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“When I first heard that the summit was to be held here, I viewed it as a humiliation that the dictatorship should have this chance to present a modern mask to hide its face.”
—Mokhtar Yahyaoui, Tunis Center for the Independence of the Judiciary333
“If technology is making the world a ‘global village,’ then Tunisia is a basement cell in the village.”
—Ridha Barkati, Tunisian Association against Torture334
“Diversity of opinion is vital, I’m sure, but there are limits.”
—Tunisian Minister of Communications Technology Montasser Ouaili335

On November 16-18, 2005, Tunisia—having first proposed the idea in 1998—will host the second phase of the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a summit dedicating to “bridging the digital divide and allowing the advent of an information society that is balanced and accessible to all.”336 Tunisia prides itself on being the first country in the region to establish a connection to the Internet and on being the first in the region to include an explicit guarantee of universal human rights in its constitution.

In a Publinet Internet café on a nondescript street in western Tunis there hangs a portrait of Tunisian President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali. Just below it, a sign reads “Opening disk drives is strictly forbidden. Do not touch the parameters of the configurations. It is forbidden to access prohibited sites. Thank you.” Government regulations mandate that similar signs hang in every Internet café in the country.

Late at night on March 1, 2005, plainclothes agents arrested online journalist Mohamed Abou. The night before, Abou, the father of three, had published an article on a banned Web site comparing President Ben Ali to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Abou is now serving a three-year prison term in Le Kef, roughly 200 km (105 miles) southwest of Tunis.

Zoheir Yahiaoui, a resident of Tunis who hid his online identity behind the pen name Ettounsi (“the Tunisian”), was arrested at 7 p.m., June 4, 2002, by six plainclothesmen in the Internet café where he worked and charged with publishing “false news” on Tunezine, the Web site he edited. He was released more than a year later, in November 2003, and died of natural causes in March 2005 at the age of 36. 

Tests conducted by Human Rights Watch in cooperation with other international and Tunisian organizations over the course of September 2005 found that Tunisia censors hundreds of Web sites, including sites that feature human rights news on Tunisia or articles that portray the government in unflattering terms. Internet users in Tunisia uniformly told Human Rights Watch that they believe the government extensively monitors email correspondence and Internet traffic. Some reported what they believed was governmental interference with their email accounts.

Tunisian law allows for stiff criminal penalties on those found guilty of spreading “false news” and libel. These laws have been used to detain online writers for their expressing their opinions. Tunisian regulations on the Internet further hold Internet service providers (ISPs) liable for the content they carry, encouraging them to act as auxiliary censors for the state.

While the government claims it is devoted to free expression and has taken steps to improve access to the Internet—most recently offering Internet service for the price of a local phone call, for example—its record on freedom of expression online in practice has led many Tunisian human rights workers to express disbelief that WSIS will be held in their country.

Access to the Internet

The Tunisian government has taken positive steps to spread access to information online. In 1999, when Human Rights Watch last issued a report on freedom of expression online in the Middle East, an estimated 3,000-5,000 people were online in Tunisia.337 Today, the quasi-governmental Agence Tunisien d’Internet (ATI) says there are 788,415 Tunisian users.338 The Tunisian government says all universities, secondary schools, and scientific institutions are connected to the Internet.339 The government says it further aims to connect all primary schools to the Internet by 2006.340 A network of between sixty and eighty341 Internet access centers has been established in youth clubs and culture centers. Each of the country’s twenty-five governorates has Internet-connected computer centers for children.342 Government figures put the number of government-subsidized but privately franchised “Publinet” Internet cafés at between 280343 and 310.344 The cafés offer affordable, if restricted, access to the Internet.

Riadh Dridi, chargé d’affairs a.i. at the Embassy of Tunisia to the United States, told Human Rights Watch that in recent months,

This approach [to spread the Internet] has been reinforced by measures introduced as part of the implementation of President Ben Ali’s Electoral Program of 2004-2005, and aimed at the following objectives in particular:

  • Providing every citizen with the opportunity of having his or her own e-mail address.

  • Establishing a public Internet-service center in each village, with especially low connection rates for centers established in rural areas.

  • Enabling Tunisian families to purchase, with easy conditions, low-cost “family computers,” which are equipped with Internet connection capability.

  • Generalizing broadband access throughout the country.

  • Encouraging the participation of civil society in disseminating digital culture.345

Tunisian Minister of Communications Technology Dr. Montasser Ouaili, when asked what he considered to be among the most positive recent developments in the field of information technology in Tunisia, replied, “One of the major advances has been the evolution of the framework to further advance competition. We are opening up the capital of the historical ISPs to further expand the private sector. Competition is very stimulating.”346

In Tunisia, all Internet connections run through the ATI, a quasi-governmental body under the authority of the Ministry of Communications Technology. The ATI controls the “backbone” Internet infrastructure. Seven public-sector ISPs designed to service the government bodies responsible for research in, for example, health, education, and the environment, lease connections from the ATI. In 1999, two private ISPs—PlaNet Tunisie and 3S Global Net, both owned by people with close ties to President Ben Ali—leased bandwidth from the ATI.347 In the past six years, the government has licensed three new private ISPs—HexaByte, Topnet, and TUNET—to provide Internet access in Tunisia.

In April 2005, despite objections from free expression groups, French Internet giant Wanadoo announced it had formed a partnership with PlaNet Tunisie, which is owned by President Ben Ali’s daughter, Cyrine Mabrouk.348

The cost of Internet access has fallen significantly in recent years. In May 1999, PlaNet advertised dial-up Internet service for roughly US$17 a month. By September 2005, that rate had fallen to US$3.75 a month. PlaNet/Wanadoo offered high-speed, asymmetrical digital subscriber lines (ADSL) lines starting from US$18.77 a month.349 3S Global Net, HexaByte, Topnet, and Tunet had all started offering unlimited dial-up service to the Internet for the price of a local phone call.350

In 1999, Human Rights Watch reported that Tunisians had complained of difficulties in applying for accounts that would enable them to connect regularly to the Internet.351 A September 2005 visit to Tunisia found no such problems. Tunisians can now access the Internet instantly by filling out an online form that requires users to provide their name, address, telephone number, and age. And they can do so for the cost of a local phone call.

Legal Framework

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Tunisia is a state party, sets out the minimum international standards for freedom of expression. It states: “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference; Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”352 Tunisia is a party to the ICCPR.

Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Tunisia ratified in 1982, guarantees that “Every individual shall have the right to receive information,” and that “every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”353  

Article 32 of Tunisia’s Constitution holds that “treaties ratified by the president of the republic and approved by the chamber of deputies have an authority superior to that of [Tunisian] laws.”354 The right to freedom of expression, the right to access information, then, are among the rights enshrined in Tunisian law which Tunisian courts are bound to uphold.

