Bid to halt porn site access sparks Tunisia censorship row


Tunisia’s highest court will rule Wednesday on a complaint over access to pornographic websites, in a decision which experts warn could herald the return of pre-revolution censorship practices.

Tunisian courts have already ordered the country’s internet agency (ATI) twice to censor porn sites, after complaints by three lawyers who say that such content is “against Muslim values” and dangerous for the young.

Observers believe that the appeal court will uphold the previous rulings, thereby forcing the ATI to begin filtering websites again, even though the practice had been dropped after the ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The ATI itself has spoken out against such censorship.

“It’s a step backwards,” said the ATI’s chief executive Moez ChakChouk, who has been trying to change his agency’s image after he was appointed following the revolution.

“Under Ben Ali, the ATI was an instrument of political control and censorship. Today we are fighting for the neutrality of the Internet, but they want to put the old cloak back on us,” he complained.

Citing practical reasons, the chief executive noted that filtering would compromise the quality and speed of data transfers, and that his agency did not have sufficient funds to carry out such censorship anyway.

Experts warned the court decision would have far-reaching implications.

“It is about whether we want to delegate the power to choose to the state, rather than to citizens,” media sociologist Riadh Ferjan said.

“We are not in uncharted territory in this area. Tunisia has a loaded past. It was one of the most restrictive countries. It also served as a laboratory for Internet surveillance,” he added.

Regulation of the internet can be done via other tools, including parental control software, education or even self-regulation, he said.

“But the debate is being conducted in an erroneous fashion. We are talking about ideology, driven by passion, and not facts. We put morals everywhere,” he said.

But one of the plaintiffs, Monaem Turki, said that “morals and law can go together.”

“In France, Hitler apologist websites are censored. Likewise, in Tunisia, there should also be prohibitions and pornographic sites are not tolerable,” said the lawyer.