'They are fighting a losing battle'

Last October, the online webzine Kalima, one of the very few independent Tunisian media, suffered an attack so severe that it completely destroyed all content. MENASSAT talked to Kalima's editor in chief, Sihem Bensedrine, about the latest waves of cyber-attacks and the general state of press freedom in Tunisia.
siham bensedrin
Sihem Bensedrine. R.R.

MENASSAT: Lately, many websites have been blocked or hacked in Tunisia. What do you make of this campaign against the websites?

First of all, it is important to point out Tunisia was one of the first Arab countries that logged onto the web. This was because internet access was one of the main demands of the foreign investors... But even as it was expanding the Internet, the government still wanted to impose the same level of censorship as before. 

At first, the authorities didn’t consider websites as an [important] media form, even as a space that could be used by journalists. But the course of events forced the censorship to [change its position.]

Kalima, for example, constitutes the core of what e-media can provide in terms of challenging the tame mainstream media; it has opened up a whole new horizon for the citizen who wants to be aware of what is really happening in the country.

After the birth of Kalima, blogs started to spread and the virtual space was invaded by all those who were looking for fresh air to breathe free words in.

The authorities didn’t accept this, and they soon blocked access to Kalima for Tunisians. What bothered them the most, I think, were the forums where internet users share their opinions on crucial issues. [For them,] this is the dangerous area.

The late Zuheir al-Yehyawi then established the "tunizine," website, which attracted most of the Tunisian activists because of its boldness and openness.

Al-Yehyawi is the first internet prisoner in Tunisia. He was arrested in July 2002, after a months long police operation to locate his website’s server. The authorities released him before the end of his prison period, following a hunger strike and international pressure on the Tunisian president. Yehyawi died of a heart attack on March 13,2005 after he was hospitalized for breathing complications. He was only 36-years-old.

MENASSAT: How has Kalima dealt with internet censorship in Tunisia?

SIHEM BENSEDRINE: Our history with censorship has been one of give and take, of building and destroying. Kalima was blocked a few days after it was launched. The website of the National Council for Freedoms fared even worse.

The site was based in the USA. As it was a discussion site, a group claiming it was of the Tunisian opposition was planted. They used violent words and attacked the Jews, before raising the American media against us by accusing us of being anti-Semitics. The American judicial authority prosecuted us, which forced us to close our website.
As for Kalima, in addition to the ban it has witnessed since its creation, in late October of this year, it was attacked [with such force] that it didn't just disurpt Kalima but the server hosting us, which led to the disruption of many foreign sites that use the same server. The government, of course, completely denies its involvement in these operations.

Naziha Rojaiba, administrator in Kalima, wrote an article published on the site of the Mouwatinoun (Citizens) newspaper, in which she accused the Tunisian authorities. The latter responded by summoning the writer and the manager of the newspaper and the seizure of the newspaper issue.

But I want to stress that this war against our website is a losing battle, because the internet is a free space, no matter how many laws are issued or suppressive procedures are put in place.

MENASSAT: As a journalist, how do you evaluate Kalima’s performance, especially after the establishment of Radio Kalima?

SIHEM BENSEDRINE: [Website] statistics are the best measure of success. That’s why they targeted the statistics service long ago. The only statistics we still have is the number of visitors to our website during the first months of its launching in 2001, which reached 120,000 visitors per month, with two-thirds of them from Tunisia.

As for [the editorial quality,] we admit that at first it was not professional, because of the lack of the financial capabilities. We were actually subjected to a major financial crisis that forced us to pay all we have just to survive. Fortunately, during the last two years, we got some support from NGOs, which has allowed us to work with more journalists and to develop Kalima into a multimedia website.

Our greatest happiness the launching of Radio Kalima online through http://www.kalimatunisie.com be offering a . The radio broadcasts a daily news bulletin in addition to live reports on social issues. And our latest news is that we will soon be offering a digital satellite broadcast of Kalima... We do expect the authorities’ reaction to be harsh but we are ready to face the challenge.

MENASSAT: Under the current circumstances, how do you define the media landscape in Tunisia?

SIHEM BENSEDRINE: The fourth estate in Tunisia is handcuffed, but I still believe in serious attempts to break the blockade through the independent spirits or the opposition. Everybody is facing major problems, the most important probably being the lack of financial means imposed by the financial blockade and the denial of public funding.

But the most important challenge in my opinion is that the independent and the opposition media are banned from communicating with the [Tunisian] people. It is of no use to produce media if no one is listening. I am optimistic about the hope that websites give to the oppressed. I admit that courage in [the traditional] media is way lower than during the eighties in Tunisia; the disappearance of political cartoons from the newspapers is the perfect example on that.

But we still have hope. Amid all the harassment mentioned, there are a number of European and American organizations who are working to protect [Tunisian] journalists.

MENASSAT: How do you evaluate the level of support between the Arab journalists in general and IN North Africa in specific. Where are your efforts to establish an observatory to protect journalists in North Africa, for instance?

SIHEM BENSEDRINE: In 2006, we established a network for the organizations concerned with freedom of expression in North Africa. It has been a slow start. But by the beginning of next year, our office in Morocco will be open.

The importance of this step is obvious, for we can’t follow up on the situation without a bureau to coordinate and collect data.

As for Morocco, despite the great margin of journalists’ freedom there, the authorities have turned to imposing huge fines to force the newspapers to stop publication, while Tunisia carries on with its policy of sending journalists to trial by inventing accusations without any relation to their profession.

All this requires more solidarity [among journalists,] especially since freedom of expression is only regressing due to the growing embarrassment of the regimes in these countries.

More information:

► From IFEX: Kalima website targeted; police attack OLPEC secretary general