According to Article 8 of the Constitution, “The freedoms of opinion, expression, the press, publication, assembly, and association are guaranteed and exercised under the conditions laid down by the law.” Article 9, as amended in 2002, states, “The inviolability of the home, the confidentiality of correspondence, and the protection of personal data shall be guaranteed, subject to exceptional cases prescribed by law.”355  Article 5, also amended in 2002, “guarantees fundamental freedoms and human rights in their universal, comprehensive, complementary, and interdependent application.”356 Tunisian officials boast that Tunisia is the only Arab, Middle Eastern country with such a guarantee in its constitution.357 In a May 2001 interview with journalists from Tunisia’s Essabah and Ech-Chorouk dailies, President Ben Ali said, “I will say to you, once more, loud and clear: Write on any subject you choose…There are no taboos except what is prohibited by law and press ethics.”358

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the government of Tunisia indicated that

Electronic mail, newsgroups, and online discussion forums are not subject to any specific regulations [original emphasis]. The same holds true for online speech.

The various forms of online expression are protected by the Constitution, particularly article 8, which provides that “freedom of opinion, expression, the press, publication, assembly and association are guaranteed and exercised according to the terms defined by the law.” [original emphasis]

Current laws that are related to this article or are pertinent to online communications include the Press Code, laws on intellectual and artistic property, the Penal Code, and the anti-terrorism law (regarding incitement to hatred). The hosting of Web sites is considered among the added-value services of the communications sector (governed by a decision issued by the Minister of Communications and a specifications book dating back to 1997).359

The first article of Tunisia’s Press Code guarantees “the freedom of the press, publishing, printing, distributing and sale of books and publications.”360 However, a number of laws permit the prosecution of writing or speech that displeases the authorities. The Press Code provides prison terms for criminal defamation, although 2001 amendments removed an article criminalizing “defaming the public order.” The amendments preserved the government’s power to ban newspapers, but shortened the maximum duration from six months to three months.361 Articles 35, 37, 38, 39, 45, 61, and 62, all of which carried prison terms, were simply transferred out of the Press Law and into the Penal Code.362  

The articles of the Press Code most often used to punish criticism are Article 49 and Articles 50-53. Article 49 provides for up to three years’ imprisonment for “publishing false news” likely to disturb the public order. Article 50 states that defamation has occurred if there has been “a public allegation or attribution of a fact that harms the honor or esteem (considération) of a person or state agency to whom the fact was attributed.” Defamation is punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 1,200 dinars (US$900) if the offending material is published “directly or by means of reproduction.” The code specifies various public entities that can be thus defamed, including “the courts, the ground, sea and air forces, public agencies and public administrations.” Defamation is punishable by the same penalties if it is committed against one or more “members of the government, one or more deputies, civil servants,” and other public servants “by virtue of their functions or their status.” The truth of the allegation can be used as a defense, but not in all situations.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee, which reviews the compliance of states parties with the ICCPR, in 1995 noted its concern that

dissent and criticism of the Government are not fully tolerated in Tunisia and that, as a result, a number of fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Covenant are not fully enjoyed in practice…. In particular…the Committee is concerned that those sections of the Press Code dealing with defamation, insult and false information unduly limit the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression as provided for under article 19 of the Covenant. In this connection, the Committee is concerned that those offences carry particularly severe penalties when criticism is directed against official bodies as well as the army or the administration, a situation which inevitably results in self-censorship by the media when reporting on public affairs.363

The committee further stipulated, “When a State party imposes certain restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression, these may not put in jeopardy the right itself.”364 The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in January 2000 urged

all Governments to ensure that press offenses are no longer punishable by terms of imprisonment, except in cases involving racist or discriminatory comments or calls to violence. In the case of offences such as “libeling,” “insulting” or “defaming” the head of State and publishing or broadcasting “false” or “alarmist” information, prison terms are both reprehensible and out of proportion to the harm suffered by the victim. In all such cases, imprisonment as punishment for the peaceful expression of an opinion constitutes a serious violation of human rights.365

The anti-terrorism law of December 2003, contains a definition of terrorism that is broad and subject to abuse. Article 4 of the law defines terrorism as

any offense, whatever the motive, that is related to an individual or collective enterprise capable of terrorizing a person or a group of persons, to sow terror in the population, in order to influence the policies of the state and to force it to do that which it would not otherwise do or to refrain from doing what it would otherwise do, or in order to disturb the public order, tranquility, or international security…

The law does not limit the definition of terrorism to the use of violent means, nor does it define phrases like “influence[ing] the policies of the state” or “terrorizing a person or a group of people.”366

Article 6 of the anti-terrorism law extends the legal regime for “terrorism” to “acts of incitement to racial or religious hatred or fanaticism, whatever the methods used….”367 Thus, speech that “incites” others to “fanaticism” could be considered a terrorist act under the law, whether or not those who were influenced by it committed acts of violence. The law’s definition of prohibited “terrorist incitement” is also broader than the restrictions on freedom of expression permitted under Article 20 of the ICCPR, which only allows curbs on “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”368 The law provides harsh penalties and allows the state to refer civilian suspects to military courts, whose verdicts are not subject to appeal.

The Tunisian government told Human Rights Watch that the hosting of Web sites is “governed by a decision issued by the Minister of Communications and a specifications book dating back to 1997.” This presumably refers to a decree issued on March 22, 1997 (hereafter “the Internet decree”).369 It followed by eight days a decree that covers telecommunications services more generally.370 The telecommunications decree provides the following:

  • The Press Code shall apply to the production, provision, distribution and storing of information through telecommunication means, including the Internet (article 1).

  • All Internet service providers (ISPs) must obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications (article 7).

  • A “Commission on Telecommunications Services” shall review each application to operate an ISP company; the commission includes representatives from the ministries of defense and interior, as well as officials holding posts related to communications, information and computer sciences (article 8).

The Internet decree of March 22, 1997 imposes the following rules:

  • Each ISP must designate a director who “assumes responsibility...for the content of pages and Web pages and sites that the ISP is requested to host on its servers (article 9, paragraph 3).” Internet users and those who maintain Web sites and servers are also responsible for infractions of the law (article 9, paragraph 4);

  • Each ISP must submit, on a monthly basis, a list of its Internet subscribers to the “public operator” (the ATI) (article 8, paragraph 5); if the ISP closes down or stops providing services, it must “without delay” turn over to the “public operator” a complete set of its archives (“l’ensemble des supports d’archivage”) as well as the means to read it (article 9, paragraph 7).

  • The “director” of the ISP must maintain “constant oversight” of the content on the ISP’s servers, to insure that no information remains on the system that is contrary to “public order and good morals” (“l’ordre publique” and “bonnes mœurs,” the same phrases that are found in Article 62 of the Press Code, which provides for the confiscation of publications).

The Internet decree also bars encryption without prior approval from the authorities (article 11). A September 1997 decree on encryption requires that people or service providers who wish to encrypt data must submit an application to the Ministry of Communications and provide the keys needed to decrypt the data. The ministry decides on the application after consulting the Commission on Telecommunications, cited above.371

A subsequent decision, issued by the National Agency for Electronic Certification (Agence Nationale de Cetrification Electronique, or ANCE) in November 2001, upheld the same principles but changed some of the details: Encryption was now under the purview of the defense ministry and a new encryption commission (article 4) comprised of representatives from five ministries plus the ANCE and the Center for Telecommunications Studies and Research (Article 15).372 Anyone wishing to encrypt communications is required to file a request with the ANCE, including a detailed description of the means of encryption and a manual explaining how to use and program the encryption technology.

