Four years ago, former Tunisian president Zine Abidine Ben Ali (Presidential term: April 2,1989 – January 14, 2011) ordered the Tunisian Internet Agency (ITA) to lift all ban on social media websites and video platforms such as YouTube, Daily motion, etc. in a desperate attempt to absorb the wrath of his people online and on the streets.
This move allowed more people to uncover the ruthlessness of ZABA’s regime (acronym for Zine Abidine Ben Ali, commonly used by bloggers) for the first time without the state media’s filters, which used to deliver them what they need to know from personal information about end users to the political thought that dissent used to circulate on the internet. Consequently, the protest movement didn’t stop but accelerated and led eventually to ZABA’s overthrow on January 14th, 2011.
His repressive censorship apparatus largely dissipated and internet users have started to enjoy an unprecedented level of web access. However, old habits die hard, fears of the comeback of Ammar404 (the nickname Tunisian netizens gave to internet censorship during the Ben Ali era, based on the 404 “file not found” message) reemerged in May 2011 with attempts to filter adult content and the blocking of five Facebook pages critical of the military institution.
Moez Chakchouk, ATI’s CEO since the Jasmine Revolution, explained this during the 3rd edition of The Freedom Online Conference held in Tunis in June 2013. He did so while presenting a new initiative that replaced the control room once used for surveillance and censorship, with a “memorial” and a site for studies related to surveillance and censorship. Today, the office within ATI is called “404 Lab.” Since the revolution, it has hosted several events related to freedom online.
Tunisians have long understood the importance of Internet tools and most importantly the ability to use them freely. What about the state? Abolishing censorship didn’t mean lifting surveillance on the Internet in Tunisia.
The ban of certain websites and social media pages continued after the overthrow of Ben Ali, but with different justification. The military court frequently ordered the ban of some Facebook pages because of hate speech or terrorism.
Aymen Ben Ammar, a 25-year old blogger from Tunis, was sentenced to 4 years in jail for threatening to detonate explosives in the headquarters of a local radio in Sousse, central-east Tunisia. He was working with two other bloggers on an investigative article about corruption.
Mussab Ben Ammar, Aymen’s brother, claims that the case has been distorted with the detonation claims: “Aymen has been digging for truth behind the murder of a friend of him, a leftist activist called Kahena Daya Hussein, even though he was known to be a conservative.
His investigation led him to Sousse suspecting the involvement of a known businessman who owns the local radio station and a call-center. Aymen made acquaintance with an employee at the call center and started asking questions, but the girl sold him out to her boss and they orchestrated his detention”.
Without any proof to convict Aymen of terrorism, the charges have been changed to “forming an unauthorized militia.” Aymen’s story was soon followed by a new chapter in Yassine Ayari’s case.
Yassine is a Tunisian engineer, blogger, and son of the assassinated colonel Taher Ayari, the most highly ranked person to be martyred in the history of Tunisia’s army. Taher Ayari was shot dead during a pursuit of a terrorist armed group in Rouhia/Seliana on May 2011. Since his father’s death, Yassine became very critical of the role the military has been playing in the cases of the revolutions’ martyrs.
On March 3, a military appeals court sentenced Ayari to six months in prison for allegedly “defaming the army” and “insulting military commanders” in comments he posted on Facebook in September 2014.
He has been detained since January 2015. The case of Yassin Ayari violates rights enshrined in international conventions signed by Tunisia, as well as guaranteed freedoms in its own constitution Tunisian authorities should abolish all laws that criminalize defamation and allow civilians to be tried in military courts.
Amna Guellalli, Human Rights Watch country director in Tunisia, commented on this case: “Tunisia adopted a new constitution in January 2014 that was hailed as an important step towards consolidating human rights protections and re-establishing the rule of law.
Yet, some repressive legal provisions left over from the Ben Ali dictatorship remain on the books and are now being used regularly by the authorities to trample human rights.”
Tunisia has still a long road to take in order to put the promises of the “too-good-to-be-true” constitution, which includes protection of whistleblowers, into action. Aymen and of their personal information and restriction on freedom of speech through the military law that has not been reformed yet.
Aymen Abderrahmen, Tunisian Human Rights & Online Freedom activist, freelance journalist, and secretary-general of the non-governmental organization “Youth-Can