Dictator Ben Ali’s fall from power had raised hopes that Ammar 404, the censorship system set up by the former regime, would be dismantled. But the latter might rise again from its ashes in the wake of a series of court orders on filtering, while the status of freedom of information remains precarious.
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Fragile freedom of information worth protecting
The Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia, has brought drastic changes throughout the region. However, much remains to be done in order to protect the benefits of these revolutions, notably those involving freedoms of expression and information, specifically online. Case in point: the film “Persépolis” and the attacks on the Nessma TV station’s offices, the arrest of newspaper Attounissia’s editor for publishing the photo of a nude woman, and police assaults on journalists covering the demonstrations.
While the progress in freedom is real, new red lines – outlined in the Tunisia chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report (acts of violence committed by the police and the army, corruption, government hurdles) – seem to be emerging. The Nawaat blog deplored the fact that justice is the new spearhead of censorship, and stressed that political censorship is shifting toward moral and religious censorship.
In Medenine, lawyer Mabrouk Korchide filed three complaints against a blogger and two Tunisian citizens following their posts and comments on the rally against his nomination to the position of advisor to the governor. Blogger Riadh Sahli was charged with “defamation” on the Internet just for sharing a press release sent by the demonstrators on his page Facebook Medenine informative. Mabrouk Korchide also accused Youssef Fillali, a citizen who merely commented on this post, of “defamation.” The trial, which will be the post-Ben Ali era’s first defamation trial, scheduled for February 22, has been continued until March 14. Furthermore, the lawyer also filed a complaint against another blogger from Medenine, Marwane Athemna, for “defamation” and “distributing leaflets” attacking his reputation.
The Riadh Sahli case shows that the law is mute on the subject of online media responsibility, and that setting up a Web-specific legal liability framework has become mandatory.
A dangerous gap in the law?
The Decree-Law No. 115 of November 2, 2011 on Freedom of the Press, Printing and Publishing will no doubt be extended to certain online content. Even though Article 1 recognizes that freedom of expression is the basis of cybercitizen protection, the Web as a whole does not fall within the law’s scope of application.
As stipulated by Article 7, which uses the notion of “creating electronic information,” and Article 2, which refers to “digital works,” the decree will apply to the online media. Nevertheless, no liability framework has yet been assigned to the Internet. Such liability takes on special meaning in a context of reader comments, discussion forums, etc. The “short prescription” principle must be applied in the same way to articles published online, with the starting point being the date of the posting.
Is Internet filtering coming back?
The first alarm sounded in May 2011, when the Tunis Permanent Military Tribunal ordered that five pages on Facebook be censored. The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) decided to play the transparency card and released the list of sites concerned.
On May 26, 2011, the Tunis Court of First Instance ordered ATI to block access to pornographic websites after a complaint was filed by lawyers on grounds that they were posing a threat to minors and the country’s Muslim values – a decision that ATI pledged to oppose. In June 2011, Reporters Without Borders met with ATI President Moez Chakchouk, who reaffirmed that ATI wishes to act in a neutral and transparent manner and refuses to engage in filtering.
When its appeal was rejected in August 2011, ATI took its case to the highest appeal court. On February 22, 2012, the Court of Cassation overturned the judgement on the filtering of pornographic Web content and referred the case back to appeal. In the meantime, ATI has had to begin Internet filtering in compliance with the court’s decision. It has provided information about the measures taken to comply with the order and warned the public that the reactivation of filtering would cause service quality to deteriorate, mainly due to network maintenance problems. While filtering errors can be reported by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, ATI states in its notices that it will not assume responsibility for them.
However, filtering was not implemented as smoothly as expected. On February 27, 2012, Moez Chakchouk told Reporters Without Borders that “our technical services were only able to apply it for state-owned companies and public community networks. As for the five Internet service providers, all attempts resulted in serious declines in performance (Internet traffic fluidity at the transit node level).” He explained that such problems were due to “exponential growth” (+60% in 2011 vs. 2010) of the international bandwidth“ – “a growth that ATI can no longer handle for lack of the financial resources (formerly provided by the Tunisian government) needed to put the filtering system back into operation.”
Reporters Without Borders denounced the potential resumption of filtering as a way of resorting to the former repressive measures and listed the technical, legal, and financial risks that this would entail, including overblocking, exorbitant costs and the privatization of censorship, which would be delegated to a technical intermediary. Reporters Without Borders is concerned about a return to Ben Ali era practices and fears that filtering of one kind of content may be a prelude to the censoring of other types of content. Widespread filtering is totally inconsistent with Internet neutrality and the freedom of expression values advocated by the Higher Authority for the Realization of Revolutionary Objectives, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition.
E-governance and the growth of free software?
One positive sign: according to Global Voices, is that the political class is now using, in sending out its messages to the population, the very tools that the state previously repressed: “Twitter is also the arena in which Tunisian politicians express their frustrations about their own parties’ lack of organization or the slow pace of the current government.” “Political leaders in Tunisia are eager to have more transparent relations with their electorate, and that now seems to mean making use of the social media.”
The ATI has just officially launched tor.mirror.tn, a mirror of the TOR website featuring its popular circumvention and anonymity software, previously used by cyberdissidents against Ammar 404. Through TOR, Moez Chakchouk told the webdo.tn website that he “wants to encourage the use of free software platforms, as well as offer a product that guarantees better navigation security against malware scripts.” Installation of the TOR mirror site in Tunisia is a first in the Arab world, in Africa and even in Asia, according to Mr. Chakchouk. Many Internet users view this initiative as a way to measure the success of the Tunisian Revolution, which in the past was an arena for censorship software tests.
Future of the Tunisian Internet: Projects and debates
The restructuring of the Tunisian Internet Agency under the auspices of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies is one of the items that the transition government is working on. In Moez Chakchouk’s opinion, “The ATI will be able to operate in accordance with international good practices as an Internet exchange point.” He believes that the ATI is a candidate for membership in the European Internet Exchange Association (EuroIX) that connects ISP networks and permits the exchange of Internet traffic at the European level.
Liberalizing the Internet market is still a key objective, along with fighting against the re-emergence of filtering techniques, which should remain in the past. Including Internet access as a fundamental right in Tunisia’s new Constitution would further anchor Tunisia on a steady course leading to Internet freedom.