The contract that institutional subscribers sign when obtaining services from the ATI imposes further government controls. Most remarkably, it requires users to affirm that they will “use the Internet only for scientific, technological or commercial purposes that are strictly related to the activity of the client, in strict conformity with the rules in effect.” The contract also requires that clients:

  • “Disclose to the ATI all accounts that have been opened for users and those having access”;

  • “Prevent remote access to its network by external users who lack prior authorization from the ATI”; and

  • “Inform the ATI of any change in address, equipment, and user.”

The ATI reserves the right to suspend Internet service without notice if the subscriber engages in any use that is “improper or contrary to the conditions laid out” in the contract. The agency also has the right under the contract to conduct site visits to ensure that the equipment connected to the Internet is being used “in conformity with the rules and laws as well as to ensure they are being used properly.” Embassies and international institutions are exempted from this provision.

The standard contract imposes legal responsibility on the ISP for content without limiting such responsibility to removing banned content once the ISP is notified of its presence.  This has the potential to encourage ISPs to engage in self-censorship.

The Tunisian government, in its letter to Human Rights Watch, states that ISPs are responsible for the content of Web sites they host. It does not address the content of email messages or newsgroup postings, but responsibility for newsgroup content seems encompassed by the section of the Internet decree stipulating that the ISP must allow nothing to “remain” on its servers that harms “public order and good morals.” This broad and vague wording seems intended to compel ISPs to err on the side of censoring content so as to comply with the regulations.

The Tunisian government wrote to Human Rights Watch that “Information which is available to ISPs about their subscribers or users are [sic] confidential. Such information can only be communicated to a third party as part of judicial proceedings.”373 But the Internet decree of 1997, which the government says is still valid, holds that ISPs must submit the names of their subscribers to the government in order to facilitate government maintenance of a statistical base and directory of Internet users.374

This obligation of ISPs to furnish the government with subscriber lists infringes the privacy and anonymity rights of Internet users. The mandatory delivery to the authorities of such information, which could facilitate electronic surveillance, can only inhibit Tunisians wishing to express themselves or receive information online.

The contract ATI presents to institutional clients restricts the clients’ right to seek and access information online. The requirement that they use it only for “scientific, technological or commercial purposes that are strictly related to the activity of the client” apparently bars them from using the Internet account for any other purpose, under penalty of cancellation of the contract. This again makes institutional clients monitors of their own employees and clients.

Internet Censorship

Despite the strides the government has made in improving access to the Internet, several Tunisian policies continue to restrict people’s right to access information online.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Chargé d’Affairs Dridi wrote,

No content is blocked or censored, except for obscene material or content threatening public order (i.e. incitement to hate, violence, terrorism, and all forms of discrimination and bigoted behavior which violate the integrity and dignity of the human person, and/or are prejudicial to children and adolescents).375

Tunisian Minister of Communications Technology Montasser Ouaili further elaborated on this policy in September 2005. “Any Web site that is pushing toward hatred or extremism is blocked,” he said. “On the other side of the Mediterranean, the lack of Web site blocking has had side-effects. Freedom should be associated with responsibilities.”376

Tunisia’s censorship of Internet content, though it has apparently eased slightly in recent years, still goes well beyond what could be considered “incitement to hatred, violence, and terrorism.”  In 1999, Human Rights Watch reported that Tunisian Internet users had been unable to access Web sites that published criticism of the Tunisian government.377 Among them were nonviolent political sites and the sites of the international human rights organizations Amnesty International (, Reporters sans frontières (, and the Committee to Protect Journalists ( Tunisian users told Human Rights Watch that sites that reproduced or carried links to critical material from these and other organizations were also blocked.378

In February 2000, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Abid Hussain, confirmed and extended these findings. “It was mainly in connection with the Internet,” he wrote, “that the Special Rapporteur noted the most limitations.”379 He further reported that

certain Internet sites were permanently blocked, in particular the e-mail sites ( and and NGO sites such as those of Amnesty International, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, the International Federation of Human Rights, Reporters without Borders and even the sites of French newspapers and periodicals such as Le Monde, Libération and Le Nouvel Observateur. Internet Users have even had policemen knocking on their doors asking why they had accessed a particular site; the sites they visit can thus be monitored and their links cut.380

The Tests

Over the course of September 2005, researchers from Human Rights Watch and the Open Net Initiative (ONI), assisted by researchers from The Index on Censorship and the Conseil National pour les Libertés en Tunisie, tested 1,947 Web sites from Tunisia. Using the methodology described in the introduction to this report and in ONI’s other reports on Internet censorship around the world, researchers tested three categories of sites:

  • A list of “high impact” sites reported to be blocked or likely to be blocked in Tunisia because of their content;
  • A “global” or control list of sites reflecting a range of Internet content, (including, for example, major news sites and sites about “hacking”);
  • A third list, comprising sites known to be blocked by SmartFilter software, in order to test whether the government was using this software to block Web sites, as previous tests suggested it was.381

In Tunisia, attempts to navigate to a blocked Web site immediately return a page disguised to look like a French-language Microsoft Internet Explorer error page that reads “Impossible de trouver la page” (impossible to find the page)—irrespective of the browser used to access the page. 

Researchers repeatedly tested 1,947 sites from different locations within Tunisia using the private ISP 3S Global Net. Of the sites tested, 184 were found to be blocked.  It should be noted that these results constitute a “snapshot” of the Tunisian Internet in September 2005. Sites reported blocked at the time of our testing may no longer be blocked. Likewise, sites that were available during our tests may no longer be available.

The Web sites of French newspapers Le Monde, Le Monde Diplomatique, Libération, and Le Nouvel Obersvateur, which had previously been reported blocked, were available in repeated tests conducted over the course of September 2005.382 Amnesty International’s main site,, the Web site of the Committee to Protect Journalists,, Human Rights Watch’s Web site,, and Human Rights First’s Web site,—all of which had previously been reported blocked—were available in September 2005. Tunisian Internet users confirmed that the sites were no longer blocked as a rule.

Popular email sites previously reported blocked were also available in September 2005. Of the twenty-five popular email sites researchers tested, none were confirmed blocked. Tunisian Internet users likewise confirmed that the government had stopped blocking web-based email sites.

January 2005 tests conducted by ONI in collaboration with the free expression groups collectively called the Tunisia Monitoring Group found, a Web site set up to offer solidarity to political prisoners in Tunisia, to be blocked.383 The site was available in September 2005.

Researchers tested fewer than 2,000 of the billions of pages on the Internet. The one hundred eighty-two sites Human Rights Watch and ONI confirmed as blocked thus likely represent a fraction of the total. This sample of blocked sites suggests that Tunisia still routinely interferes with Tunisians’ right to access and disseminate information.

Of the one hundred six sites researchers thought might be blocked in Tunisia because of their content, sixty-nine were available and thirty-seven were blocked. A list of these thirty-seven sites, categorized by theme, follows:

Organizations, parties, and movements:

  •, the Web site of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights.
  •, the Web site of Reporters sans frontières. is also banned.
  •, the Web site of the al-Nahdha movement, a banned Tunisian Islamist group.
  •, the former Web site of the Movement of Democratic Socialists, a legal opposition political party. The site is no longer maintained.
  •, the former site of the General Tunisian Student Union, dedicated to what the site describes as student political prisoners in Tunisia.
  •, is associated with the Congress for the Republic (Congrès pour la République, CPR), an unauthorized political party whose president is Moncef Marzouki, the former president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LTDH). Tests on confirmed that pages within the domain are also blocked.
  •, the official Web site of the CPR.
  •, the Web site of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political movement that is strongest in Egypt.

