If it wasn’t so serious, anyone knowing a little about the situation in Tunisia with the Internet and press freedom generally might be able to laugh about it. In 2005, Tunisia will host the World Summit on the Information Society under the patronage of United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.
While the arrangements for it are being made at a meeting in Geneva from 1 to 5 July, a Tunisian cyber-dissident, Zouhair Yahyaoui, has been in prison for nearly a month now because he made fun of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on his
news website TUNeZINE (www.tunezine.com), which is banned in Tunisia. He is serving a 28-month sentence (handed down on 20 June) for, among other things, "unauthorised use of an Internet connection."
"It is quite inappropriate, indeed outrageous, to hold this summit in one of the countries most hostile to the free flow of information," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard. "It harms the credibility of the summit’s organisers and above all insults the spirit of the Internet, which is supposed to be a place where freedom reigns."
Tunisia is a master of the Internet. Literally. For it has one of the world’s most ruthless cyber-police and Yahyaoui (photo) is its latest victim. For the past few years, Reporters Without Borders has been denouncing censorship of the Internet by the Tunisian authorities, who bar access to sites, intercept e-mail, control Internet service providers (ISPs) and keep cybercafés under tight surveillance.
The story is the same in the rest of the Tunisian media. Both privately-owned and official newspapers, along with radio and TV, all follow the government line. Journalists who dare to criticise the authorities are banned from writing, harassed, arrested and even forced into exile abroad. Foreign reporters are regularly spied on and their equipment confiscated.