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Government resorts to hacking to stamp out coverage of unrest

Hactivist group Anonymous and Tunisian activists are calling for an end to government censorship
Hactivist group Anonymous and Tunisian activists are calling for an end to government censorship

Anonymous via Al Jazeera

While Tunisia continues to implode with protests against unemployment and corruption - the unrest allegedly the worst in the country in a decade - officials are doing their best to ensure the public doesn't know what's going on. They pulled the usual stunts: arrested journalists, censored opposition newspapers, denounced Al Jazeera and obstructed reports and broadcasts, report members of the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG) and other IFEX members. But this time, the authorities have gone even further - harvesting passwords and usernames of bloggers, reporters and political activists to identify protest leaders and delete or compromise their email and Facebook accounts.

The starting point for the wave of protest and sometimes deadly repression was Sidi Bouzid, in southern Tunisia, where unemployed university graduate Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight on 17 December in protest against unemployment. The Observatoire pour la liberté de Presse, d'Édition et de Création (OLPEC) counts at least 50 other protesters dead at the hands of government forces, in Kasserine, Thala, Meknassi and Erregueb.

"The denial of access to information, the right to free expression and the right to freedom of assembly takes many forms in Tunisia; those restrictions played a key part in the raising of tensions in Tunisia," said IFEX-TMG chair Rohan Jayasekera, of Index on Censorship.

Alongside the protests came the media repression. In late December, authorities confiscated from newsstands the 24 December edition of "Al-Mawkif", an opposition weekly, and the 25 December issue of opposition paper "Al-Tariq al-Jadid", reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Both issues contained extensive coverage of the events that unfolded in Sidi Bouzid.

Sofiene Chourabi, a reporter with "Al-Tariq al-Jadid", was followed by plainclothes police while trying to cover street protests on 30 December, reports CPJ. Security agents stopped Chourabi and confiscated his equipment and ID, hacked and disabled his blog and deleted pages from his Facebook account. He was not the only one to find his Facebook page deleted.

A number of independent journalists who covered the protests have also been arrested, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF), such as two Radio Kalima journalists, Nissar Ben Hassen, arrested at home on 11 January while editing film of unrest in Chebba, and Moez Jemai, arrested in Gabes on 6 January and detained for two days.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reports that the offices of the local union, the Syndicat national des journalistes tunisiens (SNJT), were surrounded by police on 11 January, following which union members called a strike against censorship.

Meanwhile, pro-government television stations have been made to fall into line. Hannibal TV was prevented from airing a programme about the Sidi Bouzid protests, according to CPJ. Nessma Channel, also a pro-government private broadcaster, was blocked from re-broadcasting a programme about the street protests.

In a televised presidential address to the nation on 28 December, while pledging the government's respect of free expression, President Zine Abidine Ben Ali blamed "some foreign television channels which broadcast false and unchecked allegations." A day later, parliament issued a statement condemning Al-Jazeera's "biased media campaign," accusing the station of attempting to "discredit Tunisia's reputation" and creating a "spirit of hatred and resentment" in order "to spread chaos, instability, and distrust in the country's achievements." This week, the President called protesters "terrorists".

Today, 12 January, however, the government tried a softer line and said it would release all those detained - unless they had committed crimes - and that a task force would be convened. Both the Minister of Communications and the Minister of the Interior have lost their jobs over the unrest.

Nonetheless, rampant censorship continues report IFEX-TMG, RSF and CPJ. The Tunisian Internet Agency has blocked news websites, blogs, email accounts and Facebook pages carrying critical content since the protests broke out. CPJ research shows that the Tunisian Internet Agency is "modifying web pages on the fly to steal usernames and passwords for sites such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo!," deleting or compromising accounts and even using the information to locate bloggers and their network of contacts.

In response to the government's heavy-handedness online, rival attacks organised from abroad by the "hacktivist" group Anonymous (tagged on Twitter as #optunisia), hit Tunisian state-run websites early in the year, including those of the President, Prime Minister, the stock exchange and several ministries, reports Index on Censorship.

"This is a warning to the Tunisian government," Anonymous stated. "Any organisation involved in censorship will be targeted and will not be released until the Tunisian government hears the claim for freedom to its people."

According to the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), by late last week, the Tunisian authorities had started arresting and detaining bloggers, including blogger Hamadi Kaloutcha, and cyberactivist Slim Ammamou, who alerted the world to his whereabouts at the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior using Google Latitude. Ammamou and blogger Aziz Amami are still in detention.

Somehow, the news still manages to escape Ben Ali's censorship regime - via a small network of citizen journalists online. Last weekend, Tunisian citizens began to report on Twitter and in blogs that troops were using live ammunition on unarmed citizens and started communicating with one another to establish the numbers of dead and injured.

"The uprising has been hashtagged," says Egyptian-born columnist Mona Eltahawy. "A stream of tweets, all including #Sidibouzid, flows through my Twitter feed every day in Arabic, English and French, carrying links to Tunisian blogs, video filmed by protesters and live updates from solidarity demonstrations in other Arab cities."

"The conventional wisdom is that the alternative communications links offered by the internet and social networking on the web will have a limited effect on change in Tunisia," said Jayasekera."But with national media either repressed or full square behind the state, it remains the main conduit for news of any kind from Tunisia."

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