News, information, discussion, advocacy:

  •, which features news and commentary with an opposition slant. Many Tunisian activists, who can only read it in emails from friends and family abroad, describe it as the most popular source of online news in Tunisia despite the ban. 384
  •, provides human rights news on Tunisia and is openly critical of the Tunisian government. Its late editor, Zoheir Yahiaoui, was imprisoned for articles he published on the site.
  •, describes itself as “in favor of a democratic, modern, and prosperous Tunisia” and offers news and commentary, including articles reprinted form the international press.
  •, a bilingual (French-Arabic) online newspaper with a human rights focus, the print version of which has been unable to obtain legal authorization.
  •, an online forum featuring open political discussions among Tunisians and political jokes. It included, for example, lists of students identified as political prisoners and accusations of mistreatment of prisoners in Tunisian custody. It has since fallen into disuse.
  •, a page dedicated to human rights defender Moncef Marzouki, who was imprisoned in 1994 for “spreading false news.”
  •, which features news articles, links to articles about Tunisia in international newspapers, forums, chat rooms, and photographs with an opposition slant. Tests found that the URL was also blocked.
  •, the online heir to the banned weekly newspaper of the unauthorized Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party.
  •, provides human rights news on Tunisia.
  •, the former online presence of Zeitouna TV, a London-based satellite station directed at Tunisia. The Web site, no longer updated, is still blocked.
  •, describes itself as an online journal for Tunisians around the world to exchange information and ideas online.
  •, L’autre Tunisie, describes itself as “for the emergence of a democratic alternative in Tunisia,” and posts news items and commentaries on human rights issues and politics that criticize the President Ben Ali and his government.
  •, Maghreb des Droits de l’Homme, provides human rights news and information on Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania.
  •, a popular pan-Arab news Web site that has carried articles critical of the Tunisian government.
  •, which provides news, information, and commentary with an opposition slant.
  •, the Web site of a Switzerland-based Tunisian human rights activist.
  •, a Web site dedicated to obtaining the release of the “Youths of Zarzis” (see below) and for an end to “cyber-repression.”
  •, published a petition protesting Tunisia’s hosting of the 2001 Mediterranean (or Francophone) Games; though no longer active the site remains blacklisted in Tunisia.
  •, once published material critical of the Tunisian government; it is no longer active, but remains blacklisted in Tunisia.
  •, used to publish press releases from Tunisian human rights organizations and photographs from demonstrations against the government by expatriate Tunisians in France; the site is no longer maintained.

SmartFilter Errors:

  •, a Frankfurt-based group that campaigns against domestic violence in lesbian relationships.
  •, a U.S.-based library of books and films about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people.
  •, which describes itself as a “Bi/Gay/Lesbian Links Directory.”
  •, the Web site of the UK-based Lesbian & Gay Foundation.
  •, the Web site of Olympic French skier Richard Gay, apparently mistakenly blocked because of his name.
  •, which offers North African popular music songs., an “online community” that offers free web hosting, is also blocked in Tunisia.
  •, another “online community” that offers free web hosting and web publishing tools, and, a page providing information about scholarships to study science at historically black colleges in the United States.
  •, an organization dedicated to ending child abuse in South Carolina.

The tests conducted in September 2005 suggest that Tunisia still uses SmartFilter to block Web sites. SmartFilter users may choose to block Web sites based on categories and by adding individual Web addresses to block. SmartFilter continually updates the list of sites in each category. In the interest of improving its software, it has provided users with an online tool called “SmartFilterWhere.” Users, indeed anyone, may enter in a Web address to see if SmartFilter has categorized that site and how. ONI previously documented SmartFilter’s tendency to “overblock” sites.385 The Tunisian government, for instance, has never expressed any hostility to French Olympic skiers. But SmartFilter lists do mistakenly categorize, a French Olympic skier’s Web site, as “pornography” and “sex.” SmartFilter lists likewise mistakenly categorize,,,, and, the Web site of a South Carolina organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse of children, as “pornography” and “sex” sites.386

SmartFilter blocks and as “Personal” sites,387 which could explain why Tunisia is blocking, for example, access to Web pages providing information about scholarships to historically black colleges in the United States.

Human Rights Watch and ONI tested forty-eight popular proxy servers—servers that could be used to circumvent the Tunisian censorship regime by allowing Tunisians to browse the Web via a computer outside of Tunisia—and found that thirty-nine were blocked.388 By blocking the ability of Internet users to use proxies, Tunisia further curbs their right to privacy and to access information.

SmartFilter lists Web sites such as,, and under the “general news” and “politics/opinion” headings.389 Researchers tested thirty-nine major news sites with no particular bearing on Tunisia and found none of them blocked in Tunis, suggesting that the government of Tunisia does not usually block access to general news sites. Likewise, researchers in tested eighty-three Web sites of human rights and women’s rights organizations from around the world and found none blocked—with the exception of Reporters sans frontières’ site. It appears that the blocks on sites that report on human rights violations in Tunisia were added by the government.

Tunisia has cited counterterrorism and the need to curb incitement to hatred and violence as among its justifications for censoring information online. Yet tests on forty-one radical Islamist Web sites found only four blocked. Further, SmartFilter maintains a list of Web sites pertaining to weapons, including sites where people can purchase weapons or learn about their manufacture and maintenance. Tests carried out from Tunisia on forty-one of these sites returned no evidence that any were blocked. Human Rights Watch does not wish to suggest that these sites should be censored, only that their continued availability to Tunisians—in contrast to the block against, for example, Reporters sans frontières—raises questions about the government’s justifications for censorship.

“We cannot control the world,” Minister of Communications Technology Montasser Ouaili recently said, “and with this new tool [the Internet], we are exposed to everything in the world, so we can be hurt from the outside, not just the inside.”390 The pattern of Tunisia’s online censorship suggests that, in practice, its policy has been guided less by a fear of terrorism or incitement to violence than by a fear of peaceful internal dissent.

Internet Cafés

Roughly 300 Internet cafés, or Publinets, service Tunisia—a country of approximately 10 million people. The cafés are owned by private entrepreneurs but operate under the authority of the Ministry of Communications, pursuant to a December 1998 decree.391 Under the terms of the decree, “computers must be deprived of disk drives, but owners are required to have at their clients’ disposal at least one terminal capable of printing and saving documents to a removable disk. Only the owner may print and save documents to disks” (Article 12.5).

Under Article 13 of the decree, Publinet owners are further required:

  • To comply with the deontological rules [i.e. those concerned with duties and rights] which the media obey…
  • To maintain a database of their customers…and to present them with the balance of their accounts after each access.
  • To give to their customers clear and precise information on the object of Internet services and their access, and, in particular those relating to the use of email….
  • To inform customers by means of a clearly visible poster of their obligations and their responsibility for any infringements of the legal and lawful provisions relating to the Internet, and in particular those relating to the contents of the services they access….
  • To sign an agreement with the ISP for access to the Internet.

