Tunisia protests: Cyber war mirrors unrest on streets

By Aidan Lewis
BBC News

  • Published
Screen grab of Twitter
Image caption,
Twitter users have been following #sidibouzid

A crescendo of protest has shattered Tunisia's calm over the past few weeks, with crowds spilling onto the streets in a way previously unimaginable.

Unions and other professional groups have played a role, as have text messages and satellite TV. But it is on the internet that a generation of activists has been credited with enabling the movement to take off.

This has happened despite increasingly strict controls by a government that, even before the demonstrations, was regarded as unusually zealous in its online censorship.

A steady flow of protest videos, tweets, and political manifestos has continued to make its way onto the web in a variety of languages: Arabic, the Darija Tunisian dialect, French and English.

Some encouragement has come from abroad, including France and other Arab countries. But much has been generated from within Tunisia.

"Our part as tweeple/bloggers or simple social media users is to pass the info, share it and spread the word: when, where it's happening," one Tunisia-based woman who requested anonymity told the BBC by e-mail.

"Then, once the demonstrations take place, we report live on twitter & FB [Facebook] and if some have pictures or videos, we share!"

One reason the internet has played a central role is that Tunisia has long led North Africa in levels of internet access.

More than 34% of Tunisia's 10 million people are online. Nearly two million people, or more than 18% of the population, use Facebook - a far higher proportion than in neighbouring countries.

But the Tunisian authorities have also built up a formidable firewall, the censor gaining the nickname of Amaar404 - a reference to the 404 message seen when a page cannot be accessed.

Press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders ranks Tunisia 164th out of 178 countries in its press freedom index. The group lists Tunisia as one of its 15 enemies of the internet, saying it has set up a "very effective system of censoring" the web.

Operation Tunisia

A sort of warm-up to the recent cyber war came with the release by Wikileaks of a number of US diplomatic cables on Tunisia in late November and early December.

Image caption,
Social media have been used to help get people out on the streets

A Lebanese news website that published the cables, Al-Akhbar, was blocked in Tunisia, and attacked by hackers.

When the demonstrations started on 17 December, they were given little coverage in the domestic media, and were widely reported outside Tunisia as a protest over unemployment.

But the overtly political campaign on the internet escalated with Operation Tunisia, in which activists targeted government sites with Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.

Internet users within Tunisia say these included capturing their passwords and blocking or taking control of blogs and other web pages.

Stories about the protests on international news websites such as the BBC or Al-Jazeera have also been blocked, they say, though there were reports that some sites had become accessible on Friday after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali pledged a loosening of controls.

As many as five bloggers were arrested, along with a rapper, Hamada Ben Aoun, who sang the song President, Your People Are Dead - an internet video hit. Three of the bloggers and the rapper have been released.

The US government, which has expressed its deep concern at the use of "excessive force" by Tunisian authorities during the protests, also said it was worried about reports of government-directed attacks on Tunisian users of American companies such as Facebook, Yahoo and Google.

While Facebook access has been restricted within Tunisia, the authorities have not tried to pull the site completely - apparently out of fear of the possible reaction from the rapidly growing number of Tunisians who rely on it.

It remains the primary vehicle for posting information about the protests.

'Hide and seek'

Bloggers have been able to instruct others how to get round controls, by using proxies or other devices. They have also offered guidance on how to avoid putting themselves, or others, in danger.

"It's like a game of hide and seek," says one blogger who goes by the name of Foetus.

He is one of two people who founded Tunisia's opposition Takriz cyber group in 1998, and now operates out of another North African country, which he declined to name for fear that he could be identified and his family targeted.

A recent instruction on one of the most popular internet forums, Nawaat, read: "We remind all users of Facebook, especially if they are connecting from Tunisia: DO NOT CONNECT from an unsecure page."

Farooq Ferchichi, a 24-year-old software engineer, said he thought the authorities had become overwhelmed by the protests, and had simply become unable to censor everything.

"We did a page called: 'Mr President, the people of Tunisia are burning,' he said by e-mail.

"It was in the beginning of the events, it was censored. People did a second page : 'Mr President, the people of Tunisia are burning 2'. After some hours many thousands joined, and it was censored. Activists did the same five times, until the government gave up."

Some videos and posts are being uploaded outside Tunisia, but according to Lucie Morillon, head of new media at Reporters Without Borders, "the level of internet activity within Tunisia is still very strong".

She thinks the impact of social media use may be greater than during protests in Iran in 2009, where the significance of what was dubbed the "Twitter revolution" was later questioned.

There has also been a growing amount of disinformation posted - partly by opposition bloggers, but also, they suspect, by government operatives trying to discredit the protesters.

On Thursday a fake statement was posted announcing the foreign minister's resignation, a hoax that Foetus claimed was his doing.

Amid the online postings, anger and resentment against President Ben Ali and the perceived corruption of his regime has been clear on the web.

The government initially blamed the protests on a small fringe of extremists, though Mr Ben Ali appeared to change tack on Thursday, announcing he would stand down in 2014, expressing deep regret over the deaths of civilians, and promising media freedoms.

But many on the internet appeared sceptical, urging people to follow the line posted in one appeal on Nawaat: "All the slogans will have to reflect one demand only: Ben Ali to step down and be put on trial," it said.

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