Online Freedom of Expression in Tunisia
Finding The Right Balance


Freedom of expression in Tunisia has always been an aspiration for all users of Internet before and after the revolution of 2011. This right has undergone a progressive process from the grip of the repressive regime of Ben Ali until the revolution that was intended to free Tunisians from the old methods of censorship, surveillance, control.
 
Indeed, freedom of expression is a universal right. It is “the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”, by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948), article 19. Yet, practically speaking, this value is always endangered by an abusive use of power (the authorities).
 
Journalists, Bloggers and other civil society activists are vulnerable to harassment and penalty, followed by blurred accusations of defaming the military institution or violating the state of emergency in some delicate situations during the revolution. In this context, this essay aims to address and assess the current situation of freedom of expression in Tunisia and eschews the possible implications of such violation of this right on myself, asa Tunisian citizen, and on the community on a wider scale. Third, it provides possible solutions to some questions regarding the right to freedom of expression that may improve its current situation in Tunisia.
 
The resurrection of the Tunisian revolution (2011) brought with it the hope for a better system of governance that ensures the implementation of freedom of expression whether in online or offline spaces. As yet, no serious plans have been made to conclusively overcome the issue of censorship and surveillance.
 
Accordingly, the Tunisian government has made a slight progress in resolving the issue of surveillance and censorship via stepping towards transparency and accountability. For instance, the “National Instance of Telecommunication-INT” which represents the sole regulator and manager of the entire national network, expressed its strong willingness to boycott the old methods of censorship and surveillance that were used to serve the interests of the repressive regime of Ben Ali in jailing opponents from Internet and civil society activists. As a matter of fact, this oppressive measure of imprisonment remains a questionable issue in the post-revolutionary phase.
 
Evoking the cases of Yassine Ayari, the Tunisian cyber-activist and blogger, along with the senior police officer, Samir Ferjani were successively sentenced in prison for charge of defaming the military in some facebook posts and denouncing a number of senior officials responsible for murders of protestors during the uprising. This point sheds the light on the necessity to reshape and reformulate the current laws granted to freedom of expression in the constitution and study the huge implications that may jeopardize the process to the democratization of the country.
 
On the individual side, the repetitive use of abusive forms of punishments towards civil activists and Internet users after the revolution fears me and each Tunisian citizen about the status of our freedom of expression. The latter represents a priceless gain resulted from the revolution. Not only, does it allow me to express freely my opinion but it opens the doors for an environment of shared ideas and thoughts.
 
By turn, it would enrich my ideas and enhance my knowledge about different issues on national and global standards. Likewise, all arrests based on online activism are useless. They would only generate anger and distrust against the authorities. The current arrest of Yassine Ayari brought all civil society activists and bloggers to protest against the government.
 
The fact that made the whole community suspicious about the real enforcement of the law granted to freedom of expression in the constitution. Therefore, it is vital that freedom of expression be preserved under a strong legal framework, deterring all kinds of human rights infringement.
 
Subsequently, one of the main problems hindering Tunisia from reaching the high standards of Internet freedoms at global level is its judiciary laws that are still unmodified from the old regime of Ben Ali. They are meant for a persistent prosecution of cyber-activists. This is a serious issue that must be redefined and reshaped upon the judiciary body as an urgent matter, standing at the core principles of democracy.
 
I advocate the application of coordination between the state and civil society. It would pave the way for an open dialogue, addressing the possible challenges and issues in relation to online freedom of expression such as cyber-crime, censorship, abusive use of control over bloggers… last but not least; I believe that Internet governance is a fundamental step towards the democratization of the country.
 
Through shared responsibilities between all actors of the society, including officials from the parliament, NGOs activists, and experts of communication and computer engineers, journalists and media can all participate in the decision-making process.
 
In this concern, the public statement and dialogue between all these actors could bring awareness about the necessity of transparency and access to information that lack many Arab countries. Eventually, it would enhance the national situation of Internet at the level of its infrastructure and the preservation of the individual’s right of access to information freely and without any sort of surveillance.
 
In a nutshell, though Tunisia has managed to mend online freedom of expression after the revolution, continuous arrests over cyber-activists and bloggers remained. The issue that requires more solid remedies to keep freedom of expression a red line that should not be violated by any supreme power.
 
 
Rabeb Jelidi ( Tunisia ) 
Civil society Activist, MA International Relations

Published on 28-11-2015