- Tunisian authorities have followed the example of China and Thailand, blocking access to a website sharing videos for national residents. The 'Dailymotion' site had posted some political videos and its editor now risks three years in prison.
Omar Mestiri is the editor of the Tunisian opposition online newspaper 'Kalima' and also runs the video-sharing website 'Dailymotion' (http://www.dailymotion.com). Tunisia does not count on any truly independent - let alone an opposition - newspaper or journal, making Mr Mestiri's website unique in the heavily censored country.
But since 1 April, the 'Dailymotion' website has been inaccessible in Tunisia, while it can still be accessed by web surfers outside the country. Also 'Kalima' is out of reach for Tunisians. The reason is that the site is being blocked by authorities in Tunis, who control the national internet service providers.
Mr Mestiri is now also facing a libel suit that could result in a three-year prison sentence. The suit against the courageous editor was brought by Tunisian lawyer Mohammed Baccar over an article posted on 5 September 2006 accusing him of fraud and forgery.
Mr Mestiri was summoned by the deputy state prosecutor to respond to a charge of libel on 29 March. His lawyers have challenged the suit's legal basis on the grounds that the 'Kalima' site is blocked in Tunisia and the article therefore could not have been accessed there.
The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) in a statement today says it doubts the intentions behind the "absurd" lawsuit against Mr Mestiri. The lawsuit and the blocking of the 'Dailymotion' site "may have been prompted by the posting of a number of videos on the political situation in Tunisia," RSF holds.
RSF claimed editor Mestiri "is the victim of judicial harassment," adding that the lawsuit was "absurd because it is based on an online article that cannot even be accessed from within Tunisia."
"But we take this case very seriously," RSF emphasised. "The three and a half year sentence imposed on lawyer Mohammed Abbou in April 2005 for an article posted online showed how the Tunisian courts are controlled by the government and how a libel suit can lead to a heavy sentence."
The press freedom group added that "the censorship of Dailymotion's website shows that the government, which is as paranoid about the Internet as it is about the traditional press, is ready to ban tens of thousands of inoffensive videos in order to block a handful it does not like."
The Tunisian government "paranoia" about Internet content follows similar trends in other authoritarian regimes around the world.
In China, even giant US companies such as Google have to agree to censorship to avoid being blocked from the Chinese market. In Thailand, authorities are currently engaged in a large crackdown on Internet dissent following videos ridiculing the King. In nearby Egypt, authorities are jailing bloggers making critical remarks.
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