Tunisia

Tunisia

Partly Free
64
100
A Obstacles to Access 16 25
B Limits on Content 29 35
C Violations of User Rights 19 40
Last Year's Score & Status
62 100 Partly Free

Overview

Tunisia’s information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure is robust, access is relatively affordable, and authorities continue working to expand access outside of major cities. However, individuals risk prosecution in response to content published online that is critical of the security forces or government, and some users have experienced harassment in response to their online activity. Disinformation spread ahead of the fall 2019 elections. Though content removal occurs occasionally, the process is largely transparent and there are avenues for appeal. Surveillance remains a concern, particularly in light of the country’s history of abuse under the Ben Ali regime and the lack of a comprehensive legal framework that regulates the process of surveillance and the relationship between different surveillance actors. Nevertheless, Tunisians continue to use online tools to organize robust social movements addressing a variety of topics.

After ousting a longtime autocrat from power in 2011, Tunisia began a democratic transition. Citizens enjoy unprecedented political rights and civil liberties, but the country’s current political status is mixed. The influence of endemic corruption, economic challenges, security threats, and continued unresolved issues related to gender equality and transitional justice remain obstacles to full democratic consolidation.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • During the coverage period, there were a number of instances of content removal or requests for content removal, but the processes were largely transparent and able to be appealed (see B2 and B3).
  • Disinformation promoted through paid advertising was spread in the lead-up to the September 2019 presidential and October 2019 parliamentary elections (see B5).
  • Activists organized several social media campaigns during the coverage period, including a boycott against a television channel and protests against the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia’s visit to Tunisia (see B8).
  • A number of bloggers were arrested during the reporting period, and several received prison sentences (see C3).

A Obstacles to Access

Tunisia’s information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure is relatively robust, internet penetration continues to increase. Internet access is affordable relative to many other states in the region, and the government is working to address the digital divide through infrastructure and tax reduction programs. However, the telecommunications market is concentrated, and government has some control over the internet backbone through its ownership stakes in the country’s major tech companies. The National Instance of Telecommunications (INT), the main regulator, functions with relative independence but lacks institutional safeguards to protect against politicization.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 46

Tunisia’s ICT infrastructure is relatively robust, and has continued to improve over recent years.1

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet penetration stood at 64 percent at the end of 2018, up from 50 percent end of 2016.2 There were almost 8.7 million mobile data subscriptions in the country as of May 2019,3 consisting of about 494,000 subscriptions to 3G and 4G USB keys, 113,500 machine-to-machine communication (M2M) subscriptions, with phone plans accounting for the remainder.4 There were roughly 1,124,000 fixed-broadband subscriptions as of May 2019, including 773,000 wired, 350,000 radio, and 71 satellite.5

In the summer of 2016, 4G was launched.6 In December 2018, Minister of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy Anouar Maârouf announced that 5G licenses would probably be launched in 2021.7 In March 2019, the Tunisian National Telecommunication Regulator (INT) launched a tender to conduct a study on market demand for the 5G technology and technical and economic aspects of its potential implementation.8

In May 2019, 47.5 percent of ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) users had internet connections slower than 8 Mbps, and 52.5 percent had speeds of between 8 and 16 Mbps, in comparison to May 2018 when 64.3 percent had connections slower than 8 Mbps and 35.7 percent had speeds between 8 and 16 Mbps.9 As of December 2018, there were 22,000 fiber-optic subscriptions, marking a 25.6 percent growth rate from the end of 2017.10

The share of households with a computer increased from 39.3 percent to 47.5 percent between 2016 and 2018.11 Mobile phone use is widespread, with roughly 14,500,000 mobile phone subscriptions and a penetration rate of 124.5 percent as of May 2019.12 INT has continued to register a decrease in the number of cybercafés across the country, due mainly to the growing number of users accessing the internet through mobile data plans. The number of cybercafés as of May 2019 was 169, down from 235 in May 2017.13

In April 2019, the Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Economy initiated a process to provide 12 university campuses and 19 technology colleges with fiber-optic cables and Wi-Fi outdoor service.14

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 23

Internet access is affordable relative to many other states in the region,1 and companies offer a wide variety of packages and data capacities. However, those living outside major cities have fewer options when it comes to operators and coverage. Tunisia is working to address the digital divide through infrastructure and tax reduction programs.

