• Population: 9,728,000
  • Internet users: 572,000 (2003)
  • Average charges for 20 hours of connection: 7 euros
  • DAI*: 0.41
  • Situation**: very serious

President Ben Ali often reiterates his desire to develop the Internet in Tunisia but he cracks down ruthlessly on free expression. The government censors the Internet and uses alleged cyber-crime to justify arbitrary imprisonment. Nine young Internet users were sentenced in April 2003 to sentences of up to 26 years in prison for just downloading files deemed by the authorities to be dangerous.

Efforts have been made to develop the Internet in Tunisia, especially by lowering connection charges to just 10 dinars (7 euros) for 20 hours. Phone lines are good and the government has encouraged ISPs, of which six are state-owned and six privately-owned. The authorities also set up 300 state-owned cybercafés (called "publinets") throughout the country and claim that all universities and secondary schools are on the Internet. Nonetheless, the Tunis law faculty has only 15 computers for 17,000 students, and with less than 6 per cent of the population going online, Tunisia is still far behind the Unites States, Europe or Asia.

International praise

Praised by ICANN - the organisation that regulates the Web worldwide - for helping to democratise the Internet, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali sees himself as model for the promotion of new technology in developing countries. The international community even seems to have recognised Tunisia as such. Tunisia has been chosen to host the second phase in 2005 of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a major event being staged by the International Telecommunications Union at which countries are supposed to reach an agreement about the Web's future. But the choice has been condemned by human rights organisations because of the way Tunisia censors the Internet.

Disguised but effective censorship

As press freedom is non-existent in their country, many Tunisians have looked to the Internet as a source of independent information and a place for debating ideas. But they have run up against President Ben Ali's determination to gag the Internet and his powerful police apparatus. The only ISPs allowed to serve the general public are those owned by the president's associates, including his daughter. The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), a direct offshoot of the telecommunications ministry, ensures that the market is tightly controlled by the authorities. To operate, ISPs must sign a contract stipulating that the Internet can only be used for "scientific, technological and commercial purposes strictly related to the area of activity of their customers."

The authorities routinely block access to certain news websites such as Kalima and TUNeZINE, and to NGOs and foreign media carrying criticism of the government. Anonymous e-mail services like Hotmail are often inaccessible whether through the publinets or private connections. This is done deliberately to get Tunisians to use e-mail accounts that are more easily controlled by the cyber-police. Nonetheless, it is possible most of the time to access the sites of human rights organisations and leading international news media such as Le Monde and the BBC.


The state-owned cybercafés are the only public points of Internet access. They are closely monitored, particularly by their own managers, who check what sites their customers are looking at. There is often also a notice near the computer saying something like, "It is strictly forbidden to visit banned sites." A vague wording meant to discourage users from visiting political websites.

As a report by the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LTDH) said in May 2004, the publinets are regularly monitored by the telecommunications ministry. They are also an offshoot of the interior ministry and therefore come under the control of the political police. The number of publinets seems to have fallen to about 260. The authorities are now prioritising the development of private connections because it is easier to identify and monitor dissidents when they use personal connections.

But there is plenty of evidence that publinets are also closely watched by the police. Plainclothes officers regularly collect details of Internet activity from the computers to check who has been looking at what sites. Spyware is also reportedly installed on publinet computers, allowing a direct data transfer to the ATI.

Tunisia's cyber-police

Control of telecommunications, including the Internet, was stepped up further in 2002 and an all-out cyber-police was set up to track down and block "subversive" websites, intercept attempts to reach sites containing "political or critical" material, hunt for and neutralise "proxy" servers used to get round the blocking of banned sites, and track down and arrest "over-active" Internet users - the cyber-dissidents. The LTDH said the authorities often use viruses to attack the e-mail systems of human rights organisations including the LTDH itself.

The authorities adopted an anti-terrorist law on 10 December that applies to Internet use. It created summary procedures for bringing terrorist suspects to trial and stipulated that these procedures would also apply to those accused of "inciting hate or racial or religious fanaticism whatever the means used" - the Internet being one of the possible means.

In other words, if those operating a website are accused of links to a terrorist group, they can be given a summary trial at which they could receive very harsh sentences. And in the current struggle against Islamism, the authorities could, in particular, apply the law to the operators of websites that show some degree of sympathy with this political and religious current. The law's provisions concerning money laundering could also be used against websites that receive money from foreign organisations which the authorities have deemed illegal.

