Will Tunisia’s ‘Internet revolution’ endure?

There has been a great deal written online about how much of a positive role the Internet played in recent events in Tunisia (if you’d like to catch up, Alex Howard’s link round-up provides a good summary of the many sides, both for and against). At CPJ, our focus is on slightly different questions: How did the repression of the Internet hamper the ability to safely gather news, report and analyze such events? Did that repression grow worse in the dying days of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government? Will it improve in the future?

Seeking to answer these questions is not the same as investigating how Internet may have helped a revolution succeed. But the answers can detail how seriously the Ben Ali regime imagined the threat from the Internet to be; and how much of an Internet revolution the country has truly undergone.

Tunisia’s suppression of online reporting and commentary is nothing new. A decade ago, Tunisian blogger Zouhair Yahyaoui was arrested and reportedly tortured for his online work. Tunisian courts eventually sentenced him to two years for “propagation of false news;” he died of a heart attack shortly after his release in 2005. Yahyaoui was among a long string of bloggers and online reporters who have been attacked in Tunisia. Government efforts to steal IDs and passwords from Tunisian Web mail and social media users have been ongoing since at least mid-2010.

Nonetheless, the regime did increase its attacks on online communication in its last few weeks. Password-stealing intensified. The usernames and passwords collected were increasingly used to delete e-mail accounts, Facebook groups, and disrupt the distribution of videos and reports of political unrest. The government rounded up and detained prominent bloggers without charges or trial. Even in its dying days, Ben Ali’s administration was throwing at least some of its resources into tightening control of the Internet, which implies that it saw the dissemination of news reports as a threat.

The government nonetheless drew away from the most obvious response–to shut down the Tunisian Internet entirely. It appears that the Internet had become so vital to the operation of society that simply removing it was seen as a step too far. Considering the longer history of press freedom worldwide, this is not unusual: While many repressive regimes would undoubtedly be happier without any form of a free press, few are willing to accept the social and economic consequences of extinguishing news media completely.

Finally, when Ben Ali was forced to offer on television a series of concessions in an attempt to prevent his administration’s collapse, he included (along with price cuts for food, and a promise that he would stand down in 2014) an announcement that all censorship online and off would cease. Coming from a leader who had long claimed to “respect freedom of opinion and expression,” this admission of censorship was an extraordinary step and a clear sign of how important such freedoms had become to Tunisians.

Repression of a free press, including the online press, is not the only sign of an unfree society. For the majority in Tunisia struggling with high unemployment and food prices, it was not the most important sign of a failing government. But when the people of Tunisia opposed their leaders on a massive and public scale, it was the repression and control of reporting that the government used to fight back.

What of online press freedom in Tunisia now? The widespread political censorship of websites that began years ago and increased in the last month has been disabled, but Tunisia’s new administration seems reluctant to relinquish its latent power. Tunisia’s new administration announced on Saturday that it will continue to block websites that are “against decency, contain violent elements or incite to hate”

When questioned on this, the new state secretary in charge of the blocking, Sami Zaoui, stated that even countries that “were more evolved in the matter of freedom” blocked terrorist sites. That he did so via his Twitter account might be seen as reassuring for some. Far more worrying is that this government chose not to dismantle Ben Ali’s online tools of repression entirely. There may come a time when Tunisian governments tweet less, and censor more. So far, the new Tunisian government has done little to protect its online press and their readers against that future.