In July 2017, the Ministry of Telecommunication Technologies and Digital Economy announced that it would implement a five-year plan to increase internet access, mobile coverage, public internet centers, and access for people with disabilities in 94 underserved areas.2 The project was assigned to Tunisie Telecom in November 2017 and was expected to benefit around 180,000 inhabitants.3 At the end of 2018, 60 percent of the project had been completed.4

As part of the 2016 4G launch (see A1), Tunisia’s three main operators were compelled to cover 20 percent of each governorate’s territory in one year, including two marginalized interior regions.5

The 2019 budget law decreased the tax on fixed-line subscriptions for individual use from 19 percent to 7 percent to ensure social inclusion and reduce the digital divide.6 (The 2018 budget law increased taxes on prepaid top-up plans from between 10 and 14 percent.)7

In 2019, internet service provider (ISP) prices ranged from 10.5 dinars ($4) per month for a connection speed of 4 Mbps8 to 25 dinars ($9) per month for a connection speed of 20 Mbps.9 The price of a postpaid monthly 4G subscription plan was 25 dinars ($9) for a 25GB data allowance, while a 55 GB plan cost 50 dinars ($18).10 A prepaid monthly 4G subscription plan cost 13.5 dinars ($5) for a 5G data allowance per month, and up to 45 dinars ($16) for a 55G data allowance per month.11

Users are starting to abandon USB keys in favor of databoxes, which allow Wi-Fi access for more than one user. (In May 2019 there were around 493,000 USB key subscriptions12 in comparison to 674,000 in May 2018.13) A databox costs around 40 dinars ($14).

Free internet without registration is available in many cafés and restaurants in major cities.

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 56

The Tunisian government does not impose any restrictions on ICT connectivity. However, the government has some control over the internet backbone through its ownership stakes in the country’s major tech infrastructure.

The government-controlled Tunisie Telecom, plus Ooredoo and Orange (in which the government also has ownership stakes) manage the country’s fiber-optic network, with Tunisie Telecom managing over 30,000 kilometers, as of February 20191 out of around 35,000 kilometers total.

In September 2014, Ooredoo Tunisie and Orange Tunisie inaugurated their own international submarine cable, breaking Tunisie Telecom’s monopoly over Tunisia’s international submarine communications cables.2 The 175-kilometer-long cable, which links Tunisia to Italy, is the first privately owned cable to enter into service in Tunisia.

In December 2017, the Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy signed an agreement with a new company, Level 4, to provide a high-speed broadband infrastructure that would be available to telecom operators and ISPs.3 Level 4 is owned by the state-run Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), the private Tunisian company EO Datacenter, and Turkey’s İşkaya.4 In August 2018, the cabinet approved Decree 912/2017, which specifies the general conditions for using public telecommunications networks and access networks that regulate the sharing of infrastructure between different companies.5

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 36

The Tunisian state retains ownership in several key providers.

The main mobile operators are Tunisie Telecom, Ooredoo Tunisie, and Orange Tunisie. The state controls a 65 percent stake in Tunisie Telecom; the remaining shares are held by the private equity firm Abraaj Group.1 The government has a small stake in Ooredoo Tunisie, a subsidiary of the Qatar-based Ooredoo. Orange Tunisie has been controlled by the state since 2011, when a 51 percent stake was seized from Marwan Ben Mabrouk, son-in-law of former president Ben Ali. The remaining 49 percent stake is owned by the multinational group Orange.2

The Tunisian government announced in December 2016 that it will sell its stakes in Orange Tunisia and Ooredoo Tunisia in 2017 but none of the stakes have been sold yet.3

A smaller operator, Lycamobile Tunisia, entered the ICT market in late 2015, upon being allocated a five-year renewable license and use of the infrastructure of Tunisie Telecom. In May 2019, Lycamobile accounted for 1.42 percent of subscriptions while the market shares of Ooredoo, Telecom Tunisie, and Orange Tunisie were 42.12 percent, 30.97 percent, and 25.49 percent, respectively.4

Tunisie Telecom, Ooredoo Tunisie, and Orange Tunisie also provide fixed-line internet subscriptions, in addition to GlobalNet, Topnet, Bee, Hexpayte, and public providers that connect public institutions to the internet. Topnet, owned by Tunisie Telecom, dominates the ADSL broadband market with a share of 60.05 percent, followed by GlobalNet (15.29 percent), Orange (11.64 percent), Hexabyte (6.53 percent), Ooredoo (2.63 percent), Tunisie Telecom (2.05 percent), and Bee (0.29) as of May 2019.5

Bee, the commercial name of the company Internet Smart Solutions, is a new provider6 that offers ADSL and VDSL (very high-speed digital subscriber line) services.7

Both individuals and legal entities may apply to become an ISP. Individuals must be Tunisian citizens and hold a graduate degree, an equivalent degree, or training certificate at an equivalent level in information technology, telecommunications or multimedia. A legal entity needs to be constituted in accordance with Tunisian law and have a standing capital of at least 1 million dinars ($50,000) with the majority of stakes being Tunisian. Licensing applications must be answered by the ministry within one month; a one-time license fee of 150,000 dinars ($53,000) is paid once a license is obtained.8

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 24

The Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy is the main government body responsible for regulating the ICT sector. The National Instance of Telecommunications (INT) is the regulator for all telecom and internet-related activities, and has the responsibility of resolving technical issues and disputes between actors.

