Despite Country’s Relative Openness, Internet Postings Landing Some Critics in Jail

TUNIS — Lawyer Mohammed Abou wrote sharply about politics in a country where criticism of the government is generally dulled. His outlet was the Internet, the only venue available to politically combative Tunisians, provided they can get around electronic censorship.

He attacked the prison system, likening Tunisia’s jails to Abu Ghraib, Iraq’s notorious American-run penitentiary. He compared Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a serious affront in the Arab world.

Then the government countered by blocking access to the Web site where Abou’s work appeared. Police picked him up at a pharmacy on March 1 and, a month later, a judge sentenced him to three years in jail for defaming Tunisia’s judiciary and, through a case suddenly brought against him, for assaulting a female lawyer.

His imprisonment became a cause for human rights activists and undermined the country’s carefully cultivated image as a leader of political openness in the Middle East. But the case was not unique. Tunisian security officials are making war on the Internet to prevent critics from using it to launch attacks on the government and Ben Ali, who has been in power for 18 years.

Even as delegates from 175 countries met in Tunis in November for the World Summit on the Information Society, a gathering aimed at spreading information technology around the world, the government kept up its controls. Delegates protested, but to no apparent result.

Government censors routinely block access to content and sites that draw concern. Monitors at public computers keep watch on users to see if they succeed in getting around the obstructions. Writing the wrong thing on the Internet can bring jail time.

“In Tunisia, citizens may be theoretically free to receive and share information, but they are practically prevented from doing so on a number of vital topics by a state that combines sophisticated American technology, harsh laws and informal pressures to limit access,” according to the Open Net Initiative, a joint project of the University of Toronto, Harvard University and Cambridge University that seeks to uncover obstacles to Internet use.

The Tunisian government defends its policy on security and public morality grounds. Habib Cherif, the government’s human rights coordinator, said restrictions are a defense against terrorism, violence and pornography. As for Abou’s criticism, Cherif said “the law forbids slander of the magistrates. Justice must be protected.”

“It’s the law, and so it is applied,” he added. Pressed on whether he, as the government’s chief human rights watchdog, agrees with censorship of all such critical commentary, he replied, “Yes. It is appropriate for a country in transition.”

Transition is a word often used by Tunisian officials when asked about restrictions on speech. The government prides itself on its relative openness, compared with its neighbors, Algeria, which experienced a vicious civil war in the 1990s, and Libya, which has been under the rule of Moammar Gaddafi for 37 years. Among Middle East countries, Tunisia stands out for its self-declared effort to model itself on European economic and political standards.

But compared with Egypt and Lebanon, countries with vibrant democracy movements, Tunisia looks retrograde. Ben Ali won his latest term in office with 94 percent of the vote against feeble opposition. Headlines from a variety of papers on a recent day featured the same message : lawyers in parliament had praised Ben Ali for his leadership, pursued with “conscience and sacrifice.”

The Tunisian police state is readily apparent. At the Tunisian League for Human Rights in Bizerte, a coastal town north of Tunis, police stood vigil one recent day outside the office, scattering only at the arrival of a reporter. They moved a block away, all speaking into walkie-talkies.

When the reporter left, one plainclothesman followed his car to the bus station. The man entered the station, circled the reporter for a while, and left. With the exception of discussions with government officials, every interview conducted for this article attracted similar police surveillance.

“The Internet is a problem for the government, because it can be everywhere,” said Ahmed Galai, an official of the Tunisian League. “Even in Tunisia, where we have wall-to-wall police, it is hard to keep up.”

The Abou case was one of several Web-related controversies that created a stir before the summit here. Rights groups demanded that the gathering be moved. Opponents of proposals to transfer governance of Internet addresses and other responsibilities away from U.S. control pointed to Tunisia as evidence to support their position. Tunisian democracy activists held a month-long hunger strike calling for press and Internet freedom.

During the summit itself, police beat a French reporter and confiscated videotape from a Belgian television news team, human rights groups said. In a speech to delegates, Swiss Federal President Samuel Schmid declared it was “unacceptable” that governments represented at the summit jailed citizens for using the Internet as a vehicle for criticism. The simultaneous translation of the speech abruptly halted and state television cut off broadcast of the event until Schmid was finished.

Abou, a slender man with a thin moustache, has been active in promoting free speech, prison and judicial reform, and democracy for six years. Several of his articles appeared on, a Web site blocked in this country. (As with other such sites, the notice “impossible to find the page” pops up when an Internet user in Tunisia tries to call up the site.)

Abou’s article comparing Ben Ali to Sharon appeared a day before his arrest. “That’s the one that really angered them. Abou crossed the line,” said Samia Hammouda, his wife.

The charges against Abou included an accusation lodged in 2002 by a female lawyer who said Abou shoved her to the ground during a meeting. The case had not been heard of until the defamation charges.

Cherif, the government human rights official who is also a magistrate, said Abou was guilty of “insulting” judges. “No one can be allowed to do that,” he said.

Abou was not the first Web dissident to be jailed for his writings. Zouhair Yahyaoui, who died of a heart attack in March, for years operated, a political and satirical Web site. In 2002, he had invited readers to vote on whether Tunisia was a republic, kingdom, zoo or prison.

Police arrested Yahyaoui in an Internet cafe. The government prosecuted him for spreading “false news” and unauthorized use of an Internet connection. He was freed in 2003 after serving 18 months of a two-year sentence.

Tunisian authorities sometimes also ban individuals from entering any of the country’s 300 authorized cyber offices, known as Publinet.

Abdullah Zouari, who published articles on prohibited Web sites, is confined to the far southern town of Zarzis in internal exile.

In the early 1990s, a court sentenced Zouari to 11 years in prison for belonging to an Islamic party that the government said was plotting a rebellion. His sentence was part of a massive crackdown by Ben Ali on Islamic rivals.

Now he is serving five years in Zarzis. He has also spent nine months in prison for traveling outside the area. Despite such punishments, he has been escorting human rights researchers on visits to families of prisoners. His house in Zarzis is under watch 24 hours a day by police.

The police also follow Zouari wherever he goes. During a recent visit by a reporter, police riding in a pickup truck dutifully tailed Zouari to downtown cafes, up alleys and in front of private houses. Zouari waved at them and they waved back.

When Zouari approached the L’espace Publinet Internet office, the truck was already parked in front of it. The proprietor told him simply, “It’s prohibited.”

The government justifies its Internet controls by pointing to cases such as the 2004 conviction of eight young men in Zarzis on charges of plotting terrorist acts. They allegedly used the Internet to download information on weaponry and bomb-making. “It’s a measure of the irresponsibility of human rights activists that they defend these men,” said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Relatives of the prisoners say that the convicts had visited sites concerning only Iraq and the Palestinians and that they were not plotting violence. Mohammed Guiza, whose son Abdelgaffer was sentenced to 13 years in prison, said the young men were tortured to get confessions, which they retracted in court.

“The government tries to show there are terrorists. Otherwise, why have this dictatorship ? It’s just a trick to keep Tunisia without democracy,” Guiza said.

Source : Washington Post