The requirement that Publinet owners must “comply with the deontological rules [i.e. those concerned with duties and rights] which the media obey” suggests they may be criminally liable for the activities of their customers in the same way Tunisian editors are criminally liable for their reporters’ work under the Press Code.

Previous studies have reported that Publinet customers have been asked to produce their identification cards and to provide their names and addresses.392 The minister of communications technology dismissed these reports as “fabrications.”393 Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch in early September 2005 confirmed that café owners at present do not take names at Publinets in Tunis. When Human Rights Watch visited Publinets in Tunis, the café owners did not ask for a name or identification. All the computers were arranged so the screens would be visible to the café owner. One owner commented every time the researcher tried to access a banned site.


Tunisian activists uniformly told Human Rights Watch they believe the government monitors electronic communications. They told stories of email arriving late or not at all, of responses to emails coming from third parties posing as the recipient when the intended recipient said he never received the original message, of email inboxes being filled to saturation by repeated emails saying only, for example, “You are traitor.” According to one account from a Web site of a human rights activist blocked in Tunisia, the Interior Ministry employs 500 “Internet police,” most of whose time is spent reading email.394 Sihem Bensedrine, the report’s author, told Human Rights Watch that she had learned of the office’s existence from a journalist who said he had seen the offices.395 Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm these allegations independently.


Zoheir Yahiaoui

Zoheir Yahiaoui, editor of the unauthorized online journal Tunezine, was the first Tunisian to be jailed for his online writing. Hosted in France, Tunezine featured mostly dissident and often sarcastic commentary on the political situation in Tunisia.

Yahiaoui, a 33-year-old resident of Tunis who hid his online identity behind the pen name Ettounsi (“the Tunisian”), was arrested on June 4, 2002, by six plainclothesmen at the Internet café where he worked. The police took him to his home, where they reportedly conducted a search without a warrant, seizing computer disks and equipment belonging to him. The police returned to Yahiaoui’s home two days later and questioned family members. They also arrested the  manager of the Internet café where he worked.396

Yahiaoui was ill-treated during the first two days of his detention in the Ministry of the Interior.397 His lawyers were not allowed to visit him in prison until June 11, 2002, a week after his arrest.

On June 20, 2002, a court sentenced Yahiaoui to a year in prison for disseminating “false information” and another sixteen months for theft of telecommunication services. The fabricated charge of “stealing Internet services” appears to have been based on the fact that he worked without pay in the Internet café in exchange for having unlimited use of a computer station there, from which he edited his Web sites. The second charge of knowingly disseminating false information related to a rumor he published that there had been an armed attack on the presidential palace that cost the lives of several guards. In July, an appeals court reduced the sentence to two years total. In January 2003, Yahiaoui went on a hunger strike for two weeks to protest poor prison conditions. His case attracted worldwide attention and he was freed from prison in November 2003, half a year early.

Yahiaoui was the nephew of dismissed Judge Mokhtar Yahiaoui, whose open letter to President Ben Ali on July 6, 2001, called for the constitutional principle of the independence of the judiciary to be respected. The letter was first published on Zoheir Yahiaoui’s Web site. After Zouheir Yahiaoui’s arrest, Judge Yahiaoui’s relatives were harassed, prevented from traveling, and physically assaulted.

Zoheir Yahiaoui died in Tunis on March 13, 2005, at the age of thirty-six, of a heart attack. The Web site,, is still online, and is still blocked in Tunisia.398 

Mohamed Abou

Mohamed Abou is well known in civil society circles in Tunis. He is a founding member of the International Association for Solidarity with Political Prisoners and the Center for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, both of them Tunisian human rights organizations the government has refused to recognize. He is also a member of the executive bureau of an unrecognized political party, the Congress for the Republic.

Abou is currently serving a three-year prison sentence. The apparent motive for his arrest on March 1, 2005, was an article he published online the night before on the banned Web site Abou’s article protested President Ben Ali’s invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to attend WSIS in November 2005. Comparing Ben Ali unfavorably to Sharon, he argued that if the latter abused Palestinians’ rights, at least he respected his own people and his own courts, unlike Ben Ali. It further accused Ben Ali and his family of corruption. As if to disguise its persecution of Abou for his lese majesté, the government prosecuted Abou on dubious charges stemming from his alleged assault a female lawyer in 2002 and for publishing an article six months earlier critical of prison conditions in Tunisia.

On March 16, Abou appeared before an investigating judge at the Palace of Justice in Tunis to answer charges of “publishing false news capable of disturbing the public order,” libeling the justice system, inciting the public to violate the law, and publishing writings “capable of disturbing the public order,” pursuant to Articles 42, 44, 49, 51, 68 and 72 of the Press Code and Article 121 of the Penal Code. The charges referred to an article he had published on in August 2004, headlined “Abu Ghraib of Iraq, Abu Ghraib of Tunisia”—a play on words that could also be read in Arabic as “Abu Ghraib of Iraq and the Strange Man of Tunisia,” i.e., President Ben Ali.

On April 29, Judge Mehrez Hammami, of the Tunis Court of First Instance, sentenced Abou to eighteen months in prison for “insulting the judiciary” and publishing material “likely to disturb the public order,” offenses under the press and penal codes, respectively.

A week earlier Abou was charged with injuring fellow lawyer Dalila Mrad during an altercation that occurred in June 2002. Mrad told Human Rights Watch that she had repeatedly lobbied the court after the incident, without success, to bring her complaint to trial. It was only after Abou’s critical articles appeared that the court scheduled the case.399 Whatever the merits of her claim, it is at best a striking coincidence that the court scheduled the case only after Abou’s critical articles appeared. In a separate hearing also held on April 28, Judge Hammami sentenced Abou to two years in prison for the assault charge.

On June 20, after a hearing during which Abou was only allowed to say “yes” or “no” in response to questions, a Tunisian appeals court confirmed his sentence. Since this hearing, Abou has told his wife and lawyers that he no longer wished to pursue his right to appeal, saying “he no longer wants to participate in this bad piece of theatre.”400 He remains in prison at Le Kef. “When I see him,” his wife Samia told Human Rights Watch, “his clothes are full of the blood of bugs from his mattress.”

The Youths of Zarzis and Ariana

Since 2002, authorities have rounded up youths in different parts of the country, accusing them of planning to join jihadist movements and preparing terrorist attacks. Almost all of those tried so far have been convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. In most cases, the convictions were based heavily on the statements given to the police that the defendants later contested—without success—on the grounds that they had been extracted through torture or through threats of torture.  

In at least two cases, the evidence for the prosecution included material that the defendants had allegedly downloaded from the Internet and that the court considered as evidence of their criminal intentions. In the context of criminal proceedings that otherwise respect the rights of the defendants, such material might be properly considered as evidence of intent, albeit quite circumstantial evidence. But in the context of the gross abuses that marked these trials, the prosecution’s use of this material as evidence has spurred concerns that the ultimate effect will be to further intimidate Internet users and providers. 