The INT seems to enjoy in practice a certain level of independence from the government, derived from an institutional layout that provides it with exclusive jurisdiction over the regulatory tasks assigned to it by the Telecom Code, and ensures functional separation from the governmental bodies. However, the lack of a formal requirement of independence and weak institutional safeguards against politicization leaves it exposed to the risk of external intervention or political pressure.1

The INT’s governance body is made up of seven members, including a vice president who is appointed by the Court of Cassation (the highest court in Tunisia), and a permanent member appointed by the Court of Accounts, which oversees the management of public funds. The INT’s board members are appointed by government decree in a process that lacks transparency. Since 2012, the vice president of the INT is directly selected by the Council of the Judiciary, an independent body tasked with overseeing the functioning of the judicial system, before appointment by government decree.2 The INT has initiated some positive changes in internet policy, namely through the introduction of a more liberal domain name chart and an invitation to independent arbitrators from civil society to help develop a new alternative domain name dispute resolution process.

A December 2014 government decree regulates the granting of business licenses to ISPs.3 Under the decree, ISPs are subject to prior authorization from the ICT Ministry, after consulting with the Interior Ministry and the INT. Article 8 established a new advisory board tasked with examining licensing requests and advising on matters related to infractions and sanctions. The board is presided over by the ICT minister or their representative and is composed of representatives from the Ministries of Defense, Interior, Communication Technologies and Digital Economy, and Commerce; the INT; and the Union for Industry and Commerce (UTICA).

  • 1. Twinning Project TN/13/ENP/TE/27b Support for the Instance National of Telecommunications (INT), “Report on the independence of the Instance National of Telecommunications,” January 2016, accessed on 11 August 2019, Page 20 http://www.intt.tn/upload/files/Report%20on%20Independence%20of%20the%2….
  • 2. Twinning Project TN/13/ENP/TE/27b Support for the Instance National of Telecommunications (INT), “Report on the independence of the Instance National of Telecommunications,” January 2016, accessed on 8 May 2017, http://www.intt.tn/upload/files/Report%20on%20Independence%20of%20the%2….
  • 3. Presidency of the Government, أمر عــدد 4773 لسنة 2014 مؤرخ في 26 ديسمبر 2014 يتعلق بضبط شروط وإجراءات إسناد ترخيص نشاط مزود خدمات الأنترنات. [Decree n°4773 of 26 December 2014 fixing the conditions and procedures for allocating authorizations for ISP activities], December 26, 2014, http://bit.ly/1UrOYlW.

B Limits on Content

Tunisian users continue to enjoy an open internet. Though content removal occurs occasionally, the process is largely transparent. Disinformation spread in the lead-up to fall 2019 elections. Activists organized several notable social media campaigns during the coverage period.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 66

Censorship remains uncommon in Tunisia, with no instances of politically motivated blocking during the reporting period. Popular social media tools such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and international blog-hosting services are freely available.

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 24

Government representatives and bodies and various other entities sometimes seek the removal of online content, and there has been some controversy and confusion in recent years among these various bodies over jurisdiction.

In February 2019, the Monitoring and Documentation Unit at the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) documented the removal of a news item from the website of the public radio station El Kef following a request from the governor of Kef. The item in question documented the governor’s hostile reception by protesters while on official business. According to SNJT, following the governor’s pressure, the manager of the radio station ordered the removal of the news item, and asked its author to highlight the visit and not the protest.1

The High Independent Authority of the Audiovisual Commission (HAICA) requested the removal of around 14 episodes of television and radio programs during the coverage period. These requests are generally justified on grounds of failing to respect the regulatory framework—including respecting the private life of individuals, incitement of violence, hate or discrimination based on race, physical appearance, religion, gender, region or certain opinions, the rights of children, respecting human dignity, and the rights of women.2

