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Tunisia: Censorship and Freedom of Speech in the Year That Was

This post is part of our special coverage Tunisia Revolution 2011.

Former Tunisian President Zeine El Abidine Ben Ali was an enemy to freedom of speech. With its heavy tactics, his regime attempted to silence all dissidents. The Tunisian Internet Agency (known as the ATI from its French acronym) spent significant resources on Internet censorship, while the Interior Ministry tracked down, and violently silenced voices calling for change and political reform.

On January, 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, and ever since, Tunisians have been able to express themselves freely, protest, assemble, and enjoy unprecedented access to Internet like never before. But, the battle for freedom of speech in Tunisia did not cease with the former president leaving the country. And as old habits die hard, there were cases of censorship, and of violent crackdowns on protesters after January 14.

Here are some of the incidents that stand out when we look back at censorship and attempts to silence of free speech since Ben Ali was toppled.

Is the Army a red line?

On November 9, Nabil Hajlaoui, an agronomist from Sidi Bouzid, was sentenced to two months in prison following his criticism of the Tunisian military institution. Hajloui accused the army of passivity in dealing with post-election riots that swept Sidi Bouzid when the independent commission for the election disqualified a number of seats won by an electoral list called ”the Popular Petition,” over ”campaign finance violations.”

This list won most of the votes in Sidi Bouzid. Hajlaoui, was freed on December 15 as Emna El Hammi from the collective blog Nawaat reports [fr].

Earlier this year, in May, the Tunisian Internet Agency and following a military order censored five Facebook pages for their intentions ”to damage the reputation of the military institution and, its leaders,” said the Tunisian Ministry of Defence. The ATI then stopped censoring the five pages ”for technical constraints” said the agency in a statement published here [fr].

Practices like these have made Tunisian activists, and netizens wonder if the military institution is a red line that should not be crossed.

Whistleblower Samir Feriani and his imprisonment

Samir Feriani with his son after being released on September, 22. Photo by Yassine Gaidi on Facebook.

Samir Feriani with his son after being released on September, 22. Photo by Yassine Gaidi on Facebook.

Samir Feriani, a senior official in the Tunisian Interior Ministry, published articles in a magazine, saying that people holding key positions in the Interior Ministry were responsible for the killing of peaceful protesters during the uprising, and that classified documents showing collaboration between ousted Tunisian President Ben Ali and the Israeli Mossad, were intentionally destroyed by officials in the ministry.

On May 29, Feriani was arrested and taken into military detention and accused of “harming the external security of the state” and “releasing and distributing information likely to harm public order.”

Feriani's case quickly gained public sympathy, as campaigns, and protests calling for his immediate release were organized.

On September 22, a military court temporarily released Feriani, who is now awaiting trial in front of civil court.

Police – old practices continue

The year 2011 was a year of protests and sit-ins in Tunisia. During the first two weeks of the year, the police crackdown on protesters was disastrous, leading to more than 300 deaths. Things only started to change after the fall of the Ben Ali regime. But, in several occasions, Tunisian authorities continued to violently disperse protesters.

A Tunisian protestor beaten by a policeman in civilian clothes, May 6, 2011. Photo by Twitpic user @worldwideyes.

A Tunisian protestor beaten by a policeman in civilian clothes, May 6, 2011. Photo by Twitpic user @worldwideyes.

The most violent police intervention in the post Ben Ali era took place on February 26, when a peaceful protest calling for interim former Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to step down, turned into violent clashes between protesters, and security forces. The clashes led to the death of three people.

In May, and during an anti-government protest, security forces attacked not only demonstrators, but also bloggers, and journalists.

On July 15, authorities used batons and tear gas, to prevent protesters calling for political and judicial reforms from organising a sit-in outside the Cabinet Building.

In 2011 many positive changes took place in Tunisia, but the authorities still need to get rid of their old practices. Meanwhile, Tunisians in general, and more specifically activists, and bloggers, are quite aware that the battle for freedom of speech, and democracy is far from over.

This post is part of our special coverage Tunisia Revolution 2011.

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