On April 6, 2004, a Tunis court sentenced six young men from the governorate of Medenine in the south of the country to nineteen-year-and-three-month prison terms for plotting terrorist attacks, and two defendants in absentia to twenty-six year terms on similar charges. The defendants in custody claimed they had been tortured into confessing and into implicating each other, and that the police had falsified the place and date of their arrest. The judge refused to investigate these allegations, even though these “confessions” constituted the main piece of evidence in the file.401

In addition to their own statements, the prosecution produced a number of pages printed out from various Web sites that had allegedly been confiscated from the defendants upon their arrest. These included information on jihad, instructions on how to manufacture explosives, information about Kalashnikovs and other arms, a document concerning the simulation of an attack against the National Guard post in Zarzis using a bazooka gun, and a document on how to fraudulently use magnetic cards. The lawyers for the defense argued that there was no evidence their clients had printed out these pages, and that while the defendants admitted to having an interest in “the resistance” in Palestine and elsewhere, they denied conspiring to manufacture explosives or carry out attacks.

In another case, a group of thirteen youths, mostly from the area of Ariana, near Tunis, were convicted in June 2004 of belonging to a terrorist group and plotting attacks. As in the Zarzis case, the defendants alleged that they had been tortured into signing statements before the police and subjected to various violations of their right to a fair trial. While the defendants acknowledged an interest in the “resistance” by Muslims in places like Iraq, Palestine, and Chechnya, they denied having taken any steps toward forming a terrorist organization or toward committing acts of political violence.402

The Ariana prosecution, like that of the Zarzis group, relied heavily on the contested confessions of the defendants, but it also produced, as evidence of the defendants’ criminal intent, inflammatory content that the defendants had allegedly downloaded from the Internet. In this case, the material consisted of compact disks (CDs) allegedly seized from one or more of the defendants. The content of the CDs included materials on jihad, Chechnya, and Palestine, but also instructions on manufacturing explosives. The police confiscated the hard drive of a computer at the home of defendant Hichem Saadi at the time of his arrest on February 5, 2003, according to the National Council for Human Rights in Tunisia, an independent rights group. The hard drive does not appear on the list of objects seized and has not been returned since, the Council reported.403

Abdallah Zouari

Authorities have effectively banned former political prisoner and journalist Abdallah Zouari from accessing Internet cafés. While the case appears to be unique in this respect, the treatment of Zouari nevertheless illustrates the determination of authorities to control the use of the Internet as a tool of nonviolent political dissent.

Since Zouari completed an eleven-year prison sentence in 2002, authorities have sought to silence and punish him because of his outspoken criticism of government policies, notably on human rights. Zouari has been jailed three times, confined to a rural district in Medenine, 500 kilometers from his family’s home in suburban Tunis, and placed under round-the-clock police surveillance.

When arrested in 1991, Zouari was a high school Arabic teacher and a journalist with al-Fajr, an organ of the Islamist Nahdha party. His arrest was part of a massive crackdown authorities launched against that party after deciding to outlaw it. Zouari was among the Nahdha figures convicted in a mass military court trial the following year on charges of attempting to overthrow the state. Organizations that observed the trial, including Human Rights Watch, criticized it as patently unfair at the time.404 

Zouari was sentenced to eleven years in prison and five years of “administrative control.” Upon his release, authorities ordered him to reside in Hassi Jerbi, in Medenine province, a locality to which he had no connection other than that his wife’s family comes from there. Zouari grew up in the Monastir area and was living at the time of his 1991 arrest in suburban Tunis, where his wife and four of his children continue to live. Tunis is listed as the place of residence on their identification cards, and the children attend school there. 

Although released political prisoners in Tunisia commonly confront a range of arbitrary restrictions, the de facto internal banishment of an ex-prisoner is rare. This measure seems tailored in Zouari’s case to silence someone who kept meticulous records of prison conditions and who made clear that a decade behind bars had not blunted his determination to publish criticism of government policies and collaborate openly with rights groups. 

Tunisian authorities insisted, in a statement sent to Human Rights Watch dated January 28, 2005, that the penal code gave the interior minister discretion to determine Zouari’s place of residence as part of his administrative control. They added that Zouari’s three convictions since 2002 were pronounced by the courts for infractions of Tunisian law and that each was confirmed on appeal. This showed, they said, that Zouari’s case had nothing to do with the “freedom to ‘live a normal life with his family.’” 

But the broader treatment of Zouari leaves little doubt that authorities are persecuting him because of his outspokenness on politics and human rights. 

Zouari filed an appeal before an administrative court of his confinement shortly after it was imposed in 2002, arguing that any post-prison administrative control should not include separating him from his family, social milieu, and employment prospects. More than three years later, Zouari is still waiting for a review of his appeal.  He has staged hunger strikes, most recently in September 2005, to protest the rejection of his numerous written requests to authorities for permission to visit his family. 

On December 11, 2004, a Human Rights Watch representative observed what were clearly plainclothes police stationed at three different posts within 100 meters of Zouari’s house. Zouari said they are there around the clock, and openly trail him by car whenever he leaves the village. 

Unable to establish an Internet connection from his house, Zouari in the past tried sending and receiving information from Internet cafés in the nearby city of Zarzis. But on January 22, 2005, after Zouari had used an Internet café to disseminate news of his impending hunger strike, the district chief of security reportedly ordered the owners of all four of the cafés in Zarzis to deny him access. Zouari said this information was provided to him by one of the café owners. On subsequent efforts to enter Internet cafés Zouari has been turned back at the door.

In 2003, Zouari went to prison for protesting the denial of access to an Internet café. On April 19 of that year, Aïda Dhouib, the owner of one of the Internet cafés in Zarzis, apparently on police instructions, prevented Zouari from using a computer in her café. When Zouari filed a complaint for denial of services, the owner charged him with defaming her, an accusation he denies. A cantonal court in July 2003 convicted Zouari of defamation and sentenced him to four months in prison, even though the supposed victim did not appear in court. His own complaint was dismissed. 

While free on appeal, Zouari was arrested on August 17, 2003, and made to serve the sentence. The police detained him on charges of violating his administrative control when he traveled, together with three visiting human rights lawyers, to the market town of Ben Ghardane, some 40 kilometers from his home. Zouari said at the time that he had believed that he was allowed to go to Ben Ghardane, especially after traveling there on previous occasions, under close police surveillance, without consequences. On August 29, 2003, a cantonal court gave Zouari a nine-month sentence for violating his administrative control, under Article 150 of the penal code. Zouari served that term consecutively with his earlier four-month sentence for defamation, and was freed in September 2004. In 2002, Zouari had also served two months of an eight-month sentence on an earlier charge of violating his administrative control, before being released for “humanitarian reasons.”