Earlier, in May 2018, the Court of First Instance in Tunis ordered the private television station Tunisna TV to stop the broadcasting of the television series Shalom for what the court described as treating guests in an unacceptable manner by threatening them with weapons or attempting to bribe them. (The hidden-camera program filmed attempts to compel or convince unwitting guests to say that they would cooperate on various projects with Israel.)3 HAICA criticized the court decision, saying it is the only entity responsible for regulating the media, and that it considered the decision a prior censorship practice. A few days before the court decision, HAICA requested the station remove the Israeli flag from the opening credits due to what it described as provoking the public, and had also ordered it to remove one specific episode from its website and social media pages due to the violation of human dignity and forcing guests to give opinions on normalization with a “zionist entity.”4

According to its transparency report, Facebook restricted no items in Tunisia between July to December 2018. There were two items that were restricted between January and June 2018 “in response to private reports related to defamation.”5

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 34

Formal content removal and blocking cases are mostly transparent and can be appealed though courts.

In September 2018, the Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy launched a third public consultation on the Digital Code, which would replace the current telecommunication code and its amendments. The draft code states that both internet service providers and content service providers are not liable for content they publish or send unless they edit or otherwise actively take ownership of the material. The draft further states that content hosting providers are not liable for content unless they have been informed by a judicial body that the content is illegal, and they fail to remove it.1 The government indicated in April 2019 that the draft law was ready and would be approved by the cabinet soon.2 However, it had yet to be approved by October 2019.

In March 2018, the Court of First Instance in Sousse ordered ATI to block online access to the Blue Whale and Meriam games, which, the court claimed, encourage teenagers to commit suicide. The ATI has appealed the court’s decision and called for a national dialogue on protecting children in cyberspace without impeding internet access.3

Earlier, in February 2018, the Court of First Instance in Tunis rejected a request made by the National Syndicate of Imams and Mosque Workers to block the website of Shams Rad, Tunisia’s first LGBT+ online radio station. The court stated that the syndicate lacked the status to be a plaintiff in the case, and that the content produced by Shams Rad did not undermine the rights of others.4 The station launched in December 2017 and received more than 4,000 hate messages in its first two weeks.5

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 34

While the 2011 revolution gave way to a proliferation of new online news sites, arrests and prosecutions of people who have spoken out online against government officials have prompted bloggers and online activists to practice self-censorship.1 Global Internet Sentiment Survey results that were published by Access Now and RIWI, a Canadian tech firm, in May 2018 revealed that around 50 percent of people surveyed in Tunisia did not feel safe sharing their views online; nearly 25 percent said they felt safe and the remainder felt somewhat safe.2

Despite this, users in Tunisia still discuss political, religious, and controversial social issues online, where there is more space for such debates than in traditional media or even in offline private discussion. Religious issues are debated more openly online than in the mainstream media or on the streets, for example.

The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), a nongovernmental organization (NGO), organized a “day of anger” demonstration in February 2018 to protest the pressure authorities place on journalists covering security operations or expressing critical viewpoints. The demonstration came in response to Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem’s admission that journalists were being monitored (see C5).

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 34

The Tunisian government does not issue official guidelines or directives on coverage to online media outlets. However, the authorities in practice have significant control over public media institutions, including multiple television channels and regional radio stations that have a strong online presence. SNJT accused the current government in June 2017 of controlling public media after the dismissal of the director general of public television;1 in October 2018, the president of the SNJT said that the government does not have the political will to reform public media.2

Facebook announced in May 2019 that it removed 65 accounts, 161 pages, 12 groups and four Instagram accounts. Facebook suspects that the pages and accounts belonged to an Israeli-based network that used fake accounts to run disinformation campaigns and artificially boost engagement on purportedly local pages they created. The pages reportedly attracted around 2.8 million followers from at least 13 targeted countries including Tunisia.3 The investigative website Inkyfada analyzed the content of 11 pages that were targeting Tunisia, concluded that all were established in early 2019 and promoted with paid advertising; they attacked politicians who appeared in the opinion polling for the upcoming September 2019 Tunisian presidential election. Separately, in May 2019, a fake opinion poll began circulating, which stated that Nabil Karoui was the favorite candidate.4

Beyond the coverage period, the Tunisian Association for the Integrity of Democratic Elections (ATIDE), which specializes in election monitoring, launched a project in August 2019 to monitor social networks—especially Facebook—and provide the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) with reports upon which the body could base legal action.5

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 33

Publishing content online on websites, blogs or social networks is not an activity that requires a license in Tunisia.

