Tunis, Tunisia – “Ten years on, there is still a price to pay in Tunisia for speaking your mind,” said 37-year-old seasoned social media activist Azyz Amami with a sigh.
Amami’s assessment of the decade that has elapsed since the revolution that overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011 after 20 years of authoritarian rule is a gloomy and sobering one.
The democratic transition he helped bring about in Tunisia, inspiring popular mobilisation throughout the region and culminating in the Arab Spring, initially fuelled high aspirations – from the economic promises of the revolution’s motto, “freedom, work and dignity”, to the possibility of intellectual and political freedom – in a country previously subject to strict censorship.
“In 2011, we were euphoric, we dreamt we would finally be able to think out loud. We had such high hopes … we could only be disappointed,” summed up Amina Mansour, another social media activist targeted by then-prime minister Youssef Chahed in 2018 for criticising him online.
Today, the euphoria of the revolution’s early days has simmered. One is more likely to hear the rhetorical question, “Revolution? What revolution?” amid the bubble of chatter 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, an historical moment.
But with social media now the main arena for political debate, authorities are attempting to rein in critics. Freedom of expression – “the last surviving relic of the revolution”, according to activist lawyer Mohamed Ali Bouchiba – is coming under strain.
“There is incontestably more freedom of speech in Tunisia today than there was under Ben Ali. But we have witnessed a regression recently, with an increase in lawsuits against social media activists compared to the years immediately after the revolution,” explained Eric Goldstein, deputy director for the Middle East and Northern Africa at Human Rights Watch.
It all really started in 2018 with Chahed, said Mansour, who was one of the first casualties of the recent crackdown.
Two years into his mandate, 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 upends the usual stereotype of the social media activist.
“People tend to imagine I spend my days scrolling down Facebook on my computer. But more often than not, I write my posts in between two chores at home, or with a soapy finger while washing the dishes,” she confessed.
“Chahed’s lawsuit uninhibited other government officials and politicians. They thought ‘if the PM does it, why not me?’,” Mansour added.
Bouchiba believes the opportunism of officials after Chahed’s move grew into a loosely coordinated effort by authorities to silence critics by redrawing the boundaries of freedom of expression. “They want to make politics taboo again,” he said.
Today, despite some high-profile cases against activists prosecuted for posting content perceived as offensive to Islam – such as Emna Chargui, who was sentenced last year to six months in prison for “inciting hatred between religions” after she imitated the verses of the Quran in a social media post poking fun at COVID-19 – the majority of activists are prosecuted for criticising government officials, politicians and the security forces online.
“Since 2018, we’ve really been put through the wringer with this new wave of arrests,” confirmed Bouchiba, known as “the bloggers’ lawyer”.
The former law professor has been at the forefront of every effort to defend social media activists since then.
Faced with the urgency of this crackdown, he co-founded the NGO Bloggers Without Chains in 2018, dedicated to defending pro-bono activists “whose only crime was to publicly criticise people in power”.
He has represented more than 40 activists since.
“The revolution had already demonstrated the power of the internet in mobilising people. Today, politicians are increasingly aware that elections are won and lost on social media, not in the press or on TV,” Bouchiba explained.
Suing social media activists who call them out online is a way for politicians, government officials and the security forces to try and keep their reputation clean on these platforms.
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded this trend. Activists denouncing corruption in the handling of the epidemic in Tunisia last year triggered an “increasing crackdown on social media users and online critics” that “limited the space for online mobilisation”, according to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom on the Net yearly report.
Only last week, social media activist Anis Mabrouki was sentenced to four months in prison for one of his posts on social media calling out local public officials for failing to distribute COVID-19 financial aid promised by the government.
In 2018, the Global Internet Sentiment Survey found that 50 percent of users surveyed in Tunisia did not feel safe sharing their views online.
The crackdown has not helped. While Mansour’s arrest did not dampen her resolve to speak out at the time, it has changed her methods. Short of censoring herself, she must now be careful how she phrases her posts.
“I can still speak my mind, but if I don’t want to be arrested again, I have to use irony a lot more than before,” she said. “Recently I presented my ‘excuses’ to Chahed for giving him the trouble of having me arrested.”
‘Insult or disturb’
In order to justify their censorship efforts, authorities have dug up a legal apparatus inherited from Tunisia’s darker times: laws from the Ben Ali era.
One of the laws most often invoked against activists is drawn from Article 86 of the 2001 Telecommunications Code, punishing anyone “using public communication networks to insult or disturb others” with up to two years in prison.
“The internet barely existed back then, let alone social media. Charging activists under this law is a stretch,” said Bouchiba.
The article, heavily deployed since 2018, was in fact rarely used during Ali’s regime, he noted, which preferred to jail activists under the guise of other offences such as drug possession.
Under increasing pressure from authorities, some activists are beginning to run out of steam.
“At the time, my arrest made me want to speak out even more. The public uproar was impressive: there were TV crews at the tribunal, online campaigning, public figures speaking out to support me, blocked roads,” Mansour recalled.
But recently, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Today, it’s different, she explained.
“Except for close friends, people don’t care any more. The lawsuits, the arrests … it’s become normalised. We’re all exhausted. It’s what the authorities want, you know, to harass us into exhaustion.”
Despite these recent setbacks, activists and those who defend them find one silver lining in today’s situation.
“Comparing freedom of speech before and after Ben Ali is impossible. Under his regime we simply couldn’t speak,” Bouchiba reasoned. “Freedom of expression might be threatened today – but at least we have some to fight for.”