Tunisia: Facebook user jailed for spreading rumors liable to disrupt public order

Written for Global Voices

FacebookKhedija_Arfaoui.jpgOn Saturday, July 4, 2009, The 8th Criminal Chamber of the Court of First Instance in Tunis has condemned a retired professor, Dr Khedija Arfaoui, to eight months in prison for spreading rumors, on the social networking website Facebook, liable to disrupt public order.

Dr Khedija Arfaoui, a feminist retired professor at the Manouba University in Tunis, was accused of spreading a message on Facebook about the rumor of 5 children being abducted from school in Tunisia. Recent rumors that children have been abducted and trafficked in Tunisia have been circulating for some months and have reached epidemic proportions with many parents concerned that their kids will be kidnapped, despite an official denial by Tunisia’s Minister of Interior during a press conference.

The rumor has managed to spread throughout the country, especially on the Internet. On Facebook, a popular social networking website in Tunisia with an estimate of 623,000 users, videos and alerts of child abductions have been posted and shared with friends.

Dr. Khedija Arfaoui is a Tunisian women’s rights activists and member of the Feminist Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development and founder of the Association of Development and Protection of the Environment (ADPE)

Some observers, such as blogger Mokhtar Yahyaoui, a former judge who was deprived of office because of his open letter to the Tunisian President condemning the lack of independence of the Tunisian judiciary, believe that the government needs to find a scapegoat for the rumor.

Juriste Tunisie, a legal information blog edited by a team of Tunisian jurists who seek to promote communication and dissemination of information about the law of Tunisia, has followed the case in all its legal aspects, with emphasis on how Tunisian laws about defusing rumors over the Internet are vague.

In an almost similar case, on March 15, 2005, Ramzi Bettibi was arrested and then sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for copying, onto a forum board he moderated, an online statement from a group threatening terror attacks if former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon attended the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia.

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