However, both print and online outlets have been impacted by a declining economy, as companies have cut their advertising budgets. The Tunisian cabinet approved a draft law in September 2018 that would establish a national agency to manage public advertising and subscriptions; among its mandates is to set criteria and specify online media outlets that would be eligible for public advertising. It was sent to the parliament in January 2019,1 and remained pending at the end of the coverage period.

Many outlets also avoid critical coverage of big private advertisers including banks and telecom companies in order to avoid losing out on advertising contracts. The Tunisian watchdog association Iwatch published an investigation in August 2019, after the coverage period, on violations committed by a local bank, but the study received very little attention online, in what was perhaps a reflection of this reluctance.2

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 34

Tunisia’s online media landscape is generally vibrant and open. Since the revolution, numerous online news sites have been launched alongside newspapers, radio stations, and television channels, enriching the information landscape through the addition of viewpoints from a diverse range of social actors. However, self-censorship among users limits the availability of content addressing some sensitive topics, such as religion and LGBT+ issues.

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 66

Tunisian youth and civil society organizations continue to use digital media for initiatives relating to political and social issues.

In June 2018, civil society activists launched a social media campaign to boycott the private channel Nessma TV after the leak1 of audio recording attributed to its owner, Nabil Karoui. Karoui, a 2019 presidential candidate, was discussing with his team a strategy to spread disinformation about the Tunisian watchdog organization Iwatch, after the organization had published an investigation that accused him of tax evasion and corruption.2

Later, in November 2018, Tunisian activists organized both online and offline against the visits of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photos of a giant poster on the SNJT offices that read “No to desecration of Tunisia, the land of revolution,” went viral online along with other posts under the Arabic hashtag ا_أهلا_ولا_سهلا (“not welcome,” in English). Activists organized online to invite people to take part in protests to oppose the visit; to denounce the crown prince for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the ongoing war in Yemen;3 and to express solidarity with women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia.4

Civil society activists have utilized data collected through the Right to Information Law, which went into force in March 2016, to launch online platforms designed to inform the public and hold public officials accountable. For example, Cabrane.com monitors the costs and on-time performance of public projects, and resources.tn makes legal, administrative, and media information related to natural resource management and the energy sector available to the public.

C Violations of User Rights

While Tunisia has taken significant steps to promote internet access and reverse online censorship, the country’s legal framework remains a threat to internet freedom. The judiciary continues to employ laws from the Ben Ali era to prosecute online expression, and a number of bloggers were arrested during the coverage period.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 36

The 2014 constitution that was approved in the wake of the 2011 revolution enshrines the right to free expression and freedom of the press, and bans “prior censorship.” Specific articles guarantee the right to privacy and personal data protection, as well as the right to access information and communication networks.1 However, the text contains vague language tasking the state with “protecting sanctities” and banning “takfir” (apostasy accusations). Such language could act as a constitutional restriction on internet freedom.

Decree 115/2011 on the Press, Printing, and Publishing provides protections to journalists against imprisonment. However, Tunisia’s press code does not provide bloggers and citizen journalists with the same protections afforded to traditional journalists. Article 7 defines a “professional journalist” as a person holding a bachelor’s degree who “seeks the collection and dissemination of news, views and ideas and transmits them to the public on a primary and regular basis,” and “works in an institution or institutions of daily or periodical news agencies, or audiovisual media and electronic media under the condition that it is the main source of income.”2

In March 2016, Tunisia adopted a basic law on the right to access information. The law guarantees access to information held by government bodies including ministries, the presidency, publicly funded NGOs, the parliament, local municipalities, the central bank and constitutional bodies. The law prescribes fines against those who obstruct access to information, and establishes an access-to-information commission tasked with deciding on appeals for access to information requests.3

In September 2018, the Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy launched a third public consultation on the Digital Code that would replace the current Telecommunication Code and its amendments. The draft law ensures the right to access the internet; and the right to freedom of opinion, thought, expression, information, publication, and communication on the internet, and states that these rights may only be limited in cases specified by the law and with legal guarantees.4 In an April 2019 speech at the opening of the Tunis Digital Summit, the prime minister said that the draft law was ready and was expected to be approved by the cabinet.5 Approval had not been granted as of October 2019.

