Tunisia: Internet Censors Move Into Top Gear in Response to Widespread Unrest
Reporters Without Borders condemns the reinforcement of online censorship amid a wave of protests and rioting in Tunisia that began two weeks when a young man set himself on fire outside a police station in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid.
"Online social networks have played a key role in transmitting news and information about the situation in Sidi Bouzid and other regions while the government-controlled traditional media have mostly ignored the story," Reporters Without Borders said. "The international media took some time to get interested in the subject but then found themselves barred from the sensitive areas.
"Sensitive social and political topics were already heavily censored on the Internet but the authorities, who are clearly disturbed by this wave of unrest, have responded by trying to impose even tighter and faster controls over the online flow of information about it. However, in the Internet era, it is becoming impossible to prevent coverage of events of this scale and censorship has perverse effects. All sorts of rumours circulate in the absence of reliable information. We urge the authorities to back off and to stop filtering websites and stop intimidating netizens and bloggers."
Access to the pages of foreign media websites with coverage of the current unrest is blocked inside Tunisia. They include reports posted online by France 24 and Le Nouvel Observateur.
Social networks, especially Facebook, which has around 2 million users in Tunisia, have been hit hard by the censorship. The government is not blocking access to all of Facebook, as it briefly tried to do in 2008, but it is pursuing a strategy of targeted blocking and intimidation of the bloggers and citizen journalists who are emerging as the main relays of news and information.
According to the Assabilonline website, more than 100 Facebook pages about the unrest of the past few weeks are blocked in Tunisia. They include the Arabic-language Facebook group "Mr. President, Tunisians are setting themselves on fire", which already has more than 12,000 members.
Facebook users cannot access the 'https' version of the site, which allows them to log on with a password securely. The Nawaat news website described this as part of a "Tunisian police campaign to hack into Facebook accounts," a way for the authorities to obtain activists' access codes and thereby infiltrate the citizen journalist networks that have sprung up around the events in Sidi Bouzid.
Many activists and bloggers have reported that their email and Facebook accounts have in hacked. In a post yesterday entitled "You can't Stop us from Writing", Lina Ben Mhenni voiced her outrage at discovering she had been the victim of one of these cyber-attacks and named Sofiene Chourabi and Azyz Amami as fellow victims.
Several sources told Reporters Without Borders that for the past few days it has been impossible to upload photos and videos to Facebook from Tunisia. This is a new development in a country where the best-known video and photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and YouTube have been blocked for months. This is clear attempt to restrict the circulation of images about the protests and the methods used to disperse them.
The censors are also taking an interest in the proxy software that people use to circumvent online censorship. Hotspot Shield, one of the sites that offer such software, has been particularly targeted in the past few days.
Tunisia's lively blogosphere is helping Internet users to withstand the battle with "Ammar," the nickname for the country's censorship apparatus. The prevailing mood of defiance is evident in the slogan chanted by protesters and taken up by the blogger Anis on 30 December: "We aren't afraid anymore."
Twitter pages about Sidi Bouzid were rendered inaccessible in Tunisia after the hashtag #sidibouzid spread like wildfire not only among Tunisians users but also netizens in neighbouring countries and throughout the world, testifying to the international solidarity movement that has arisen.
Under the codename "Operation Tunisia," the activist hacker group Anonymous has launched a series of cyber-attacks on government websites, including the president's and prime minister's sites, to denounce the government's censorship of the Internet: http://www.anonnews.org/?p=press&am...
Tunisia is on the Reporters Without Borders list of "Enemies of the Internet". The authorities claim that they normally only block access to pornographic and terrorist websites but in practice many opposition and news websites and sites with human rights content, including Tunisnews, Nawaat, PDPinfo.org, Tunisonline, Assabilonline, Reporters Without Borders and Al Jazeera, are rendered inaccessible.
Meanwhile, Ammar Amroussia, who covered the recent events in Sidi Bouzid for the banned newspaper Al-Badil (http://www.albadil.org/) and participated in many solidarity protests in Gafsa (400 km south of the capital), condemning corruption and urging his compatriots to combat the "dictatorship," was arrested on 29 December and is being held in Gafsa prison.
He is facing the possibility of more than 12 years in prison on a range of charges under articles 42, 44 and 49 of the press code, articles 121, 131, 132, 220-b, 315 and 316 of the criminal code and article 26 of a 1969 law about the "organization of public meetings, processions, exhibitions, demonstrations and gatherings."