North Africa, West Asia

Blogging at the time of dictatorship

The Tunisian Internet Agency is responsible for harming national memory. Questions need to be answered and those responsible need to be held accountable.

Anouar Jamaoui
13 May 2017
Peter Zschunke/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Peter Zschunke/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.For decades before the revolution, the ruling regime in Tunisia dominated public space, monopolized the media, confiscated the voices of dissenters, and spent a lot of effort and money to produce a media narrative in its favor.

To do so the regime strived in blurring facts, silencing voices and misleading international public opinion by promoting the fabricated image of ‘The Tunisian Miracle’ at home and abroad. This image presented Tunisia as a state of law, rights and institutions, where people enjoyed welfare. In reality, however, unemployment was rampant and poverty was widespread and tyranny was stiffling people.

To face this policy of systematic blackout, a number of young Tunisians endeavored to break the silence by creating new media that would expose the policies of the oppressive state and highlight the gravity of human rights violations during the reign of General Ben Ali.

In this context, e-blogging appeared in Tunisia as a form of protest, making room for free writing and a space for expression separate from the totalitarian state.

Numerous pioneering blogs and other sites came into existence and provided a space where opposed opinions were shared. This broke the media embargo imposed on the people, bringing together human rights activists, trade unionists, partisan and independent individuals. These blogs and sites published daring articles and sarcastic cartoons with distinctive content.

Among the electronic platforms that exposed the regime with their increasing popularity and rich critical content are: the forum of the National Council for Liberties, TAKRIZ, Tunisia News, TUNeZINE, NAWAAT and others. These sites resisted despotism peacefully via the internet.

Sami Ben Gharbia, director of the Nawaat website, said during his testimony before the Truth and Dignity Commission (March 11, 2017) that "bloggers have taken a leading role in politicizing the Tunisian internet and building a counter propaganda against that of Ben Ali.”

They expressed a political awareness of a social reality in which there was injustice and violation of rights and freedoms while mastering the use of digital technology to break the monopoly of Ben Ali’s system of information.

In their struggle, they took the moral obligation to protect the personal data of their blog visitors. But it was through blogs that Ben Ali knew that people were aware of the corruption of his regime; he consequently took every opportunity to block this blogging phenomenon and abuse bloggers.

In order to tighten control over the Internet, a specialized information center (the Tunisian Internet Agency) was established to monitor the people surfing these networks and to trace their publications, e-mails and pages on social media.

The Agency blocked many sites it considered to be against the regime and created others to beautify the image of the oligarchy. The Foreign Communications Agency contributed to the financing of e-piracy projects and the recruitment of media defenders for the regime; it also provided the presidential palace with daily reports on the activities of opposition sites.

The surveillance agencies used an army of censors and informers along with sophisticated and cost-effective piracy programs such as Trojans, virus transmission technologies and sorting content to disrupt opposition blogs, delete their databases, and prevent users from accessing them.

Restrictive laws were enacted to restrict freedom of navigation, electronic publishing and prevent access to information. Along with these measures the regime tracked bloggers down, arrested and tortured them as it feared the power of ‘the word’ and its role in raising people’s awareness and enlightening them.

The long list of those bloggers include Zouhair Yahyaoui who was arrested and served a prison sentence because of TUNeZINE, a critical and sarcastic site. He died in 2005 after not fully recovering from his time in prison.

Mohamed Abbou was imprisoned for three years and six months for publishing articles on the Tunisia News website about human rights violations in the country.

Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui was dismissed because of a letter he addressed to Ben Ali in which he criticized the deterioration of the judiciary.

However, these repressive measures did not successfully silence the voices of bloggers who continued to support the protest movement and transmit the image of the revolution to the world.

In the time of dictatorship, the blogger had a digital intellectual and e-activist role to fulfill. Devoting their lives, time and pen to defend the oppressed, and express the right of people to think, protest, write and publish.

In their writings these bloggers were recording the criminal acts of a police state, which the regime strived hard to hide, beautify or obscure.

Sami Ben Gharbia said he filed a complaint against the Tunisian Internet Agency (ITA), which is responsible for harming national memory over a period of ten years, because of its piracy of many opposition sites at home and abroad.

It is a crime punishable by law and contrary to Tunisia's agreements in the field of informatics. It is certainly true that the issue of the harassment of the blogging movement has not been fully studied and scrutinized yet. It is not known which parties were responsible for tracking down bloggers and harassing them at the time of the oppressive regime.

Who issued the blocking orders? Which parties hacked the protest sites and how much public money did they receive to do so? What are the components of the Internet police? And how was the secret code decoded? Who followed the bloggers, located their geographical location and facilitated political police access to them? 

All these questions remain unanswered.

All those concerned with the Internet in Tunisia and abroad are expecting the Truth and Dignity Commission, the Anti-corruption Authority, human rights activists and competent judicial bodies to answer these pending questions.

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