PARIS â€“- Tunisia’s recent crackdown on cyber-dissidents has taken an ominous turn with the arrest and detention of journalist Zouhair Yahyaoui, founder and editor of the online news site TUNeZINE.
Better known under the pseudonym Ettounsi (“The Tunisian”), Yahyaoui was charged Thursday under clause 2 of Article 306b of the Tunisian criminal code for “knowingly putting out false news” and also for “stealing” Internet connection time at a local cyber cafÃ© where he was working.
His arrest is just the latest in a worldwide trend of repressive governments cracking down on Internet journalists and dissidents. Some of the more recent cases have occurred in Jordan and Vietnam. And in 2000, Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze, the founder of feisty political site Ukrainian Truth, was found murdered outside Kiev.
Yahyaoui is Tunisia’s best-known cyber-journalist and his website’s mix of politics, satire and free discussion has proved particularly popular with Tunisian young people.
He was arrested on June 4 at a Tunis cyber cafÃ© by six plainclothes police officers, who showed no credentials and gave no reason for the arrest. He was taken to his home, where the police searched his bedroom and seized his computer equipment.
Yahyaoui set up the site in July last year to put out news about the fight for democracy and freedom in Tunisia. He published opposition material online and was one of the first people to circulate a letter from his uncle, Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, to President Ben Ali criticizing the country’s legal system.
Between May 26 and 28, TUNeZINE organized an online forum on a recent government referendum and the state of the opposition, which drew a large number of participants.
Yahyaoui’s supporters believe that it was primarily the circulation of the letter from his uncle that made him a target for Tunisia’s state police.
“I really believe it’s personal now and that the powers that be want to make an example of Zouhair,” said one of his editorial colleagues at TUNeZINE who asked not to be named because of the possibility of travel restrictions being imposed by the Tunisian authorities on identified dissidents.
“It’s clear that they are desperate to find something to charge him with because they know that’s the only way they can stop him from criticizing the government’s policies and its appalling human rights record,” added the spokesperson.
For Sophie Elwarda, spokeswoman for the recently formed Committee for the Liberation of Ettounsi, the battle to clear his name has a strongly personal dimension: She recently became engaged to Zouhair Yahyaoui.
“We first exchanged messages in a discussion forum on the TUNeZINE website and it developed quickly from there,” she said. “I became more and more involved in the production of the site and ended up as one of the main editorial team. I also fell in love with Zouhair.”
While Elwarda hopes that next week’s ruling will see her fiancÃ© walk free from the courtroom, she, like her colleagues in TUNeZINE, is under no illusions about the summary nature of Tunisian justice.
“They have nothing like what we would consider an independent judiciary,” the spokesperson said. “If the president decides that someone is to be punished, then that’s pretty much what will happen.”
Elwarda, who is based in Paris, sees media coverage as essential to applying pressure on the Tunisian authorities and said that other independent groups had also taken up the case.
The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders denounced the charges against Yahyaoui as “outrageous” and said it feared more Tunisian cyber-dissidents would be arrested in coming days.
“He could be given a five-year prison sentence just for putting news on an Internet website,” said Robert MÃ©nard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. “This is outrageous. Since the 26 May constitutional referendum, President Ben Ali has committed all kinds of abuses against his opponents. When is this going to stop?”
The TUNeZINE website, which is hosted in France, has been censured by the Tunisian authorities from the outset. But each week a list of “proxy” addresses has been available so Tunisians could get around the blockage and access the site.
A few hours after Yahyaoui’s arrest, the site had vanished from the Internet, reportedly because police obtained the access code to it. The site has since returned but access from Tunisia is now extremely difficult for anyone without the high level of Net savvy required to circumvent government filters.
According to Amnesty International, all those engaged in the defense of human rights in Tunisia suffer daily harassment, even in their private life. Reporters Without Borders added that over the past six months in Tunisia, one journalist has been jailed, two physically attacked, two publications seized and two others suspended.
For Sophie Elwarda, the long wait until next week’s sentencing will be a painful one. “It’s very hard but I’m trying to remain optimistic and stay busy by keeping people informed about developments in Tunisia. Whatever happens, I’m going to keep fighting until Zouhair is given back his freedom.”