The country is awakening to Internet freedom after being one of the world’s most harshly censored under the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown in January. But the national censorship body, nicknamed Ammar 404, has not been completely dismantled.
The role of the social networks in covering "#sidibouzid"
The popular uprising sparked by what happened in Sidi Bouzid exploded at a time when news was totally controlled by the regime.
The government imposed a blackout on all news of protests there that followed the 17 December 2010 self-immolation of unemployed fruit and vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi. Police physically attacked journalists who tried to reach the town or spoke to foreign media outlets. For several days, no news of the revolt came out of the deprived region of the country away from the coastal tourism centres and other economic development.
The silence of the mainstream media was broken by social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter and news sites such as Nawaat.org, which were the sources and conveyors of news. The Twitter hashtag #sidibouzid was very popular among users in Tunisia, and then the region and the rest of the world, as international solidarity grew.
Facebook especially was a platform for comments, photos and videos, allowing people to keep up with expanding protest movements in Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine and Thala and see for themselves the police repression and violence. For nearly three weeks, amateurs posting photos and camera-phone images provided the only pictures of what was happening in Tunisia.
The regime realised the importance of Facebook in early January 2011 and stepped up online censorship, trying to curb distribution of photos of the protests and repression, to hide them from an increasingly interested foreign media.
The head of the Agence Tunisienne d’Internet (ATI) said the number of websites blocked by the authorities doubled in just a few weeks. More than 100 Facebook pages about the Sidi Bouzid events were blocked, along with online articles about the unrest in foreign media, including France24, Al-Jazeera, the BBC and Deutsche Welle. Photos and videos could no longer be downloaded on Facebook inside Tunisia. The best-known video and photo sharing sites such as Flickr, YouTube, Dailymotion and Vimeo, had already been blocked for months. Police also hacked into Facebook accounts to steal activists’ passwords and infiltrate networks of citizen-journalists that had grown up around the Sidi Bouzid events. Many e-mailboxes were broken into. Four bloggers were arrested on 6 January.
A trial of strength developed between Ammar 404 and the country’s netizens, who had worldwide support. The activist hacker group Anonymous made cyber-attacks (Operation Tunisia) in January on government websites, including those of the president and prime minister, to protest against online censorship. Egyptian Internet-users provided technical ways to get round the censorship and passed on news and demands from inside Tunisia.
President Ben Ali was forced to flee the country on 14 January after 23 years in power, The revolution was a human one but the online social networks helped make it happen.
The information ministry was abolished under the new provisional national unity government announced on 17 January. Well-known blogger Slim Amamou, freed four days earlier, was named secretary of state for youth and sports. The government proclaimed immediate and total freedom of news and expression.
End of censorship and surveillance ?
The Internet was seen as a threat to the country’s stability and image abroad by the Ben Ali regime, which maintained very strict monitoring and filtering of traffic and hounded opponents. Website addresses and keywords were blocked and filtering was done with Smartfilter and Websense programmes, that also enabled monitoring and interception of e-mail, which was permitted by the 1998 postal law if messages “endangered public order.”
The authorities claimed they only blocked terrorist and pornographic sites, but those of political opponents, human rights organisations and independent news agencies were also censored. They included Tunisnews and Nawaat, as well as the sites of the Parti démocrate progressiste (PDPinfo.org) and the Al-Nahda (Renaissance) movement, Tunisonline, Assabilonline, Reporters Without Borders and Al-Jazeera in Arabic. Searches for banned sites produced an “Error 404 - page not found” message, which led to the nickname “Ammar 404” for the state censorship operation.
Hacking into dissidents’ Facebook pages was frequent, as well as blocking the sites of specific groups. Other steps against dissidents included cutting off their Internet connection, port blockage, sending viruses and malware to them and infiltrating discussion forums.
Censorship was ended by the new government on 14 January, but the Nawaat site told its visitors on 25 January that some sites were still blocked. The ministry of technology and communication had said on 21 January that all sites were freely accessible but partial censorship was being maintained of sites that “offended public decency, through violence or incitement to hatred.” It gave an e-mail address, email@example.com, for “the public and civil society groups” to raise matters of online freedom.
The situation has since improved and Reporters Without Borders has learned that no sites are now blocked and bloggers and Internet-users are no longer being hounded. The interior ministry has even set up a public relations office and started a Facebook page for Internet-users.
But questions remain about the future of the censorship machinery.
Need to dismantle censorship apparatus
While censorship has disappeared, many Internet-users and bloggers have shown concern that the machinery to censor material still exists. The government must openly dismantle it.
Those who were involved in censorship have been speaking freely. ATI chief Kamel Saadaoui told Wired magazine he regretted his agency had been seen as an oppressive censor when it had just been following the regime’s orders. Under the new government, the ATI was helping to open up the Internet, he said, and just sticks to maintaining the network. “We have filtering engines but we give access to them to other institutions mandated by the government to choose which sites should be blocked. We don’t even know what sites they are banning because the list is encrypted.”
Whatever the past role of the ATI, which many suspected was infiltrated by the secret police, the government still has the means to block websites. Saadaoui promises it will be used only to block sites involving pornography, child pornography, nudity and “hate.” But it would now have to be done with a court order. He said the current filters were necessary but “the limits are symbolic.” But he admitted that “it’s really useless to block. Whatever we do, there are ways to get round it.”
Slim Amamou, the blogger now in the government, told Reporters Without Borders on 23 February that the ATI was “drafting suggestions about its future.” He talked about making “an inventory of the online structure” and said he also discussed opening up the Internet service provider market with the technology minister, who agreed with the idea. Currently all telecom operators still have to use ATI as their online gateway.
The government reportedly has plans to set up an online censorship committee, but its composition and attitudes are not yet known. Would it just block very specific sites if the source of objectionable content could not be removed and would a court order be required for each blockage? If not, a drift back towards old censorship habits is possible.
Freedom of expression is a major victory of Tunisia’s “Jasmin Revolution” but new “red lines” seems to be appearing. Violence by police and troops, corruption by powerful old regime figures still in the country and the transition government’s problems are still covered very little by the media. Such red lines must not give rise to new Internet filters.
Tunisia has given an example to everyone who dreams of freedom, by overthrowing a dictator with the help of social network websites. Including Internet access as a basic right in the new national constitution would be greatly welcomed by Tunisians. Other key moves would be to open up the ISP market and dismantle the censorship machinery. Tunisians have won their freedom partly thanks to the Internet and it should now underpin that freedom.