Tunisia has made progress in increasing access to the Internet over the past years. It has lifted bans on some Web sites. But it continues to flout its national and international legal commitments to free expression, the right to access information, and the right to privacy by censoring the Internet, imprisoning writers for expressing their views online, and imposing undue regulations on its ISPs and Internet cafés. Hosting the second phase of WSIS in November 2005 affords Tunisia an opportunity to present itself as a leader in the global effort to spread the benefits of the information society around the world. Toward that end, the government of Tunisia should:

  • Continue to invest in expanding access to the Internet, and refrain from diverting funds reserved for improving networks to improve surveillance or censorship technology.
  • Immediately and unconditionally release Mohamed Abou, who was imprisoned for peacefully expressing his opinions.
  • Scrupulously respect the rights of suspects and defendants in criminal cases, including counter-terrorism cases, and prohibit the use of evidence obtained by torture or without legal authorization.  In cases where such abuses have taken place, tainting most of the directly relevant evidence, the court should not justify convictions on circumstantial evidence such as Web sites the defendants may or may not have visited. The Ariana and Zarzis defendants should be granted a new and fair trial, where their allegations of torture and procedural irregularities are thoroughly considered, and they should be convicted only if there is evidence that they were preparing to commit acts of violence or other legitimately criminal acts, not just that they visited inflammatory Web sites.
  • Allow free and unimpeded access to Internet cafés and Internet-connected libraries for all, in particular Abdallah Zouari whom authorities have effectively banned from accessint Internet cafés, and do not compel such businesses to provide customer records without a specific court order based on a compelling and particularized showing of need in relation to the commission of a crime.
  • Stop blocking Web sites for their political or their human rights content, including the following sites:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, and
  • Repeal laws that abridge the right to privacy or the right to freely access or disseminate information or opinions. In particular, reform the press and penal codes—particularly articles 42, 43, 44, 47,49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 68, 72, and 121—to remove all criminal penalties for libel, spreading “false news,” and publishing material that “disrupts the public order.” Such laws are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression.
  • Seek to pass legislation that provides strict guarantees of the privacy of electronic communications, and that allows monitoring of email or other forms of electronic communication unless authorized by an independent court upon a compelling and particularized showing of need in relation to the commission of a crime.
  • In accordance with international standards, seek to pass legislation that
  • o Affirmatively protects the right of writers to advocate nonviolent change of government policies or the government itself;criticize or insult the nation, the government, its symbols, or officials; and communicate information about alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

    o Removes unlimited liability from private ISPs for carrying illegal content.

    o Permits the free use of encryption and other techniques to ensure the privacy of online communications. Law enforcement agencies should be allowed to decrypt private communications only upon authorization by an independent court upon a compelling and particularized showing of need in relation to the commission of a crime.

  • Cease intimidation and harassment of online writers who express critical opinions or report on human rights violations. The right to freedom of expression precludes surveillance or intimidation of online journalists and monitoring or disruption of their communications via electronic or other media.

[333] Human Rights Watch interview with Mokhtar Yahyaoui, Tunis, September 8, 2005.

[334] Human Rights Watch interview with Ridha Barkati, Tunis, September 8, 2005.

[335] Statement made at a meeting between Tunisian Minister of Communications Technology Montasser Ouaili and the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group, Tunis, September 7, 2005. Human Rights Watch attended as an observer.  

[336], accessed October 12, 2005.

[337] Human Rights Watch, The Internet in the Mideast and North Africa

[338] ATI Web site, Included in this figure are 69,915 subscriptions, 9,178 subscriptions for high-speed access, and 118,504 email accounts from domains ending in the .tn suffix. The number of users may be higher. At a September 7, 2005, meeting between Tunisian Minister of Communications Technology Montasser Ouaili and free expression and human rights groups in Tunis, the minister estimated there were more than 1 million people online in Tunisia.

[339] Letter from Riadh Dridi, chargé d’affairs a.i. at the Embassy of Tunisia to the United States, to Human Rights Watch, August 10, 2005.

[340] Ibid.

[341] Government figures vary. The Tunisian Embassy in Washington, D.C., put the number at “over eighty,” the Minister of Communications Technologies put the number at sixty.

[342] Letter from Chargé d’Affairs Dridi to Human Rights Watch.

[343] Ibid.

[344] Meeting with Tunisian Minister of Communications Technology Montasser Ouaili.

[345] Letter from Chargé d’Affairs Dridi to Human Rights Watch.

[346] Meeting with Tunisian Minister of Communicaitions Technology Montasser Ouaili.

[347] See Human Rights Watch, The Internet in the Mideast and North Africa: Tunisia,

[348] PlaNet Tunisie Press Release, “PlaNet Tunisie partenaire Wanadoo…,” April 8, 2005,, accessed September 25, 2005; on protests, see, for example, “RSF Expresses Concern over Proposed ISP Partnership in Tunisia,” Letter from Robert Ménard, Secretary-General of Reporters sans frontières, to Oliver Sichel, the director general of the Wanadoo Internet company,, accessed September 25, 2005.

[349], accessed September 25, 2005.

[350] See the company Web sites, at,,, and, respectively, accessed September 25, 2005.

[351] Human Rights Watch, The Internet in the Mideast and North Africa.

[352] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976, article 19,, accessed September 3, 2005.

[353] African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/67/3 rev. 5, 21 I.L.M. 58 (1982), Adopted June 27, 1981, entered into force October 21, 1986., accessed September 24, 2005.

[354] “Des traites ratifies par le President de la Republique et approuves par la Chambre des deputes ont une autorite superieure a celle des lois.” The Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia, Article 32,, accessed September 24, 2005.

[355] Articles 8 and 9 of the Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia, Article 9 as amended in 2002,, accessed September 24, 2005.

[356] Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia, Article 5, as amended in 2002,, accessed September 24, 2005.

[357] Tunisian Minister of Justice and Human Rights Bechir Tekkari stated this in the September 7, 2005, meeting with the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, Article 19, the International Publishers’ Association, and the World Press Freedom Committee, which Human Rights Watch attended as an observer.

[358] Cited in “Attacks on the Press, Tunisia–2001,” The Committee to Protect Journalists,, accessed June 24, 2005.

[359] Letter from Chargé d’Affairs Dridi to Human Rights Watch. Tunisia, in a letter sent in 2000 to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, denied that the Press Law applies to the Internet. See letter dated May 26, 2000, from the Permanent Representative of Tunisia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, addressed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, July 14, 2000, E/CN.4/2001/4, attaching the reply of the Tunisian Government to the report of the Special Rapporteur: “In referring to Internet access, it is regrettable that the Special Rapporteur misinterpreted certain legal texts.  He states, without any basis in legal precedent or administrative regulations, that the regime of responsibility laid down by the Press Code is applicable to the Internet.”$FILE/G0014311.doc, accessed October 4, 2005.

[360] Law Number 75-32 of April 1975, as amended in 1993,, accessed September 25, 2005.

[361] See, for example, Committee to Protect Journalists, “Attacks on the Press, 2001—Tunisia,”, accessed September 25, 2005; For more on local reaction to the changes, see Ligue Tunisienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme, “Report on the Freedom of Information in Tunisia,”, accessed September 24, 2005; Internews, “Arab Media Research: Tunisia,”, accessed September 24, 2005.

[362] Ligue Tunisienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme, “Report on the Freedom of Information in Tunisia,”

[363] Annual General Assembly Report of the Human Rights Committee, UN Doc. A/50/40, October 3, 1995, para. 89,$FILE/N9602481.pdf, accessed September 24, 2005.

[364] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, CCPR General Comment 10: Freedom of Expression (Art. 19): June 29, 1983,, accessed September 21, 2005.

[365] Annual Report to the UN Commission on Human Rights, Promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2000/63, para. 205.

[366] The text of the law is online in French at  For a critique of the law, see Amnesty International, “Tunisia: New Draft ‘Anti-Terrorism’ Law Will Further Undermine Human Rights,” Amnesty International Briefing Note to the European Union EU-Tunisia Association Council, September 30, 2003,, accessed September 24, 2005.

[367] Ibid.

[368] ICCPR, Article 20(2).

