The battle for communication in Tunisia: the stakes of power

2005-08-10 00:00:00

To repeat that freedom to communicate is the key to the
democratization of society may seem banal. But it happens that
the obviousness of this statement remains relevant in spite of
the erosion of the words. The Tunisian case confirms this truth.
In 1956, after the independence from French colonialism, the new
independent State had a good pretext to legitimate the stifling
of freedom of expression, which was – it should be recognized –
more developed under the French protectorate: the building of a
new national State does not suffer dissidence and the
establishment of its authority is accommodated more with
unanimism. Thus the few newspapers which had accompanied
resistance to colonialism disappeared for the profit of the Neo-
Destour party, principal coalition which led the country towards

Monopoly of public space

One then admitted easily the fact that the legitimacy from which
Neo-Destour profited authorized it to monopolize public space and
to prohibit any plural expression; Tunisia had paid a high price
for this process. All social and political dynamics which were
developed during the national fight were marginalized, leaving a
relentless logic of power. The machine of power which had been
put in place pursued its own purpose, crushing all that was
opposed to it, any form of opposition. During two decades, all
voices were silenced; there only rose the voices of students who
filled the prisons and were used as game for the machine of
torture. At the end of the Seventies/beginning of 1980, and under
the double pressure of the labour-union and student movement, the
building blocks of power started to crumble and Bourguiba ("the
nation’s father ", according to terminology drawn from the
patriarchal dictionary), was constrained to concede some small
measure of freedom to society. A human rights NGO, the Tunisian
League for the Defence of Human Rights (LTDH) was given authority
to exist and two independent newspapers were allowed to be
published (Errai and Le Phare), others still to follow. These
concessions were fateful for the authoritative structure of the
regime. These are the newspapers with the trade-union newspaper
Echaab, which will play a decisive role in the future political
life and will support the development of opposition forces.

They will constitute the crucible where an autonomous civil
society was going to be spread over. Society expressed itself by
means of these newspapers which reported on this new dynamic with
all its complexity and its false steps and favoured in return its
development through its training effect. Many trade associations
or civil rights were born, all did not have the approval of the
authorities but managed to be tolerated while taking a lead in
the public scene towards new initiatives. During the 1980s,
little Tunisia crystallized the dream of a possible pluralism for
the Maghreb, which had melted in the concrete of political
monolithism. It saw flowering during this decade for a free
press which marked the way for a dynamic civil society and real
opposition forces.

The return of the crank

Algeria and Morocco, looked in the direction of this small
country Tunisia, which offered the example that should not be
followed. But the contagion was irrepressible. They would be
engulfed in their turn, a few years later, each one with its
manner of experiences in pluralism. But nothing is ever done
definitively. Tunisia had a great defeat after this civil spring
and underwent a historical regression. In 1988, Ben Ali seized
power by a "medical" coup d'etat and after two years, he had put
into effect a brutal political reversal. In 1990, he deployed a
new police terror, using the anti-Islamist fight as a pretext.
Amnesty International had listed at that time more than 10,000
citizens (out of 9 million inhabitants) who were arrested and
tortured, many of whom died under torture.

Control of society can be put in effect by taking over the media.
The first act of this takeover by force was thus the gagging of
the press. Benefiting from the first war in the Gulf, Ben Ali
eliminated all free media and placed the private press under
government control. New means drawing from a new repressive
register were used: a state monopoly over advertising resources
and sanctions against recalcitrant ones; repeated seizures in
printing plants of opposition newspapers resulting in financial
ruin. They kill cleanly, without making blood run. It was said
at this time that in Algeria they kill journalists, but in
Tunisia, they kill journalism. During this period, no newspaper
was suspended following an administrative measure. The
government endeavoured not to take any repressive decision which
could be attributed to the authorities. However, the head of
state successfully turned the media landscape into a desert
without any expenses.

With newspapers, all independent journalists were evacuated from
this media space, exiling themselves towards other professions or
other more lenient lands. Those who resisted were jailed under
various pretexts.

At the same moment when the press was silenced, many "private"
titles invaded the kiosks, genuine press of gutter and
misinformation (El Hadeth, El Iilan, El Moulahedh, Achourouq,
Assarih …) charged with defaming and dishonouring, with impunity,
political opponents and human rights defenders. All were
financed by the black briefcases of the Ministry of the Interior
and directed by agents of the ministry for the interior who had
become "journalists".

An arsenal of new texts of laws came into force to cover with a
veil of legality this arbitrary action. The post office Code,
promulgated in 1998, authorizes the postal administration to
confiscate any postal or electronic mail for "disturbing public
order". A new Code of communications came into effect in 2001.
This code organizes the standards of transferring communications
concessions - up to now a monopoly of the state - to private
operators, and places any activity of broadcasting, reception or
exploitation of any material of communication, under control of
the Ministers for Defence and the Interior (art 52 and 56). A
"National Agency of (Broadcasting) Frequencies" was created, as
well as the "National Council of Communications". From then on,
any free radio broadcasting without authorization from this
Agency is liable to five years of prison sentence (art. 82).
Whereas until then, radios were not subjected to preliminary
authorization. The same sentence is handed out to any person who
connects to a satellite network (for any use, even telephone for
example) without having received the approval of the Agency (art

Several applications for free radios were deposited before
(between 1989 and ‘96), but no one received the authorization to
broadcast, and this in obvious violation of the law which was
liberal before the promulgation of this code.

The free press was reduced to silence, police terror could be
used on civil society and crush it. The political opposition
parties had resigned their role and resistance was limited to
human rights defenders.