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 14

Despite improvements to the constitution, repressive laws still in force from the Ben Ali regime threaten internet freedom. Article 86 of the Telecommunications Code states that anyone found guilty of “using public communication networks to insult or disturb others” could spend up to two years in prison and may be fined. This provision was retained in the proposed digital code that would replace the telecommunication code and its amendments.1

Articles 128 and 245 of the penal code punish slander with two to five years’ imprisonment. Article 121(3) calls for a maximum punishment of five years in prison for those convicted of publishing content “liable to cause harm to public order or public morals.” In addition, authorities continue to use the penal code to prosecute journalists (see C3). Tunisia’s code of military justice criminalizes criticism of the military and its commanders.2

In August 2015, the parliament adopted a new counterterrorism law to replace a 2003 law used by the Ben Ali regime to crack down on critics and opponents.3 Article 31 of the law mandates a maximum of five years in prison for those found to have “publicly and clearly praised” a terrorist crime, its perpetrators, and groups connected with terrorism.4 Under the new law’s article 37, the authorities cannot prosecute journalists for not revealing terror-related information they obtain during the course of their work.5 In January 2019, the Tunisian parliament approved amendments to the counterterrorism law, but without revisions to articles 31 and 37.6

In July 2017, parliament debated a proposed law with vague provisions that could criminalize criticism of the security forces, including for human rights abuses. Article 12 of the bill criminalizes the “denigration” of police and other security forces with the aim of “harming public order;” those convicted would receive a sentence of up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of 10,000 dinars (US$3,570). Articles 5 and 6 of the bill provide for up to 10 years in prison and a 50,000 dinar (US$ 17,900) fine for those who disclose or publish “national security secrets,” defined as “any information, data, and documents related to national security.” This broad definition could be used to imprison those revealing information about human rights violations. No protection from prosecution is provided for whistleblowers or journalists.7 Article 7 criminalizes unauthorized filming or recording inside security and military headquarters and at sites of military and security operations, with a maximum punishment of two years in prison.8 At the end of the reporting period, the controversial bill was still being considered by parliament.9

In March 2018, 17 members of parliament from Nidaa Tounes, a party in the ruling coalition, submitted a proposal to amend the penal code by adding two articles that would criminalize online defamation. The proposed amendments prescribe a two-year jail sentence and a fine of 3,000 dinars ($100) for those convicted of publishing content that could harm “public order,” “good morals,” “sanctity of private life,” and “the honor” of individuals and “official institutions.”10 The SNJT condemned the bill as an attack on freedom of expression.11 At the end of the reporting period, the suggested amendment was categorized on the parliament website as having been presented to the committees, without specifying which committee the law was assigned to.12

In June 2019, after the coverage period, the government extended an existing stage of emergency for one month.13 Authorities initially imposed the state of emergency in response to a 2015 terrorist attack. Among other provisions, the state of emergency allows authorities to access electronic devices without a court order.14

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 26

Arrests of bloggers are frequent and continued during the coverage period.1 Many prosecutions are prompted by online criticism of the security forces or of government officials, but users can also be charged under antiterrorism laws and laws that effectively criminalize relationships between LGBT+ people. Sometimes, charges are brought under both the penal code and the telecommunications code, each of which can carry their own separate penalties.

Among high-profile arrests, parliamentarian and blogger Yassine Ayari was sentenced twice in 2018 for online activity. In June 2018, a military court sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment for treason and conspiring against state security2 over a Facebook post that mocked the appointment of a military commander. A military appeals court in December 2018 reduced the sentence to two months; Ayari had held that he did not author the post.3 Earlier, in March 2018, a military court sentenced Ayari in absentia to 16 days imprisonment for a 2017 Facebook post that mocked another military commander; Ayari later appealed the decision and the Military Court of Appeal sentenced him to three months with the execution of the sentence instead of 16 days.4 Both cases were reportedly at the Court of Cassation at the end of the coverage period.5 In another case involving Tunisia’s security forces, in April 2019, a blogger was sentenced to 6 months in jail for insulting others through social media after publishing a post depicting members of the National Guard breaking a child’s nose as they searched his father’s house.6 And, in April 2019, Maha Naghmouchi a 21-year-old student, was sentenced to one month in jail following a post she wrote with the acronym “ACAB” (all cops are bastards) on her Facebook wall.7

A number of users were targeted by defamation cases filed by government officials. In August 2018, blogger Amina Mansour was charged under the penal code and telecommunications code over accusations she had posted on Facebook that Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was facilitating corruption in the customs agency. A court of first instance convicted Mansour of both crimes in September 2018 and sentenced her to one month in prison for each of the two charges, suspended. She has since appealed the sentence.8 In September 2018, a defamation case filed by the governor of West Sfax opened against a user in response to their online speech.9 Two teachers were also convicted of defamation during the coverage period over their remarks online, in response to complaints by the education minister.10

