Episode 05 – The Good, Bad and Ugly on Digital Rights in Tunisia

In this episode, doctoral student and producer Muira McCammon talks to Afef Abrougui about privacy rights in Tunisia and the role journalists play in unveiling the complexities and paradoxes of internet policy debates in North Africa and beyond.

TRANSCRIPT

Aaron Shapiro: Welcome to Media at Risk, a podcast from the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication, at the University of Pennsylvania. In this episode, doctoral student and producer Muira McCammon interviews journalist Afef Abrougui of Global Voices and Ranking Digital Rights. Afef has been working since 2011 on issues related to free speech, and freedom of expression in Tunisia and North Africa, and in particular how these fundamental rights cannot be separated from questions of governmental accountability. We learn about how Tunisians have been responding to recent efforts to censor and silence journalists, and what the right to free speech means seven years after the revolution. Hope you enjoy.

Afef: My name is Afef Abrougui. I work with Global Voices Advox. It’s basically a project that the defends online freedom of expression and privacy rights.

Muira: There’s a few things you should know about Afef Abrougui: that she’s an insightful editor, committed researcher, who wrote her Master’s thesis on the implications on social media platforms content removal policies, that over the past seven years, she’s written over 160 posts for Global Voices, an affiliate of the Center for Media at Risk, and in that endeavor, she’s developed a laser-like understanding of free speech and privacy rights issues, throughout the Middle East and in North Africa. Her portfolio is vast. Over the past decade, she’s tackled internet censorship in Yemen, bloggers going on hunger strike in Algeria, how the Saudi government is responding to the rise of messaging apps, and what the future holds for digital practitioners around the world.

Afef: Yeah, I also work with Ranking Digital Rights, which is an international network of partners that are working to set global standards for how companies in the information communications technology sector should respect freedom of expression and privacy.

Muira: And, I’m wondering what initially got you into the world of privacy rights, and freedom of expression.

Afef: I mean, I lived most of my life under a dictatorship. I mean, up until 2011, and 2011, it was in 2010, actually, when the, the protests started, and I was, uh 20. Then, suddenly the dictatorship fell, and you had this sort of, you know change, where you can kind of say whatever you want. It was kind of, you know, those times were, were kind of crazy, and I know when, the, the regime fell and, this sort of, you know, changes [started], I also started writing. I joined Global Voices in 2011, as a volunteer author. And, I mean I started writing about Tunisia democratic transition, and then I found myself kind of writing more and more about freedom of expression and privacy issues.

Muira: Yeah. And, I guess I’m, you know I’m Skyping you from Philadelphia, and I’ve never been to Tunisia, and I guess, I’m interested in getting your take on, you know, what, what the world tends to get wrong about privacy rights conversations in Tunisia specifically. You know, just like, what is unique to the environment today, or you know, how it’s evolved, just because you know it, it doesn’t, it’s not always the top country in the news, when it comes to privacy rights, but that certainly doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot going on any given day of the week.

Afef: As you said, Tunisia doesn’t get … I mean, in general, Tunisia doesn’t get enough coverage and doesn’t get good quality coverage, but I don’t think this is only specific to Tunisia. I think it’s, it’s a problem with, with the entire region. I think when it comes to Tunisia in particular, like with, with the protests, I think what’s interesting, what I have been noticing since, you know, 2011, is that it either gets coverage when something really bad happens, like you know, a terrorist attack, or when something really, you know, good happens, like, you know, I don’t know, the Parliament adopting you know, this law against, you know, domestic violence, you know, or, you know.

And I think, of course, these issues, you know should be covered and are important, but I think there are like, a lot of things in, between that don’t get enough coverage when it comes from, you know, the mainstream media. I think that also kind of, I mean, applies maybe to some, issues around, mainly I think around freedom of expression press freedom, when Tunisian journalists, you know are protesting, you know, you see that kind of being covered, but again, on a daily basis, there are like, other struggles that don’t get enough coverage.

Muira: At Annenberg, where we’re in the throes of launching the Center for Media at Risk, and part of what we’re thinking about is, what specific media practices, journalists can, you know, can undertake, in, in the regions where they work, to ensure that their, their voice can be heard, and it seems like Global Voices has just played such a significant role in, in making sure that stories can be told, that there’s a space for them. And I, I wanted to ask if you’d be willing to talk about the latest piece you wrote for Global Voices, this past March, just cause it seemed like such a unique window into the world of Tunisian politics and also digital rights.

