“Ten years later, there is still a price to pay in Tunisia for saying what you think,” Azyz Amami, a veteran social media activist, 37, said with a sigh.
Amami’s assessment of the decade since the revolution that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011 after 20 years of authoritarian rule is grim and sobering.
The democratic transition he helped bring about in Tunisia, inspiring popular mobilization across the region and culminating in the Arab Spring, initially fueled great aspirations – economic promises of the revolution’s motto, “freedom, work and dignity ”, to the possibility of and political freedom – in a country previously subject to strict censorship.
“In 2011, we were euphoric, we dreamed of finally being able to think out loud. We had such high hopes … we could not but be disappointed, ”summed up Amina Mansour, another social media activist targeted by then Prime Minister Youssef Chahed in 2018 for criticizing him online.
Today, the euphoria of the early days of the revolution has simmered. We are more likely to hear the rhetorical question “Revolution? What revolution? ”In the middle of the chatter bubble in the cafes of Tunis.
Yet, for a time, Tunisia was the poster child of the Arab Spring. In 2014, its new constitution enshrined the right to free expression, a historic moment.
But with social media now the main arena for political debate, authorities are trying to contain criticism. Freedom of expression – “the last surviving relic of the revolution,” according to activist lawyer Mohamed Ali Bouchiba – is being severely tested.
“There is undoubtedly more freedom of expression in Tunisia today than there was under Ben Ali. But we have seen a regression recently, with an increase in lawsuits against social media activists compared to the years immediately following the revolution, ”said Eric Goldstein, deputy director for Middle East and Africa. North to Human Rights Watch.
It all really started in 2018 with Chahed, said Mansour, who was one of the first victims of the recent crackdown.
Two years into her tenure, Chahed sued her for accusing him of corruption in a social media post, and she was sentenced to two months in prison.
A single mother of three in her 40s, Mansour overturns the usual stereotype of the social media activist.
“People tend to imagine that I spend my days scrolling through Facebook on my computer. But more often than not, I write my messages between two chores at home, or with a soapy finger while washing the dishes, ”she confessed.
“Chahed’s trial has disinhibited other government officials and politicians. They thought “if the prime minister does it, why not me?” Mansour added.
Bouchiba believes that the opportunism of officials after Chahed’s decision turned into a loosely coordinated effort by authorities to silence critics by redrawing the limits of free speech. “They want to make politics taboo again,” he said.
Today, despite a few high-profile cases against activists prosecuted for posting material perceived to be offensive to Islam – such as Emna Chargui, who was sentenced last year to six months in prison for “inciting hatred between religions ”after imitating verses from the Quran in a social media post mocking COVID-19 – the majority of activists are prosecuted for criticizing government officials, politicians and online security forces.
“Since 2018, we have really been put to the test with this new wave of arrests,” confirmed Bouchiba, nicknamed “the bloggers’ lawyer”.
The former law professor has been at the forefront of all efforts to defend social media activists since then.
Faced with the urgency of this repression, in 2018 he co-founded the NGO Bloggers Without Chains, dedicated to the defense of pro-bono activists “whose only crime was to publicly criticize those in power”.
He has represented more than 40 activists since.
“The revolution had already demonstrated the power of the Internet to mobilize people. Today, politicians are increasingly aware that elections are won and lost on social networks, not in the press or on television, ”Bouchiba explained.
Pursuing social media activists who call them online is a way for politicians, government officials, and security forces to try and keep their reputations clean on these platforms.
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded this trend. Activists denouncing corruption in handling the outbreak in Tunisia last year sparked a “growing crackdown on social media users and online critics” which “limited the space for online mobilization,” according to the report Freedom House Annual 2020 Freedom on the Net.
Just last week, social media activist Anis Mabrouki was sentenced to four months in prison for one of his social media posts calling on local public officials for failing to distribute the COVID-19 financial aid promised by the government.
In 2018, the Global Internet Sentiment Survey found that 50% of users surveyed in Tunisia did not feel safe sharing their opinions online.
The crackdown did not help. While Mansour’s arrest did not dampen her resolve to speak out at the time, she changed her methods. Unless she is censoring herself, she now has to be careful how she formulates her messages.
“I can always say what I think, but if I don’t want to be stopped anymore I have to use a lot more irony than before,” she said. “Recently, I offered my ‘apologies’ to Chahed for bothering to have me arrested.
‘Insult or disturb’
In order to justify their censorship efforts, the authorities unearthed a legal apparatus inherited from Tunisia’s darkest days: the laws of the Ben Ali era.
One of the laws most often invoked against activists is taken from Article 86 of the 2001 Telecommunications Code, punishing anyone who “uses public communication networks to insult or disturb others” with a penalty of up to two years in prison.
“The Internet barely existed at the time, let alone social media. To accuse activists under this law is a bit of an exaggeration, ”Bouchiba said.
The article, widely deployed since 2018, has indeed been rarely used under Ali’s regime, he noted, who preferred to imprison activists under the guise of other offenses such as drug possession.
Under increasing pressure from the authorities, some activists are starting to run out of steam.
“At the time, my arrest made me want to talk even more. The public outcry was overwhelming: there were television crews in court, online campaigns, public figures speaking out in support of me, roads blocked, ”Mansour recalled.
But recently, the situation has turned from bad to worse. Today is different, she explained.
“Other than close friends, people don’t care anymore. The trials, the arrests… it’s become normal. We are all exhausted. That’s what the authorities want to, you know, harass us to the point of exhaustion.
Despite these recent setbacks, activists and those who defend them find a glimmer of hope in the current situation.
“To compare freedom of expression before and after Ben Ali is impossible. Under his regime, we just couldn’t speak, ”Bouchiba explained. “Freedom of speech may be under threat today – but at least we have some to fight for.”