Separately, in February 2018, blogger Aymen Ben Selma was convicted of insulting the president under separate provisions of the penal and telecommunications codes, and sentenced to six months on each charge, for a total of one year in prison. Ben Selma later won appeals that reduced his sentence to two months in prison, suspended. Ben Selma told rights group Human Rights Watch that he stopped updating his blog in 2018 because he feared that he would be prosecuted on additional charges.11

And, in another case, professor Salwa Sharafi was investigated by the judicial administration in the city of Ben Arous after discussing her recent academic research on Facebook; she was accused of provoking the feelings of Muslims in Tunisia and beyond, undermining the value of the Battle of Badr, and insulting the prophet Muhammad.12

In June 2018, a 27 year-old-man was sentenced to four months in prison for homosexuality, based on a Facebook chat with his boyfriend; it was unclear how authorities obtained the messages.13 Separately, authorities have arrested several individuals for advocating extremism in recent years, at times without due process, as permitted under the state of emergency.14

In a positive development, blogger Hichem Mejri was acquitted in October 2018 of various charges related to his online criticism of prison and police officials; his case had lasted over two years.15 And, former president Beji Caid Essebsi lost a long-running legal case against activist Imed Dghij, which had been brought over a November 2014 Facebook post in which Dghij warned of a “bloodbath” if Essebsi were successful in his bid for president. In April 2017, Dghij was convicted and received a suspended sentence of three months in prison, but he appealed and was acquitted in January 2019.16

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 34

Laws that limit encryption remain a concern in the post-Ben Ali era. In particular, articles 9 and 87 of the 2001 telecommunication code ban the use of encryption and provide a sanction of up to five years in prison for unauthorized use of encryption tools. While there have been no reports of these laws being enforced, their continued existence underscores the precarious nature of Tunisia’s relatively open internet environment.

Article 296 of the draft digital code—which is set to replace the telecommunications code1—states that anyone who uses, makes, imports, exports, or distributes encryption tools would be sentenced 6 months to five years in jail and a fine of 1,000 to 5,000 dinars ($350 to $1,750). Article 146 of the draft considers encryption as part of digital trust services that are regulated and which cannot be provided by nonaccredited service providers.2

Under 2014 regulations issued by the ICT ministry, cybercafés users are not required to provide identification or register.3

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 26

Surveillance remains a concern in Tunisia, particularly in light of the country’s history of abuse under the Ben Ali regime and the lack of a comprehensive legal framework that regulates the process of surveillance and the relationship between different surveillance actors. Revelations in recent years have raised concerns about the government’s wiretapping ability.

The creation in November 2013 of the Technical Telecommunications Agency (ATT) raised concerns among human rights and privacy groups, particularly given the lack of transparency surrounding its duties. The body is tasked with “providing technical support to judicial investigations into information and communication crimes,” but fails to define these crimes.1 It quickly came under criticism from online activists for being established by decree instead of by the parliament; and for lacking a clear and limited mandate, mechanisms to ensure it remains free from government interference, and mechanisms to guarantee user rights.2 Later amendments outlined the ATT’s leadership,3 which is appointed by the government, as well as an oversight board consisting mainly of representatives from various government ministries and headed by the ATT leadership.4 A decree establishing the ATT mandates that the body coordinate with telecom networks operators, and internet service providers in relation to its work to provide technical support for judicial investigations of information and communications systems crimes.5

In late 2016, plans to introduce biometric identification cards sparked criticism, particularly in the absence of strong data and privacy protections6 and legally mandated consultations with the Data Protection Authority (INPDP). In January 2018, legislation that would have established the program was withdrawn from consideration in parliament.7

In September 2018, Citizen Lab published a research report titled “Hide and Seek” that identified Tunisia among 45 countries in which operators of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware may be conducting operations.8

In January 2018, former interior minister Brahem admitted during a parliamentary hearing that he had wiretapped French journalist Mathieu Galtier’s phone, for allegedly being in contact with “vandals.”9 Separately, in 2018, leaked documents showed that Circinus, a Virginia-based defense contracting company, proposed to build an open-source intelligence center for the Tunisian government for $80 million over five years. The pitch claimed that Circinus could help the government’s “targeting” abilities, while a social media geolocation feature could help at a “tactical level” by letting “agents in the field [identify] social media traffic in real time.” An official later said that the government ultimately declined the proposal by Circinus.10