Women's rights, a heritage of the Bourguiba’s period, were
moulted in a "feminism of State", whose corollary is the
confiscation of its citizenship.

One had to wait until the end of 1990 and the beginning of 2000,
when civil society reappeared out of its ashes and started to
face the authoritarian drift of the regime. After these long
years when terror had frozen any initiative of the civil society,
locked up in the law of silence, this one woke up, asserting its
basic rights, denouncing the systematic violations made in the
name of the "requirements of stability" and of "fight against

Internet, the privileged way to circumvent censorship

Thus the first autonomous association of human rights, the
National Council of Freedoms (CNLT) was born in 1998, at the
moment when the LTDH was taken over by the authorities and did
not play any more its role as an association in charge of human
rights. It would be back on its feet again at the congress of
2000, following the movement of civil disobedience started by the
CNLT. In the wake of which, other NGOs were born and began
working, despite not receiving legal authority to do so. It
should be underlined that since 1989, no autonomous NGO received
a legal visa, whereas the authorities say there are 8,444 NGOs!
The CNLT, to which the authorities denied legal status, opposed
the ban and began work as an observatory of freedom. Its first
reports, which disclosed the serious and systematic violations of
the human rights, destabilized the power. Using the Internet as
an opening to face the prohibition to communicate; for the first
time in Tunisia an autonomous NGO created a website, thus having
great international visibility. This opportunity communicate by
using the Internet (in spite of blocking) was a great chance for
the CNLT, which could thus protect itself from repression. The
regime of Ben Ali claims to be democratic and avoids scrambling
its image by traditional and obvious repressive acts. So it
resorts to processes more sophisticated for neutralizing its
dissidents, like constant police surveillance, cutting the means
of communication (Tel., fax, Internet) and the drying up of
resources, prohibiting groups from working.

After 9/11 attacks : the pretext of the fight against cyber-

The attacks of September 11 were a godsend for Ben Ali who now
saw his security policy legitimized on an international scale.
The Word “Terrorism” is used from now on as a weapon to silence
voices In summer 2002, the machine raced and not less than eight
political lawsuits followed one another in less than one month,
hunting for "cyber-terrorists". The most famous lawsuit was that
of the young Zouhayr Yahyaoui, a webmaster of the dissident
website, TuneZine, who was jailed for two years in June 2002.
And the year 2004 saw a series of lawsuits of other young Net
surfers, in particular those of Zarzis and Ariana, accused of
"terrorism" for having surfed on the Net and condemned to
thirteen years and sixteen years of prison.

For human rights defenders, this "anti-terrorist" fight resulted
in an overall offensive and a retreat of the thin gains which
they had won in the previous years. Police surveillance was
reinforced. In fact, so great is the contingent of police in
front of their houses it is almost as if there is a police
stations there, controlling and intimidating their visitors.
Phone-tapping is quasi-systematic and touches almost everyone,
including the public telephone booths. Faxes are often diverted
from their destinations to the political police. The information
police have sophisticated methods allowing them to listen to all
the telephone lines in Tunisia and to record for seven days all
communications going in and out from Tunisia!

The freedom to move in the interior of the country is subject to
the goodwill of the police force. A passport is a favour. The
mail as well as the electronic mail are confiscated. Internet is
under high monitoring. It should be known that the Internet is
the main window for Tunisians in this context of total lack of
press freedom and communication. It is by the Web that Tunisians
get information on what occurs in their country, it is there that
they discover international solidarity or the fight of a handful
of dissidents who dare to defy the dictatorship. Vis-a-vis this
new uncontrollable space, the regime developed a new technique
consisting in parasitizing, by the infiltration of "false
democrats " on a mission ordered by the authorities (often under
cover of anonymity) who are more virulent by their vulgar insults
against the state, but whose real function is to poison the
democratic medium in exile, to sow discord and to discredit the
opponents with an aim of showing that there is no alternative to
Ben Ali.

ICTs as instruments of censorship

New technologies were acquired by the information police to make
"subversive" sites increasingly inaccessible, even with proxy
servers. The publinets (cybercafés) are closely supervised by a
vigilant cyberpolice: those who balk to become informers of
their customers see their licences withdrawn. Thus, in 2003, a
manager of a publinet in Zarzis, which had refused to prohibit
the access to Internet to opponents, like journalist Abdallah
Zouari, had its doors closed for having "no access managed for
the handicapped people "!

Abdallah Zouari is a journalist of Al Fajr who is currently under
house arrest exiled in Zarzis. He is currently on hunger strike
to claim the right to live in the same house as his wife and his
children who reside 500 km away in Tunis.

The Tunisian autocratic regime tries to neutralize any form of
communication which escapes it, because it knows pertinently that
it is by communications which any form of dispute of its absolute
power happens - and it is by communications means that opposition
forces organize themselves. To prohibit communications is the
best means of controlling all the opposition forces, by deploying
a strategy of smothering, marginalisation and control, which make
these buds of democracy completely inoperative. Spaces where
resistance to official control is spread (justice, media,
political parties, associations) are subjected to a veritable
steamroller, using a battery of sophisticated, repressive
instruments. The principal goal is the drying up of resources and
the collective punishment which makes the dissident a pariah.

However the image of democratic Tunisia, of a "stable
country which succeeds" continues to be useful to international
partners and is deployed as a wall against the fight of a handful
of dissidents who have to prove permanently that their basic
rights are confiscated and that Tunisian citizens "deserve", like
other people, their freedom.