‘Hacktivists’ Target Tunisia For Its Crackdown On Internet Access
After the Tunisian government blocks access to information about mass protests, Anonymous cyber-activists have begun attacking official websites.
Tunisian protesters are rallying together online. Internet activists have decided to raise their voices against the censorship imposed by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It's all part of a season of social discontent underway since mid-December following the self-immolation of an unemployed university graduate. The state's grip over both the media and Internet is such that riots that have taken place in several regions of the country went virtually unreported by the local media.
The wall of silence in the North African country, one that has already been noted in the Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) annual global report on freedom of the press, has only been reinforced in recent weeks. In addition to the censorship imposed on the local media, access to several foreign websites has been blocked, including French outlets France 24, le Nouvel Observateur and l'Express, as well as the BBC and Al Jazeera.
Social networks, which played a key role in transmitting information at the beginning of the protests, have also been casualties of censorship. The primary target? Facebook and its nearly two million users in Tunisia. The regime may not have completely blocked users' access to Facebook accounts, but it has adopted an unusual strategy to suppress specific material it wishes to remain unseen. Numerous users are now no longer able to enter their Facebook, Twitter or Gmail accounts. According to the Assabilonline website cited by RSF, none of the more than 100 Facebook pages relating to the dissent has been accessible for anyone inside Tunisia for weeks, including a group with 12,000-strong members titled in Arabic, "Mr. President, Tunisians are immolating themselves'.
This clampdown has not stifled the discontent of Tunisians, and even less so that of Internet users determined to break the stalemate that has suppressed freedom of speech for the 23 years that Ben Ali has been in office. The response came in the form of Anonymous, a group of unidentified global web hackers. Anonymous has begun to block access to several government websites in recent days. In recent days, cyber-attacks have targeted the Tunisian government's Internet agency website, that of the Tunisian government and the Zitouna Bank's official site.
Anonymous presents itself as a group of online activists advocating for freedom of speech. Its members are critical of the mainstream international media for not sufficiently covering the situation in Tunisia. "It is the responsibility of the free and open press to relate what a media suppressed by censorship cannot report. The people of Tunisia have asked for our help and we have responded by launching a new operation called Operation Tunisia," Anonymous said in an open letter posted online.
The group gained attention after a high-profile campaign to support Wikileaks, which was partially deprived of finances after it released thousands of secret diplomatic cables belonging to the State Department. Paypal and Mastercard were attacked by hackers seeking to punish them for cutting off funding avenues for Wikileaks.
Many unofficial Tunisian websites voiced support this week for the Anonymous offensive. Still, the local dissent born of the Internet controversy seems for now unstructured and devoid of leadership. But thanks to the web, "we are discovering a vibrant civil society outside political parties," said Souhair Belhassan, president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, a Paris-based NGO. "The Internet has served as a tool to mobilize civil society. It's a way to communicate faster than the authorities can stop it," said Belhassan. A citizen of Tunisia, Belhassan said her country is in a situation similar to that of Burma, and Iran after the contested election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
Read the original article in French