There is a pornography war going on in Tunisia right now. On one side are conservatives who want to defend children against harmful images, on the other liberal freedom of speech advocates and internet geeks who know the power of government censorship of the internet. Behind the debate is the history of censorship in Tunisia and the powerful role of the state.
Internet censorship – Tunisian style
The first time I came to Tunisia was in 1999, five years before Facebook, 6 years before YouTube, and only a few months after the launch of Google. The dial up connections were pretty slow, and internet cafes were few and far between, but it was definitely possible to connect – as long as you chose the right site. I found that sites like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others were completely blocked. As it turned out, this was just the beginning of one of the longest and most thorough attacks on internet freedom by one of the most fearful and repressive regimes.
By the time I came back to Tunisia in 2010, things were much darker. The tentacles of government censorship were not only longer, they were more invasive into the private lives of individuals. The government no longer wanted its citizens to not access information about its repressive practices, it wanted to know what they were writing on Facebook and to the their friends over email. During this period, a visitor in Tunisia could expect, shortly after they first accessed their email, to see a security message from Facebook or Gmail or Yahoo indicating that someone had tried to access his account and that it may be necessary to change the password. This was the government internet spies, who had purchased elaborate systems to hack user accounts. YouTube was blocked entirely. (For more details on the scale of internet censorship in Tunisia under Ben Ali, see Nate Anderson’s article in Wired from January 2011)
And then came the uprising and the fall of the regime. Within a few weeks, the internet was entirely unblocked. Tunisians were as free as anyone else in the world to access what they wanted online.
That is, until a recent court decision that banned online pornography, following a challenge by three lawyers that claimed that pornography was bad for children, and the state had a duty to protect them.
Rendez-moi mon porno
The story started back in January when the internet was finally opened up completely – including pornography. Subsequent revelations about the extent of the censorship and the technology used added to the fear in Tunisia that any kind of censorship would be a return to the practices of the ancien regime.
Meanwhile, the blogger and Anonymous hero Slim Amamou became a member of the cabinet, championing the cause of internet freedom and opening the government up to the internet.
In May, the era of internet freedom began to unravel. The posting of an online video of Farhat Raji, a former minister, that suggested that the military could overturn an election won by the Islamists caused riots and the government brought back an overnight curfew. Later that month, the military tribunal forced the closure of several facebook pages after the page owners suggested that a coup d’etat was imminent. This led to the resignation of Slim Amamou from the interim government.
As these serious allegations and counter allegations were rocking the government and the internet community, enter the claim of the three lawyers. The claim did not identify specific sites nor was their any group that came forward to back the claim by these lawyers. The government agency that regulates internet traffic in Tunisia, in somewhat of a surprise move, came out against the ban on pornography, winning an injunction against the claim. This was later overruled, but the agency was able to make the case that a blanket ban on pornography would invite much broader censorship than just nudie sites.
For the segment of the Tunisian population that, above all, fears the re-imposition of censorship, the argument is that their are plenty of ways to censure the internet within your own home, the government doesn’t need to do for you. Right? After all, that’s how it works in the West….
Since the ruling was challenged, the question of whether will Tunisians get their porno or not has been one of the most popular stories in the Tunisian blogosphere. It has been one of the most popular issues of the past two months on Nawaat.org, a Tunisian website that closely tracks post-revolutionary issues and has over 50,000 followers.
In one of the most popular articles (in French only) Rendez-moi mon porno or “Give me Back my Porno,” blogger Adam Jerbi contests the notion that the State can simply ban a genre of websites based on the complaint of certain members of society. Jerbi’s article was countered and supported by other articles, which have gathered nearly as many views and comments.
Liberalism is butting up against a society that has always relied on the state as the role model and arbiter for mores. Many of the comments came from readers who likened pornography to rape itself, thus making the state responsible for the protection of the victims of this humiliation. In a society that is still very much conservative, this issue touches at the core of the debates that many Tunisians are having right now. How much freedom is too much? What is the role of the state? Who is responsible for morality?
The West has often had these debates. Zoning laws are still major issues for communities that face the choice of having adult book stores in their communities. The difference is that those who are pushing for internet freedoms in Tunisia are not the Larry Flynts of the world. Nor are they supporters of pornography. They are those that know the power of giving the government the ability to control sources of information. To many of them, the January revolution was about censorship and internet freedom, and they see these recent decisions as a major step back on their quest for democratic institutions.