Long jail sentences for young Internet users

A Tunis criminal court on 6 April sentenced Hamza Mahrouk, 21, Farouk Chelandi, 21, Amor Rached, 21, Abdel-Ghaffar Guiza, 21, Aymen Mecharek, 22, and Ridha Hadj Brahim, a 38-year-old teacher, to 19 years and three months in prison. The court also sentenced two Tunisians resident abroad: Ayoub Sfaxi, who received the same sentence as the others, and Tahar Guemir, 19, who was given 26 years as he was said to be the group's leader.

All eight were convicted of "forming a band to terrorize people... aggression against individuals with the intent to terrorize... holding unauthorized meetings... theft and attempted theft... preparing explosive material [and] unauthorized possession of substances intended for making explosive devices." They were convicted under the criminal code and not the new anti-terrorist law of December 2003, which took effect after their arrest.

Reporters Without Borders was told that the prosecution produced no serious evidence against the defendants. The prosecution's case included a few files they had downloaded from the Internet, such as information about the Kalashnikov rifle and documents explaining how to make a bomb. When the arrests were make, the police confiscated only a tube of a glue and a few CD-ROMs, which were the only evidence to support the allegation they had made explosives.

One of the defence lawyers, Najib Hosni, said many irregularities marred the judicial proceedings. For example, as they were arrested in the southern city of Zarzis, where they live, they should have been tried there, and not in Tunis. Hosni also claimed that his clients were tortured. However, although five of the defendants filed a complaint alleging torture, the court refused to allow any medical examination.

According to a number of different sources, the young defendants just used the Internet to download files about the situation in the Middle East and discussed the best way to support the Palestinian cause with a teacher, Ridha Hadj Brahim (who was one of those convicted).

A ninth member of the group, Abderrazak Bourguiba, 18, was tried by a court for minors in Tunis 10 days later because he was only 17 at the time of the alleged crimes. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison. Officials said during his trial that the group "tried to establish contact with the Al-Qaeda terrorist movement to get logistic support." They also claimed that they planned to attack a school and to stage a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the naval guard at the port of Zarzis.

The defence lawyer walked out of the courtroom during Bourguiba's trial in protest against the "lack of prosecution evidence" and the court's refusal to allow a medical examination of Bourguiba, who arrived in court with a perforated eardrum and signs of facial paralysis as a result of being tortured in prison.

Cyber-dissident released

Zouhair Yahyaoui, the founder and editor of the news website TUNeZINE, was conditionally released on 18 November 2003 after serving more than half of a 28-month sentence. He had been arrested in a Tunis publinet on 4 June 2002. He used his site to put out news about the fight for democracy and freedom in Tunisia, and to make opposition material available. Using the pseudonym "Ettounsi" ("The Tunisian" in Arabic), he wrote many columns and essays and was the first to publish an open letter that his uncle, Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, sent to President Ben Ali criticising the Tunisian judiciary's lack of independence.

TUNeZINE was censored by the authorities right from the start. But its fans each week received a list of "proxy" servers through which they could access it. Yahyaoui was sentenced by an appeal court on 10 July 2002 to 12 months in prison for "putting out false news to give the impression there had been a criminal attack on persons or property" (article 306-3 of the criminal code) and another 16 months for "theft by the fraudulent use of a communications link" (article 84 of the communications code), meaning he used an Internet connection at the publinet where he worked. He was jailed in very harsh conditions and staged two hunger-strikes in early 2003 to protest against his imprisonment.

He was awarded the Reporters Without Borders Cyber-Freedom Prize on 19 June 2003. Since leaving prison he has lived in Tunis. He told Reporters Without Borders that the authorities have managed to prevent him from making any professional headways since his release.


* The DAI (Digital Access Index) has been devised by the International Telecommunications Union to measure the access of a country's inhabitants to information and communication technology. It ranges from 0 (none at all) to 1 (complete access).

** Assessment of the situation in each country (good, middling, difficult, serious) is based on murders, imprisonment or harassment of cyber-dissidents or journalists, censorship of news sites, existence of independent news sites, existence of independent ISPs and deliberately high connection charges.


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