Building Religious Tolerance Online in Tunisia

Spotlight on Marginalized Communities: 

Freedom on the Net 2016 asked researchers from India, Indonesia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan, Mexico, Nigeria, and Tunisia to examine threats marginalized groups face online in their countries. Based on their expertize, each researcher highlighted one community suffering discrimination, whether as a result of their religion, gender, sexuality, or disability, that prevents them using the internet freely.

In Tunisia, Dhouha Ben Youssef and Ben Abdallah AbdelKarim examined online expression and religious freedom. The study found:

  • The internet is a critical space for religious minority communities, who rely on social media to help organize private gatherings that are safe from persecution. Tunisians report converting to Christianity as a result of participating in online forums, and practice their religion through religious broadcasts and online resources like the El Massih Fi Tunis (“Christians in Tunisia”) website.
  • Yet individuals who publish minority religious views online often face a severe backlash from other internet users who identify with the Muslim majority. The intensity of harassment and threats often causes minorities to engage in self-censorship.
  • At least two atheists have received prison sentences in recent years for their online posts. The government’s aggressive response to perceived threats to the majority Sunni Muslim tradition, including surveillance and arrests for online expression, compounds the problem of self-censorship among minority groups.

read full Tunisia Freedom On the Net 2016 report 


 

Introduction

Tunisia has faced various human rights challenges since the 2011 political revolution, the first revolution supported by bloggers and activists using social media. Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali Ben Ali dismantled internet filtering on his last day in office in January 2011, and Tunisia earned the title of “the only democracy in the Arab world.” Since then, despite some efforts to reintroduce filtering,  Tunisians have enjoyed access to an expanded range of content. Despite this expanded access, however, online expression and religious freedom have been uniquely at risk during this transition period.

The internet is a critical space for religious minority communities, who rely on social media to help organize private gatherings that are safe from persecution. Christians in Tunisia, for example, report converting to Christianity as a result of participating in online forums, and practice their religion through religious broadcasts and online resources like the El Massih Fi Tunis (“Christians in Tunisia”) website.

Yet the government’s aggressive response to perceived threats to the majority Sunni Muslim tradition, including surveillance and arrests for online expression, along with online harassment of individuals supporting religious diversity, are causing self-censorship. The number of individual active bloggers has declined since 2010, perhaps in part because viewpoints that are not mainstream attract intense abuse.

This report finds that Tunisians should reinvigorate the country’s formerly thriving blogging culture, using secure blog hosting services to build platforms that are distinct from social media, where online harassment concentrates. Religious minority groups can also use digital tools to rally different actors—such as civil society activists and academics—to defend their rights.

Religious Freedom in Tunisia

Religious minorities account for more than 100,000 out of Tunisia’s 11,000,000 people, and include Orthodox Christians (24,000), Catholics (5,000), Jews (1,500), and a small number of Shia’a Muslims and Baha’is, as well as another 70,000 or more nominal Muslims who self-identify as atheists.

Tunisians see themselves as religiously tolerant—65 percent of the population say they have no problem with people of other beliefs. Tunisia has recognized the Rabat Plan of Action, recommendations issued by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which prohibit national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence; and participated in the Marrakesh Conference, a January 2016 event in Morocco emphasizing the rights of religious minorities in the region.

Despite these positive international signals, the reality is mixed. Minority religious groups lack adequate legal protection. Tunisia formally recognized religious freedom in a new constitution adopted in January 2014, a move that was considered progressive in the context of the Middle East and North Africa. Yet Article 1 of the constitution specifies Islam as the national religion and Arabic as the national language, while Article 6 prohibits apostasy, meaning conversion from Islam, and “violations of the sacred,” a broad clause open to abuse. Other actions taken in the name of protecting religion threaten to trespass on human rights. Only strong opposition prevented Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda Islamist party from outlawing blasphemy in 2012.

Other laws have also been used to secure criminal convictions against members of religious minorities, based on colonial penal codes that punish “disturbing public order” or the violation of “good manners.” Allegations of violating national security or public order are also common.

Freedom of Expression

Nearly 65 percent of the population access the internet via mobile phones, with 16 percent connected via broadband. Netizens spend most of their online time on social media; Tunisia has the highest per capita Facebook usage in North Africa, with more than half of Tunisians on the site. Twitter has a smaller but still substantial 34,000 Tunisian users.

Post-revolution Tunisia enshrined the principles of freedom of information and expression, data protection and the right to privacy in Articles 24 and 32 of the 2014 constitution. In 2012, Tunisia became a member of the Freedom Online Coalition, a collection of governments who share a commitment to digital rights. In 2014, Tunisia also adopted the U.N. Human Rights Council’s first resolution on internet free speech, and the Malabo Convention, a regional African policy concerning cyber security and personal data protection.

« Surveillance seems to be enabling a culture of self-censorship because it further disenfranchises minority groups. And it is difficult to protect and extend the rights of these vulnerable populations when their voices aren’t part of the discussion. »

However, critics accuse Tunisia of being a half-hearted proponent of internet freedom. Problematic national security laws reintroduced heavy surveillance across Tunisia since late 2013. The Technical Telecommunications Agency (A2T) is charged with tracking suspicious online activity, and there is a lack of transparency about the equipment it uses and the way it is financed. Ministerial declarations reveal that the A2T regularly monitors Tunisian citizens’ online profiles when it receives a warrant from a prosecutor, as part of an investigation. The Interior Ministry oversees its own surveillance unit, Brigade 5. There is no legislation that clearly defines their mandate, and their operations lack transparency. These problematic penal codes, cybercrime laws, and surveillance bodies effectively neuter the constitution’s promises of religious freedom and freedom of expression.

