The Freedom On the Net 2015 report elaborated by Freedom House has been lately released. The report takes into consideration different factors to calculate and evaluate the Net index of each country over online freedoms. The basic elements of evaluation are Internet freedom status, obstacles to access, limits on contents and violation of users rights. Let’s take a closer look on Tunisia’s efforts and the key development of the country when it comes to Online freedoms.
A noticeable progress?
At first sight, we can easily notice that Tunisia only made a slight progress on the obstacles to Access category comparing to last year (11 in 2014, 10 in 2015). This allowed the country to gain the 38 position in the ranking. This comes as recognition for the launch of Tunisia’s first privately owned submarine fiber-optic cable back in September 2014. The committee also praised the “National Instance of Telecommunication -INT” which is the regulator for all telecom and internet-related activities for its decisions to take action and step toward transparency and accountability.
As a matter of fact, INT has the responsibility of resolving technical issues and disputes between different actors. We have to bear in minds that INT is the instance, which decides the Internet policy of the country, and, therefore, Tunisian Internet Agency ATI is the institution which manages Internet Exchange Points IXP and provides direct Internet access to public institutions.
Regarding the limits to the content category, the report does mention that censorship remains sparse in the country with no instances politically motivated to block or filter content over the past four years. Even with the rise of extremist attacks and the call of the government for filtering web pages affiliated with terrorism, there were no indications that the authorities proceeded with blocking or filtering of web content.
Mr. Noomane Fehri, Minister of communication technology and digital economy confirmed during a meeting with media outlets during the Africa Internet Summit in Tunis, “We will not adopt a policy of blocking websites whatever is the threat to national security because we believe this solution is technologically useless”. In the other hand, and despite the rise of Internet penetration from 34% in 2009 to 46% in 2014, it does remain beyond the reach of a large segment of the population according to the World Bank report on (January 2014).
However, the legal framework still represents a significant threat to Internet freedoms, it keeps holding Tunisia back. The main issue is that the judiciary still deploys lows from the Ben Ali’s era to prosecute a handful of Tunisians cyber-activists for their online activities.
We cannot forget about Yassine Ayari’s case earlier this year who was jailed and released from prison on April 2015 after being convicted of defaming the Military through Facebook posts. Tunisia’s code of military justice criminalizes any criticism of the military institution and its commanders. Such incidents nurture to rise of self-censorship for normal end-users or even cyber-activists who avoid crossing red lines because of the fear of being prosecuted, harassed or threatened.
The lack of clear yet voted laws and regulations for the cyberspace will remain a huge problem when it comes to privacy, personal data protection and access to information vectors. We should also mention that “Deep Packet Inspection DPI” a technique employed to monitor the Internet to intercept online communications is still in place. No censorship cases were recorded during the last year, but the threat remains.
Tunisia’s online media landscape is still vibrant and open, but the risk of going back to Ben Ali’s era is still there. The efforts deployed to use digital media for initiatives related to political and social issues is with a great added value to the role of Tunisian civil society. Nonetheless, some gaps are observed when it comes to considering bloggers and citizen journalists as non-journalists by the law.
For example Tunisia’s press code does not provide legal protection for bloggers and citizen journalists who do not fall under the protection afforded to traditional journalists. A traditional journalist is defined by Article 7 as a person holding a BA degree, who disseminate news on a regular basis for a private or state-owned media institution or periodical news agencies which are his/her main source of income.
This analysis should also shed the light on Telecommunications Codes which are reminiscent to the previous Ben Ali era like the ”Article 86 that states that anyone found guilty of “using public communication networks to insult or disturb others” could spend up to two years in prison and may be liable to pay a fine. Articles 128 and 245 of the penal code also punish slander with two to five years’ imprisonment. Article 121, for example, calls for a maximum punishment of five years in jail for those convicted of publishing content “liable to cause harm to public order or public morals”.
It’s true that Tunisia has made a progress ever since the revolution when it comes to freedom on Internet, online censorship, and digital activism, but the path forward to an effective implementation of a legal framework to protect citizens and their rights to access to information is still way too long. Without a true political will and leadership, no progress will be registered to tackle this issue. It’s high time to work on a more inclusive internet « legal framework » in Tunisia to guarantee a fully free and protected cyberspace.
: Policy Analyst, Intern Orange lab