Afef: So, basically, the story is that, you have like these 16 Members of Parliament, who have been, kind of elected to honor their, you know, commitments and to, to the Tunisian Constitution and you know, to represent the, you know, Tunisian people. And, they are proposing a bill that would, you know, criminalize what they um, describe as cyber defamation, so. Uh, there are like 17 MPs, and 16 of them are um, from a party that’s in the ruling coalition, the Nidaa Tounes Party.

And basically, the, the, the bill would would basically punish those convicted of cyber defamation to two, two years in jail. And this applies not only to people, but it also applies to, what they, you know, describe as official institutions, so. What’s funny I think about the story, and this is something that was, that the, also the uh, Tunisian, the National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists, they mentioned that, is that the bill mentions a 1975, law, that, that’s not being implemented anymore, you know, that this, this law is the old press code. It was being implemented under the dictatorship era. The law was, you know, of course abolished in 2011 as part of, you know, reforms in favor of freedom of expression and press freedom and was replaced with, with another, you know, another press code that guarantees certain, rights due to Tunisian journalists, you know, including their access to information, you know, confidentiality of sources.

It really, you know, makes me wonder, you know, whether … I mean, the bill, it still, it may not be adopted, but it kind of raises uh, the questions, whether these MPs, you know, are, are just, you know, simply ignorant, or they are just, you know, choosing to willingly ignore, you know, Tunisia’s progress, and, and in the areas of freedom of expression and press freedom.

Also, Tunisia doesn’t need, you know, cyber defamation law, because they are like already other texts in the, the Penal Code and the Telecommunication Code and also the, the Military Code that’s already you know, criminalize certain types of speech including defamation, you know, insulting others through, you know, public telecommunication networks, you know. Also like the, the defamation of institutions, and these are all laws, I mean, the priorities of these MPs should have been to propose legislation to actually abolish, these laws and articles, which are by the way, unconstitutional. They, they, these laws are not in line with the new constitution that was adopted in 2014.

Muira: Yeah, you know, I’m, I’m re-reading your piece, and I’m also seeing the line where you talk about how there was actually a Member of Parliament, who was sentenced by military court to 16 days in jail for undermining the moral of the Army, over a 2017 Facebook post, and I guess … I guess I’m just interested too in trying to make sense of, you know, in Tunisia right now, not just among citizens, but also I guess among MPs, do you think that there is fear regarding using certain social media? Have you seen a shift in platform use, or I guess that’s a bit of a weird question, but …

Afef: I, I think this MP is kind of, in a, sort of unique position. Uh, I mean, he, himself will … I mean, he’s, he’s a blogger, and he was only elected recently to the Parliament, when there was like a vacancy in one constituency and he was, he got elected, so I think he, he himself among MPs is not that popular. Um, I know he can, he can of course, and these are, and he’s being sentenced over sort of posts that he published like, before he got elected.

I know that he could probably make use of his, of the immunity he has as an MP, but I’m not sure if he, if he will. So, he, himself, he has been also critical of the, the, the military institution and he’s been sentenced also before over Facebook posts as well. I mean, this, this, this MP himself, he did, he wasn’t among those who proposed this, this bill, so, uh, that’s, I think that’s, yeah, that’s very important to, to know that.

To me, to be honest, when I was reading this, this very short bill, I thought, these MPs are not concerned about Tunisian users or individuals. It, it seems that they are concerned about, you know, themselves. I mean, I don’t see why they would propose such a legislation that would only take Tunisia back, but also refer to a law that doesn’t exist and like a repressive law that, that’s, that, that was abolished. It’s kind of, you know, very symbolic. And I wanna quote here, the Tunisian Syndicate, the, the Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, who quote, “This bill is, the result of a repressive mindset, restrictive of freedoms, and reflecting a nostalgia for the dictatorship era.”

This is kind of sums up everything, I guess.

Muira: You were, you were just in Tunisia, and you talked about, you know, growing up in Tunisia. I guess I’m interested in, in getting your take on what the attitudes, are, of, of the youth today in Tunisia, if, if you, you know, towards social media use, towards digital rights uh, if you get the sense that people outside of journalism are, are worried or if they are more just accepting the status quo, what the vibe is, if that, if that makes sense as a question?

Afef: It’s not easy to talk about like, uh, an entire group of people, you know…

Muira: Yeah.

