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This article was originally posted at IGMENA website [http://bit.ly/1VqlaGO]
With over 1.7 million Internet subscriptions (1), the internet lays out to occupy an important part of Tunisians daily life in numerous aspects: social, political and economic. Yet, internet’s economic as well as social impact cannot be discussed without mentioning or at least pointing out the digital rights situation especially in a country like Tunisia.
For years, online censorship and surveillance animated the discussions about the Internet in Tunisia at the local and international level. The Internet was also the first tangible tool for the youth, not necessarily interested in politics, to discover and consequently protest against online freedoms’ restriction in the country.
Next December, will mark the fifth year since the 14th of January revolution that will come to an end. More than 10 years since the death of “Zouhair Yahyaoui”, the first cyber-dissident to be pursued and condemned in Tunisia. How far did Tunisia progress –or not- in terms of digital rights and freedoms? That’s the question to be answered in the upcoming analysis.
While writing this write-up, the Commission for Human Rights, Liberties, and Foreign Relations within the Assembly Representative of the People (ARP) is discussing draft law concerning the right of access to information. This topic provoked a lot of discussions in the public sphere that was marked by concerns and suspicion in relation to human rights’ landscape in Tunisia. In fact, on July 2015, the government revoked the draft after the ARP commission finished its consultations. This revocation came after the declaration of what both Habib Essid, the prime minister, and Beji Caid Essibsi, president of the republic, called “An Open War Against Terrorism”.
Accordingly, many civil society organizations, journalists, and political figures expressed their concerns over any possible restrictions of freedoms caused by the government’s security measures. A poll (2) conducted by “Emrhod Consulting” for Tunisian media found that more than half of Tunisians believe that freedom of speech is being threatened by the government. All of these expressed concerns were a result of multiple indicators.
For example, a Tunisian citizen, called Mouhib Toumi, was charged with insulting the President and incitement against security officials on Facebook in 2012 (3).
Even though all the charges against Mouhib were dropped by the district court (4), this particular case brought back the memory of old practices used by the security forces to intimidate activists. Just one month before this incident, Abdelfattah Said, a teacher, was arrested for putting a video on his Facebook page that accused the security forces of planning the Sousse attack (5). He was charged with complicity with terrorism. All of this is making it increasingly important and fundamental to question how social networks are used during investigations.
In a similar context, Mr Noomen Fehri, Minister of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy, also mentioned last week in an interview(6) with Maghreb Newspaper, that 500 to 1000 pages and 200 websites belonging to suspected terrorists are under the supervision of the cyber-security committee. To Answer a question whether this means getting back to internet surveillance, Mr. Fehri said that the committee work is purely technical and under the judicial supervision.
Whether it’s about state surveillance or freedom of speech, the legal framework and its non-harmony have always been an enormous controversial subject to debate and question. The counter terrorism law(7) adopted by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) on 25th of July 2015, made the civil society question the authorities’ intention to protect the constitutional rights of its citizens and whether the (ARP) is willing to go further in the legal texts reforms.
Some people will argue that having the 2014 constitution is already a guarantee in itself. However, let’s not forget that constitutionalization of rights isn’t something new in the Tunisian legal framework. Yet, it didn’t prevent online freedoms’ restriction in the previous regime. Furthermore, having independent institutions such as the Tunisian Instance of Personal Data Protection(8) is promising but giving them the right tools, in terms of material resources and laws, is crucial so that they perform their responsibilities and face the upcoming challenges. Therefore, the continuation of different stakeholders’ efforts is crucial for the adoption of harmonized laws to be aligned with international standards.
Adopting transparency and best practices are necessary to restore trust and limit roadblocks in order to support both socio-economic growth in Tunisia. Accordingly, the Tunisian parliament needs to play more active role in proposing draft laws and reforms not only adopting and discussing what the government proposes.
Yosr Jouini: (Tunisia) is a software engineering student and a blogger. Yosr is currently working as a consultant for DSS216.