By Marco Villa | Instablogs

Tunisia :

The Freedom on the Net Index has ranked Tunisia second only to Cuba and on par with China in censoring the Internet. The Tunisian government is notorious for blocking websites critical of the Ben Ali regime which is entering its 33rd [22nd] year.

The nation prohibits access not only to opposition websites and sites run by critical exiles, but also such popular sites as YouTube and Daily Motion as banned due to their hosting of videos documenting prison abuse in Tunisia. Further, the nation’s employs sophisticated blocking devices that allows Tunisians to access, say, the New York Times or the BBC, but bans pages critical of the regime.

Many InternetCafe are often pressured to provide information on visitors and monitor their activities. Tunisian state employees accessing the web from their offices are most under scrutiny. Logs are kept of visited sites and e-mail accounts, no matter their host, are screened. State employees in Tunisia account for a sizable amount of all laborers so a significant amount of the population is under Big Brother while at work. An aunt of mine who was previously employed by the state pension agency told me about how one of her colleagues was greeted by the secret police one morning and arrested for accessing certain sites.

Freedom on the Net ranks nations on a myriad of variables and then accords them a aggregate score. The higher the score, the worst the censorship on a scale of 0 to 100. Cuba topped the list with a score of 90. Tunisia and China both tied for second with 78.

Here are the stats on Tunisia:

Status: Not Free

Obstacles to Access: 20 (0–25)

Limits on Content: 27 (0–35)

Violations of User Rights: 31 (0–40)

Total Score: 78 (0–100)

No one has an illusions that China is an oppressive nation run by a tight circle of elites. And some Western nations are critical of China’s human rights abuses. But Tunisia often escapes scrutiny. I have written previously about how Tunisia often eludes critical coverage for its oppressive regime.

This is due to more than the Mediterranean country’s geographic size (it is no larger than the American state of Virginia) and the minimal role it plays in international politics. While those are variables of importance, the country mostly avoids critical reports from, say, the United States State Department because of its skilled projection of the progressive aspects in Tunisian society and placid nature toward America’s role in the region.

Tunisia's Dubious Honor In Internet Censorship

[An otherwise great nation.]

It is true that Tunisia is quite progressive in many aspects. Tunisian women are the envy of Arab feminists. The nation granted women an equal right to divorce as men, abolished polygamy [the only Arab nation to do so], legalized abortion, and rights to child custody. . . and it did all this in 1956. Several years before several Western nations. For instance, Switzerland gave women the right to vote only in 1970 and American legalized abortions nationwide in 1973.

The nation is also relatively secular. There is no Islamic Ministry and religiously-based parties are banned. Tunisia is a nation with a stable, secular, liberal and prospering middle class. While this is a commendable achievement in itself, it should not whitewash the nefarious aspects of Tunisian society. But that is what the government seeks to do. Making sure tourists and official Western delegations to the nation never look down a dark alley. . . never down the prison halls or hearing about official corruption.

Add to the Ben Ali regime’s shrewd marketing the willingness on behalf of Western governments to overlook abuses. A secular Arab, Muslim nation like Tunisia provides a useful ally in the global war against Islamic extremism that Western nations are not keen on alienating through raising the issue of domestic abuses. Further, while Tunisia opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and supports the Palestinians [it provided the PLO refugee after it was forced to depart from Lebanon], the nation hardly ever raises its objections beyond an ignorable tweet. It is quite evident that the State Department is quite partisan in drafting reports on human rights abuses. Reports and certainly the gravity of the criticism are often penned in accordance with the relationship the spot-lighted nation has with America. Thus a nation will be more harshly criticized if it is somewhat antagonistic towards the United States as opposed to a nation that is complacent if not friendly, even if the latter commits more human rights violations. So while a gross violator like Saudi Arabia often gets off easy, a nation with less rights abuses as with Syria is repeated [and justifiably] condemned. It is known that Syria and the United States have not been the best of friends while Saudi Arabia enjoys a close relationship with the Superpower. It is the same with Tunisia. It if often not known in America [even in the government] that Tunisia has locked up more journalists since 2000 than any other Arab country. Tunisia, a nation of 10 million people, with a small journalistic profession has imprisoned more journalists than Bashir Assad whom has a larger pool of oppress in a nation of 19 million. And, yet, it is Syria that is maligned while members of Congress praise the “moderation” of the Tunisian regime.

While Americans may be oblivious to the double-standards, Arabs and Muslims recognize very well that America is only concerned with human rights in Arab and Muslim countries that do not toe the line on its regional policies. If they do, then the United States gives them carte-blanche to [mis]treat their people as they will. If they raise objections, all of a sudden the United States feigns unsubtle concern for the repressed people. And Arabs and Muslims also know what American politicians mean when they say that a particular nation is “moderate.” It has nothing to do with domestic policies, but with that nation’s approach to American imperialism in the region and submissiveness toward Israel. Particularly support for Israel; which is made into a litmus test for ostensible “moderation”. That is why Saudi Arabia, which bans women from driving among other 700 A.D. restrictions, is sometimes labeled “moderate,” simply because it opened private channels of communique with Israel. Such blatant bias and arbitrary, unprincipled language only further undermines Washington’s credibility when it claims to want to pursue democracy in the region.

If America is genuinely concerned with freedom, liberty and democracy it should be willingly to take a stand for those values not only for the people of Iran, but for Tunisians and all Arabs and Muslims. Starting with the freedom to simply surf the Net would be a good first gesture.