There are some legal sanctions for unauthorized surveillance. The 2015 counterterrorism law prohibits unauthorized surveillance.11 Under January 2019 amendments, violations are punishable by between one year and five years and a fine ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 dinar ($350 to 1,750).12 In November 2018, members of the parliament introduced a draft basic law to regulate intelligence agencies. Articles 58 to 64 outline the procedures related to online surveillance, including monitoring and interception of communications when there is a threat to national security. A judicial authorization is required and the surveillance period cannot exceed two months, with one possible extension. At the end of the coverage period, the draft was still under consideration.13

Another draft law addresses the protection of personal information.14 Civil society groups have criticized it for failing to define the difference between protected personal data and public information, and thus potentially hampering freedom of information requests and facilitating government opacity.15 The draft was presented to parliament in March 2018 and was still under consideration at the end of the reporting period.16

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 36

The government has several tools it can invoke to compel companies and ISPs to help the government monitor internet users.

Decrees governing ISP liability impose a duty on ISPs “to meet the requirements of the national defense, security, and public safety and security in accordance with the legislation and regulation in force” and to “provide to the relevant authorities all the means necessary for the performance of his duties, in that context, the provider of internet services shall respect the instructions of the legal, military and national security authorities.”1

According to Facebook’s transparency report, Tunisia made 6 requests for data that involved 53 user accounts between January 2013 and December 2018. Facebook responded once to one request that involved 48 accounts between January and June of 2015. Between July and December 2018, Tunisia made one legal request that Facebook did not respond to.2

Regulations issued by the Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy in 2013 do not require owners of cybercafés to monitor their customers’ activities.3

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 35

In addition to arrest and prosecution, internet users and digital activists must also be wary of extralegal attempts to silence them.

In June 2018, a recording leaked on social media in which Nabil Karaoui, the head of Nessma TV, described how he would use his television station to harass the former executive director of the anticorruption NGO Iwatch, as well as his family, by accusing him of being a “traitor” who received money to study abroad.1 Iwatch maintains a strong online presence in Tunisia. In August 2018, two other recordings leaked in which Karoui apparently said he also targeted Iwatch and other civil society organizations.2

SNJT documented several incidents during the coverage period in which journalist were targeted both by police and by demonstrators, including those in which their equipment was confiscated.3 Separately, Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian human rights defender and is still protected by a security guard authorized by the interior ministry in 2013,4 after her name appeared on an assassination list.5

Tunisian authorities have confiscated and searched the phones of men they suspect of being gay, and have pressured them to undergo invasive examinations and to confess to homosexual activity, according to a November 2018 report from Human Rights Watch.6

Amnesty International in a 2017 report on abuses under Tunisia’s state of emergency documented cases of arbitrary arrests and interrogations in which people were questioned about their social media activity.7

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 23

Since Ben Ali’s fall, there have been no reported incidents of cyberattacks perpetrated by the government to silence ICT users. However, other cyberattacks targeting news websites and government bodies have been documented in recent years.

In April 2016, after it published reports on the Panama Papers which mentioned politician Mohsen Marzouk, the web magazine Inkyfada endured a cyberattack that forced it offline for a few days. Hackers sought to manipulate the site’s content and managed to publish an article falsely alleging that Marzouk received $36 million from a Qatari foundation through an offshore company based in Panama.1

In May 2017, during a parliamentary hearing session explaining the reasons behind his resignation, former president of the independent electoral commission Chafik Sarsar denounced what he described as “police practices” targeting members and employees of the commission, including the hacking of emails.2

In February 2018, Tunisia was invited to accede to the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime. The CyberSouth project, instituted jointly by the Council of Europe and the European Union, plans to strengthen Tunisia’s legal framework on cybersecurity in a way that also aligns with human rights obligations and the rule of law, in hopes of the country becoming a party to the convention.3

In October 2018, Director General of the National Agency for Computer Security (ANSI), Mohamed Naoufel Frikha, noted that around 80,000 hacking attempts into electronic sites had been recorded over the last three months. Minister of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy, Anouar Maarouf stated that his department would establish a platform to identify denial of service attacks by the end of 2018.4 However, it was unclear if a platform had been created at the end of the reporting period.

In June 2018, The Tunisian cabinet approved a draft law that aims to prevent and combat crimes of information and communication.5 The nonprofit organization Access Now submitted two access to information requests to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy to get a copy of the draft law. The Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy response explained that the current draft of the law is not the final draft and they are working to address technical points that were raised in the cabinet meeting in June 2018.6 A post on the Presidency of the Government’s Facebook page of that cabinet meeting in June 2018 seems to have been updated not to include the approval of the draft law.7

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    No
  • Pro-government Commentators

    No
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

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