Religious Rights Online

The 2012 arrests of atheists Ghazi Beji and Jabeur Mejri represent the most significant post-revolution examples of religious minorities experiencing threats to their online freedom of expression. The two men were sentenced to 7.5 years in prison for “transgressing morality, defamation and disrupting public order” for posting naked caricatures of the prophet Mohamed on Facebook. Beji, who was from a more affluent family, fled overseas and later settled in France. Meijri was jailed for almost 2 years before a judge dismissed his case under pressure from local and international civil society groups, who campaigned online using the hashtag #FreeJabeur.

Other religious minority groups fear that expressing their faith online will lead to similar surveillance and punishment.  A recent study on the impact of surveillance on minority voices in the United States found that “Surveillance seems to be enabling a culture of self-censorship because it further disenfranchises minority groups. And it is difficult to protect and extend the rights of these vulnerable populations when their voices aren’t part of the discussion.” This effect is likely to be more pronounced in Tunisia, where religious opinions are subject to state monitoring and punishment.

Waves of Abuse

Individuals who publish minority religious views online often face a severe backlash from other internet users who identify with the Muslim majority. The intensity of harassment and threats often causes minorities to engage in self-censorship.

Yamina Thabet is president of the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities « A9aliyet ». As a minorities’ rights defender, she reports that it is common for Tunisian internet users to use the term « Jew » as an insult online. “[They] accused me on Facebook of being a Zionist, a dirty Jew, and especially being a Mossad Agent.” Thabet attributes these verbal attacks to the assumption that all Jews are Zionists, which she considers a common misperception. “Tunisian netizens…dismiss the rights of Jewish citizens,” she told us in a recent interview. Human rights NGOs such as HRW, Amnesty International, Euromed Rights, have responded by introducing a proposal that [would] criminalize all discrimination based on religion.

Harassment directed at the Christians in Tunisia website ranges from religious condemnation to violent threats against the page administrator, who was promised with “blood and destruction” and called an apostate in one recent example. In the face of this steady abuse, Z. Marzouk a journalist who interviewed members of the Christian community, explains that “many Tunisian Christians are forced to live secretive lives”.

Tunisian academics working on religious issues have also faced online harassment. In January 2016, Egyptian authorities detained noted Tunisian academic Amel Grami at the airport and denied her entry to the country to speak at an event because of her work on Gender and Islamic Studies. Back in Tunisia, she became the target of a steady wave of abuse and defamatory comments on social media from Egyptians. In response to this attack, a support committee of academic researchers formed the “free-thinking collective” to defend the fundamental freedoms established by the constitution. In May 2016, religion professor Raja Ben Slama was attacked on social media after accusing Habib Khedher—a politician who serves as a top leader of the Ennahda party and member of the Constitutional Assembly—of watering down free speech protections in a draft constitutional article.

Online media are also attacked when they publish content that contradicts traditional images of Islam. The collective blog Nawaat regularly publishes opinion pieces on taboo issues. Their recent series of articles on reforming Islam met with dozens of vitriolic comments against the author on his Facebook page.

“There is no place of Christ and Christianity in Tunisia” 

“Blood and destruction for you, O apostate”

Perhaps in part due to incidents like this, the number of active Tunisian bloggers has gone from several hundred in 2010 to less than 60 today. Though it’s not possible to quantify the impact on religious minority bloggers specifically, this trend is likely to reduce the range of religious viewpoints accessible to Tunisian readers.

Hope in Activism

Tunisians are aware of the promises of the internet and keen to engage online to defend their rights. Social media activism, digital security training, and blogs are tools that religious minority groups can leverage to achieve two objectives: Publicly documenting and challenging rights violations; and communicating securely and privately to evade persecution.

Digital advocacy campaigns on social media have already seen some success. Although Twitter use is limited in Tunisia and most common among wealthy urban professionals, the #FreeJabeur campaign reached 180,000 Twitter users, and generated significant traffic on its Facebook page. The April 2016 “No to Terrorism, Yes to Human Rights” initiative, launched by 45 local and international civil society organizations provides a strong model for activists looking to engage Tunisians about the issue of religious minority rights online.

Globally, many groups have developed online toolkits to teach users how to surf the web safely and communicate securely. Individuals facing threats of violence and discrimination as a result of their religion could benefit from trainings specific to the Tunisian context.

Blogs are still one of the best ways to advocate for a cause. They allow activists to mobilize mainstream readers, but also offer communities a dedicated space to share information that is partially shielded from some abusive comments on social media. Secure blogging platforms like Blogorati could help members of religious communities develop community, while contributing to the diversity of content and viewpoints available for internet users in Tunisia.

Recommendations

For policymakers:

  • Amend outdated penal laws to align with the new constitution to prevent the persecution of religious minorities when they express themselves online.

For digital rights activists:

  • Launch a website to track online attacks against religious minorities in Tunisia. This site would act as a kind of watchdog mechanism that could also advise the netizens on their digital rights.
  • Coordinate trainings on digital security.
  • Hold a blogging workshop to help members of religious communities build content and community.

For civil society:

  • Work together to publicly address the issues of online harassment targeting minority religions.
  • Develop a Tunisian Declaration on the Protection of Religious Minorities’ Online Rights and call for endorsements through an online petition.
  • Conduct education about religious differences and shared values to work toward establishing a culture of tolerance.

Download full research paper

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