x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Tunisia's bloggers defy state censors

As it strives for a knowledge-based economy, the government is keen to see the whole country online - except for its critics, it seems.

Zied el Heni says blogging helps him to 'transform my sense of injustice and rage into energy'.
Zied el Heni says blogging helps him to 'transform my sense of injustice and rage into energy'.

TUNIS // Thirteen years ago, Tunisian authorities barred Zied el Heni from launching an independent radio station. Later, he tried to start a magazine, but they barred him again. Last year, he finally found his platform - blogging. "I wanted a space where I could express myself without the constraints imposed on my profession," said el Heni, a journalist and human rights activist in the capital, Tunis. "I've tried to transform my sense of injustice and rage into energy."

Foreign tourists know Tunisia for its sunny beaches, ancient ruins and one of the Arab world's most liberal societies. But for Tunisians, life is a daily tiptoe through a minefield of political taboos enforced by a vast security apparatus and heavily censored media. Now the country's drive to embrace the internet is giving Tunisians an unexpected new outlet to challenge authority. "The government policy is to encourage the use of the internet by all sectors of society, and ensure access," said Oussama Romdhani, a senior Tunisian official. The president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, has vowed to get the country online as part of a drive towards a knowledge-based economy.

The government has poured cash into underwater and fibre-optic cables, and made computer use part of the school curriculum. That has paid off, with official statistics showing that internet use has more than doubled since 2007 to 2.8 million people - nearly one-third of the population. That gives Tunisians an alternative source of news and commentary to the mainstream press, which largely avoids tough issues and lionises Mr Ben Ali.

They are tapping into an explosion of blogs in North Africa, said Rachid Jankari, a blogger and IT company director in Casablanca, who is working with the Solidarity Center, a US-based workers' rights organisation, to build an internet-driven network of journalists across the region. "It's the emergence of individual expression," Mr Jankari said. "And we see the diversity of the points of view." In Tunisia, that is where trouble can start.

For journalists and activists such as el Heni, the internet is a platform for criticising the state. Government censors have shut down his website eight times since he started blogging last year, he said, forcing him to shift to a new address each time. Authorities say that only websites threatening public order or promoting hatred are blocked. "Freedom of the press is guaranteed in Tunisia," said Mr Romdhani, the senior official. "But freedom of expression comes obviously with a sense of responsibility and accountability."

But many journalists say that in practice, restrictions often go beyond media that push a violent message. "The law is like an unsigned cheque," el Heni said. "They promise lots of rights, but the reality is different." According to a report last year by Amnesty International, journalists in Tunisia who have criticised the government have had their websites blocked, been subjected to smear campaigns and prosecuted for libel.

A separate investigation last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international media watchdog, found that reporters and rights activists in Tunisia have had their phone lines cut, been placed under police surveillance and been barred from travelling abroad. A few had been attacked violently or imprisoned in recent years, the investigation said. Authorities have tried to shut down a few outlets entirely, human rights groups said. A case in point is Radio Kalima, an independent station launched in January, said Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights. Police have ordered some reporters for the station to stop working, and a few not to leave their homes, he said.

The station bypassed normal restrictions on transmitting by broadcasting over the internet, and by satellite via Italy. That angered authorities "because it's something they can't control", Mr Trifi said. That is increasingly true of the internet, too. But thanks to key economic and education policies, Tunisia is wedded to the web. Tunisia lacks the big oil of neighbouring Algeria and Libya, and is banking instead on serving as a hub for business and industry. Since independence from its coloniser, France, in 1956, the country has followed a modernising ideology that makes learning a priority.

"Our education is oriented towards computer use," said an internet cafe manager in Tunis. "Every day I have more customers." On a weekday lunchtime, peak hours at the internet cafe, students and businessmen who depend increasingly on the web are hunched intently over the banks of computers along the walls. Computers had become a habit, said the manager. "And that's happening - I have customers who spend three hours here every day."

The government has brought the internet to all universities and secondary schools, and to over two thirds of primary schools, according to official statistics. Trends like that are the reason some bloggers say the future belongs to them, as new technology makes websites more secure. "The more citizens are informed," el Heni said, "the more they have power." jthorne@thenational.ae