[369]  Arrêté du ministre des communications du 22 mars 1997, portant approbation du cahier des charges fixant les clauses particulières à la mise en œuvre et l'exploitation des services à valeur ajoutée des télécommunications de type INTERNET.

[370] Décret no. 97-501 du 14 mars 1997 relatif aux services à valeur ajoutée des télécommunications.

[371] Arrêté du ministre des communications du 9 septembre 1997 fixant les conditions d'utilisation du cryptage dans l'exploitation des services à valeur ajoutée des télécommunications.

[372] Décret n° 2001-2727 du 20 novembre 2001, fixant les conditions et les procédures d'utilisation des moyens ou des services de cryptage à travers les réseaux des télécommunications, ainsi que l'exercice des activités y afférentes,

[373] Letter from Chargé d’Affairs Dridi to Human Rights Watch.

[374] Arrêté du ministre des communications du 9 septembre 1997 fixant les conditions d'utilisation du cryptage dans l'exploitation des services à valeur ajoutée des télécommunications.

[375] Letter from Chargé d’Affairs Dridi to Human Rights Watch.

[376] Meeting between Tunisian Minister of Communications Technology Montasser Ouaili and free expression and human rights groups, Tunis, September 7, 2005.

[377] Human Rights Watch, The Internet in the Mideast and North Africa.

[378] Ibid.

[379] Report of Mr. Abid Hussain, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression: Report on the mission to Tunisia, 23 February 2000, E/CN.4/2000/63/Add.4,$FILE/G0011272.pdf

[380] Special Rapporteur’s report, p.11, para. 46.

[381] Conducted in January 2005 by the ONI in cooperation with the free expression groups collectively known as the Tunisia Monitoring Group, available at “Tunisia: Freedom of Expression Under Siege,”

[382] The Web site of the French newspaper Le Figaro was also available.

[383] Members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group, who kindly allowed a Human Rights Watch researcher to accompany them to Tunisia as an observer, include Article 19, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, Index on Censorship, International Federation of Journalists, International Federation of Library Association and Institutions, International Publishers' Association, Journaliste en Danger, Media Institute of Southern Africa, Norwegian PEN, Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, World Association of Newspapers, World Press Freedom Committee, and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters. The results of their January 2005 tests are available at “Freedom of Expression Under Siege,” op. cit.

[384] Interestingly, when a Human Rights Watch researcher tried to search for “tunisnews” on Google and Yahoo! from Tunis, he received the same response as when trying to access a site tests confirmed as blocked:;*-

[385] See, for example, Open Net Initiative, Country Study: Internet Filtering in Iran, 2004-2005, June 21, 2005.   

[386] Human Rights Watch checked SmartFilter’s classification of these sites using Secure Computing’s SmartFilterWhere tool, located at, September 26, 2005., the Web site of the U.K.-based Lesbian & Gay Foundation, was blocked in Tunisia in early September 2005, but by the end of the month, it was off SmartFilter’s lists.

[387] Ibid.

[388] That some proxies on SmartFilter’s lists are still available in Tunisia suggests that Tunisia may be using an older version of the software. New proxy servers spring up quickly as old ones are blocked.

[389] Classifications checked using Secure Computing’s SmartFilterWhere tool, September 26, 2005.

[390] Statement made at a meeting between Tunisian Minister of Communications Technology Montasser Ouaili and free expression and human rights groups, Tunis, September 7, 2005.

[391] Arrêté du Ministre des Communications du 10 décembre 1998 complétant l’arrêté du 19 mars 1998, portant approbation du cahier des charges fixant les conditions techniques et administratives d’exploitation des Centres Publics des Télécommunications,, accessed September 26, 2005.

[392] e.g. Human Rights Watch, The Internet in the Mideast and North Africa, and IFEX, “Tunisia: Freedom of Expression Under Siege.”

[393] Meeting between the minister of communications technology and free expression and human rights groups, Tunis, September 7, 2005.

[394] Sihem Bensedrine, “La navigation sous haute surveillance,” Kalima Tunisie,, accessed October 3, 2005.

[395] Human Rights Watch interview with Sihem Bensedrine, Tunis, September 8, 2005.

[396] See Human Rights Watch, “Tunisia: Release Urged for Online Magazine Editor,” June 6, 2002,, accessed September 26, 2005.

[397] Ibid.

[398] Yahiaoui received several awards in recognition of his courage, including, in 2004, the Hellman-Hammett award for persecuted writers. Human Rights Watch administers the Hellman/Hammett grant program for writers around the world who have been victims of political persecution and are in financial need. The grants are financed by the estate of the playwright Lillian Hellman in funds set up in her name and that of her long-term companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett. See

[399] Human Rights Watch interview with Dalila Mrad, Tunis, April 28, 2005. Members of Abou’s defense team told Human Rights Watch that in the incident, Abou had merely shoved Mrad in response to her assaulting him, but had caused her no lasting injury. They further claimed that the government doctor who initially examined her after the altercation with Abou found only that she was in a distressed mental state. The medical report used as evidence in Abou’s trail, defense lawyers said, was issued following an traffic accident she had in 2003, and that she had received an insurance payment of 40,000 Tunisian dinars ($29,902) in compensation for injuries sustained by her and her children in this accident. (Human Rights Watch interview with Leila Ben Mahmoud, attorney for Mohamed Abou, Tunis, September 10, 2005.)

[400] Human Rights Watch interview with Samia Hammouda Abou, Tunis, September 10, 2005.

[401] The six defendants in custody were Omar Farouk Chalendi, Hamza Mahrouk, Omar Rached, Ridha Brahim, Abdelghaffar Guiza and Aymen M’charek. Each got nineteen years and three months in prison and five years of administrative control, for “forming a criminal group aiming to harm persons and property through intimidation and terror (in essence, criminal conspiracy to commit terrorist acts); manufacture, assembly, transport, and storing of materials used in explosives; and possession without authorization of tools and materials that would allow the assembly of explosive devices, for theft and attempted theft, and holding meetings without authorization.” Two defendants who were convicted in absentia are believed to be living in Europe. A ninth, who was 17 at the time of his arrest, Abderrezak Bourguiba, was sentenced in April 2004 by a court for minors to twenty-five months in prison. In July 2004, an appeals court reduced the sentences for the six men to thirteen years, and another appeals court reduced Bourguiba’s sentence to twenty-four months.

[402] The defendants, Hichem Saadi, Anis Hedhili, Riadh Laouati, Kamel Ben Rejeb, Kabil Naceri, Mohammed Ayari, Ahmed Kasri, Ali Kalaï, Bilal Beldi, Hassen Mraïdi, Sami Bouras, Sabri Ounaïess, and Mohamed Oualid Ennaifer (in absentia), were tried in two separate trials before the Tunis Court.  All of them denied belonging to a terrorist group or planning any violent action of any kind.  The courts convicted all of them in June 2004, sentencing them to up to sixteen years in prison and ten years of administrative control.  In May 2005, the appeals court reduced the longest sentence to ten years in prison.

[403] National Council for Liberties in Tunisia, communiqué, June 15, 2005.

[404] Middle East Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Middle East and North Africa), “Tunisia: Military Courts that Sentenced Islamist Leaders Violated Fair-Trial Norms,” A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 4, no. 9, October 1992 [online]

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