A censorship war has unfolded on the streets and on the Internet in Tunisia over the past weeks. Freedom of speech activists are demanding less censorship regarding the country’s growing social unrest, but instead of giving in the Government is shutting down the blogs of activists and critics, as well as talking over Gmail and Facebook accounts. The situation took a turn for the worse this week when several net activists, bloggers and members of The Pirate Party were arrested for reasons unknown.
Starting mid-December thousands of Tunisian citizens protested on the streets against the harsh economic conditions, political repression and increasing levels of censorship by their Government.
Calls from the public to allow freedom of speech for Tunisian citizens, however, have resulted in quite the opposite reaction from the authorities. Both online and offline protesters are quickly and sometimes violently silenced. A well documented article by Al-Jazeera earlier this week reports of hacked Facebook and Gmail accounts, presumably by the Tunisian Government.
Last weekend the secure https protocol became unavailable in the country and in the days that followed many bloggers and net activists were locked out of their personal accounts. Sofiene Chourabi, blogger and journalist for Al-Tariq al-Jadid magazine was one of the first to notice the ‘hack’ attempts last week.
“My personal account on the Facebook, including around 4200 friends, was exposed to failed hacking attempt last Friday, but I quickly recovered it after an unidentified person had taken control of it,” he told Al Jazeera. This first attempt failed, but a second last Monday was successful as Chourabi lost access to both his Gmail and Facebook accounts.
Another activist and critic of the Government who suffered the same fate is Azyz Amami, a member of the local Pirate Party. Amami had used a secondary email address to register at Gmail and Facebook which allowed him to regain access, but not before the authorities found the login information to his four blogs and deleted all content.
Amami said he thinks that the Government’s hacking and phishing attempts are more widespread, and that those reported thus far represent just the tip of the iceberg since many people fear repercussions from the Government. Only hours after stating his concerns in public on Thursday he was arrested, and he wasn’t the only one.
Slim Amamou and Slah Eddine Kchouk, both graduate students and members of the Pirate Party of Tunisia like Amami, were also arrested by the authorities. In addition several other activists and bloggers were arrested and taken in for questioning, without any specifics being released on the reasons of their arrests.
Slah Eddine Kchouk, Azyz Amami and Slim Amamou
The arrests are a sign that the call for more freedom of speech on the Internet is backfiring. The more vocal people get the harder the Government is reacting. But the public is not giving up without a fight. Last weekend ‘Anonymous’ activists successfully took down several Government websites, but thus far this has only resulted in more censorship and less openness.
The Tunisian Pirate Party is outraged by the arrests of its members and has posted an appeal for more attention to the growing repression. According to the Party the three members were “kidnapped” by the political police without a warrant, and all three also had their computers confiscated.
“Tunisia is a country where torture while in detention or in prison is very common as reported and documented by Red Cross, Amnesty, HRW and other NGO’s. Pirate Party Tunisia severely condemns the dictatorship of Ben Ali and will engage every possible action to free its members and to seek international legal course in case of torture and inhumane treatment on its members,” the Party announced.
A few hours ago the international umbrella organization for Pirate Parties – Pirate Parties International – also released a public statement condemning the unjust arrests of Pirate Party members and free speech activists.
“Pirate Parties around the World condemn these acts against freedom of expression, human rights and democracy, and call upon governments take firm action against Tunisia for these recent events. Party members are advised to refrain from visiting Tunisia until the human rights situation has improved,” the statement says.
Despite the harsh actions from the police and the ever increasing censorship, many Tunisians are continuing their protests online and offline. Increasingly Twitter is being used to propagate the message they feel the world should know, as it is less prone to censorship than Facebook.
Posting a video, blog post or Facebook status update has become a challenge and a threat at the same time for many young Tunisians. The current situation brings freedom of speech issues closer to ‘home’ than ever before for many Internet users.