat of violence.

Yahyaoui in jail

Yahyaoui is now about five months into his two-year prison sentence. According to his fiancée, Sophie Elwarda, his prison “looks like a concentration camp.” She told me that with his appeal now finished, Yahyaoui has no access to a lawyer; only his family can visit him. And just a few weeks ago, she says, he was again violently beaten by two jailers.

The result of such heavy-handed action and violence against one journalist is strict self-censorship throughout the rest of the media. In Tunisia everyone knows what can and cannot be said and what the potential penalty is for getting it wrong. One example-setting arrest is just as effective as a lot of fancy filtering software.

As Tunisia’s first online journalist to be imprisoned for his work, Yahyaoui is the regime’s example. His case is a signal that the regime will deal with online journalists as harshly as it deals with print or broadcast journalists. His fate is a clear warning to all Tunisians who might try to use the Internet to voice their opinions.


Andrew Stroehlein helps train journalists in 22 countries for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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