Tunisia's Tangled Web Is Sticking Point for Reform

UNIS - Walking toward an Internet cafe in this balmy Mediterranean capital, Siham Bensedrine, a journalist and human rights advocate, quietly points out the secret police agent regularly assigned to watch her building.

She chooses a cafe at some distance from her apartment, lest the owner take fright at her surfing the Web with foreign visitors and ban her. Once inside, she sits at a terminal beneath several intimidating signs. "It is strictly forbidden to connect to banned sites,'' reads one in part, while another warns, "The use of any diskettes except those provided by the manager is absolutely forbidden.''

Mrs. Bensedrine taps in the address for her weekly magazine, Kalima, and the standard page for an inaccessible Web site pops onto the screen. She runs through a half-dozen addresses for other independent Tunisian publications and is equally thwarted. Her attempts to open a scattering of foreign sites, like that of Reporters Without Borders, fail as well. "In this country, all the sites that speak about freedom are blocked,'' sighs Mrs. Bensedrine, a short, wan woman dressed mostly in black, adding that she was forced to use the heavily monitored Web cafes because her phone line at home was inexplicably severed.

The experiences of Mrs. Bensedrine and other activists like her in Tunis and across the region reflect the practical difficulty in trying to carry through reform in the Arab world. Governments have become very adept at paying the idea of reform lip service - especially in the months since Washington adopted the issue - but practice lags.

Indeed, Arab leaders at their annual summit meeting in this capital last month issued a five-page Tunis Declaration committing themselves to basic rights like freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and fostering civil society. The Tunisian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, told the assembled leaders in a speech that the measures they adopted "will help our peoples make further strides on the path of reform and change.'' But a far more stifling reality prevails in the real-life Arab world, where frustrated political activists hear promises from their own leaders or from Washington and ask, "When?''

To take the Internet as just one example, Tunis has proven itself to be perhaps the most repressive Arab government, activists here say. Not only are many Web sites blocked, they say, but e-mail is also heavily monitored. The ability to offer Web services is kept within a small privileged circle. Web cafes are shuttered if deemed too lax about monitoring every site visited by patrons. Harsh jail sentences are meted out to young men convicted of creating or even visiting banned sites.

The number of Web cafes is shrinking in Tunis because so many have been closed.

With more sophisticated filtering techniques that block restricted sites far more vigorously, struggling Tunisian publications like Kalima resort to the samizdat techniques of the old Soviet Union - photocopying their magazines and passing them around clandestinely. For the Web versions available outside Tunisia, articles are smuggled or e-mailed out piecemeal. "Tunisia is economically liberated, but politically we live in the Soviet Union of the 1950's; that is the paradox,'' says Souhayer BelHassen, the deputy director of the Tunisian League for Human Rights.

Activists are especially incensed that the United Nations has chosen Tunis for the next international conference on information technology in November 2005, wondering how a country that so heavily curbs Internet access can be used to help showcase its future potential.

Many activists say the Internet got off to a bad start when the first license went to the president's oldest daughter, Cyrine Ben Ali, whose company Planet Tunisie still dominates, though there are now about 12 providers. (Tunisian officials say she is a respected businesswoman and her company has nothing to do with the government's seeking to maintain control.)

This spring, eight mostly young men accused of terrorism were given nearly 20-year prison sentences. The government accuses them of trying to learn how to use explosives via the Internet and planning to attack a police station and a girls' school. Defense lawyers say they had a healthy adolescent curiosity and were visiting sites about the Palestinian cause and Al Qaeda.

"There is actually no law against entering certain Internet sites, and yet they used the sites they entered as the strongest evidence that they are terrorists,'' said Samir Ben Amor, one defense lawyer.

Defense lawyers say not even the documents the group supposedly downloaded were in the case files, so they saw no evidence to support the charges. "They received such severe sentences as a means of telling the Americans that 'Ben Ali is the only one who can help defend you against terrorists - he is the one who resists change. If you throw me out, the terrorists will take over Tunis,' '' said Radhia Nasraoui, one of Tunisia's most prominent human rights lawyers.

The case of the defendants, from Zarzis, is hardly unique. Another group stands similarly accused, and there have been several infamous individual cases.

Zohair Yahyaoui, lacking a job eight years after graduating from college with a management degree, decided a few years ago to start a Web magazine called Tunezine. Its sarcastic political commentaries soon irritated the government. When President Ben Ali organized a referendum in 2002 to alter the Constitution to lift the limit on presidential terms, Mr. Yahyaoui organized a referendum, too, asking visitors to his Web site to choose whether Tunisia was a republic, a monarchy, a prison, a zoo or none of the above. The government voted by jailing Mr. Yahyaoui for nearly 18 months.

The extent of the surveillance can be baffling. When a Western diplomat complained to his service provider that his e-mail had failed for a few days and he wanted back messages, he received every message from the preceding two years.

Tunisian officials defend the country's Internet record. They point out that the country is advanced in deploying the computer for everything from university registration to soccer tickets to paying utility bills. They also note that sites that were once blocked, like Amnesty International and much of the French press, are now open. "The sites that are blocked belong to fundamentalist and terrorist groups,'' one Tunisian official said. Those jailed in the Zarzis case, he said, were trying to get logistical support from Al Qaeda and experimenting with explosives.

As to the question of freedom of speech overall, he said, "Our media landscape is improving, but we are doing it gradually.''The United States made note of the government's heavy hand in May, when it lumped Tunisia along with repressive states like China, Cuba and Burma in terms of press freedom. Tunis protested by withdrawing its ambassador from Washington for several weeks. But Tunisian activists don't expect any real American pressure for internal change any time soon. Indeed, Washington has announced plans to set up an office here this August to help spread its vision of reform in the region.

Because Mr. Ben Ali "is a good partner in the war against terrorism,'' Mrs. Bensedrine said, "the Americans ignore all the measures taken against democracy.''