Afef: …or like, on behalf of them, you know. But I would say that, in terms of digital rights, in general, there is a need to raise awareness about uh, digital rights, especially when it comes to, to the right to privacy. I think a lot of, maybe also particularly like young Tunisians, they kind of appreciate, to some extent, that, you know, they are able today to access the internet without, you know, the online censorship we used to have.

But, I don’t, I don’t see them kind of, I don’t see much awareness around privacy rights. I think that’s, that’s kind of a problem and to give an example, I mean, I’ve, I’ve met you know, young people, even like, you know, who are like, you know in my family and you know, who would, you know, kind of, who are kind of … When they heard about Tunisia’s plans to introduce, you know, biometric IDs, they were kind of, “Well, that, that seems nice. That seems modern,” you know. But they weren’t really concerned about, you know, privacy issues, and you know.

And I think that’s kind of problematic, because when we talk about this sort of proposal, is that, it’s, it’s pretty good like today, with the kind of situation in Tunisia, where we don’t have like a strong protections for privacy. It’s kind of, it’s kind of, you know a risk to pass, you know, or, to move, to move to biometric IDs and … usually people would say, “Well, I have nothing to hide.” And I think that’s, that’s totally wrong, because every single person has plenty of things to hide, and there is nothing wrong about it. It’s, it may not be hide, but to hide a thing, but we’re all entitled to have, you know, our right to privacy respected, so …

But at the same time, I think a lot of people kind of, particularly when it comes to the censorship of content … I mean, and also particularly to, freedom of expression, often you, you would hear people like saying that, because the, the Tunisian uprising, it was, you know for freedoms and for rights, and, but it was also a meaning for socioeconomic rights, and for jobs and against corruption and, you often hear people well, saying that …

They would say that, “Well, we haven’t earned, or gained anything from this, you know, the uprising, [the Tunisian] Revolution. We’ve, we’ve only, you know, gained, you know, freedom of expression,” or like, yeah, that’s also a good thing, so, so, so it’s also a good thing that people are able to, to complain about these things and talk about these things, otherwise, you know, how can they be able to at least, you know, fight, or like speak out about corruption and like, you know, which, which also continues to, to hold Tunisia back, so.

Muira: Today, there’s a complicated constellation of geopolitical issues underlying how we conceptualize media at risk, especially when it comes to the internet. What’s at risk online in North Africa, isn’t necessarily what’s at risk in Asia, and what’s at risk in Zimbabwe, isn’t necessarily what’s at risk in Algeria. So there’s this looming question of how can we interrogate internet freedom as an idea and how can we keep track of digital censorship as it happens around the world?

Afef certainly doesn’t have all the answers to these questions, but she does have stories to tell about Tunisia and Tunisians, stories which frequently don’t make it into American media outlets.
If you’d like to learn more about Afef and some of the other stories she’s written for Global Voices, check out some of the additional materials we’ve posted on the Media at Risk website.

Aaron: Thanks for listening. We’d like to thank Afef Abrougui, Waldo Aguirre, Emily Plowman, and Barbie Zelizer, director of the Center for Media At Risk. The episode was produced by Muira McCammon and edited by me, Aaron Shapiro More information can be found on the Center’s website, www.ascmediarisk.org.

EXTRAS

MUSIC

Son Lux, “All the Right Things” (theme)
Moondog, “Snaketime Rhythm”
Moondog, “Caribea”
Moondog, “Down is Up”
Moondog, “Marimba Mondo 1: The Rain Forest”
Moondog, “To a Sea Horse”
Moondog, “Suite Equestria”
Moondog, “Lament 1: Bird’s Lament”
Khruangbin, “Two Fish and an Elephant” (Outro)

FEEDBACK

We’d love to hear from you, especially if you have stories about digital rights, privacy, and anything in between.  Feel free to record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to media.risk@asc.upenn.edu; you can also find us on Twitter at @ASCMediaRisk. Though we’re a small operation, we’re always open to pitches and new stories.

CREDITS

Afef Abrougui is a freelance consultant, researcher and journalist focusing on technology and human rights, censorship, surveillance, and personal data protection in the Arab World. She writes and edits for Global Voices Advox and also works with Ranking Digital Rights.

This episode was produced by Muira McCammon and edited by Aaron Shapiro.

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Emily Plowman

Emily Plowman is the Coordinator for The Center for Media at Risk.