US concerned at Tunisia unrest, internet woes

The United States raised concerns with Tunisia about its handling of political unrest as well as its apparent “interference” with the internet, senior US officials said on Friday.

State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley told reporters that the State Department on Thursday summoned the Tunisian ambassador in Washington, Mohamed Salah Tekaya, to air these points.

He said the State Department told the ambassador of its “concerns about the ability of the people of Tunisia to exercise their rights and freedom of expression and freedom of assembly”.

“We are concerned about demonstrations that have occurred over the past few weeks in Tunisia, which we understand to be the result of social and economic unrest,” said in a written statement late on Friday.

“We encourage all parties to show restraint as citizens exercise their right of public assembly,” he added.

There has been a wave of protest not only in Tunisia but also in neighbouring Algeria over unemployment and other issues.

Crowley said Washington was also concerned about how the Tunis government deals with the internet as well as attacks on government websites carried out by activists.

“We urge everyone from the government to activists to respect freedom of expression and information. That is a right of everyone,” Crowley said.

A senior State Department official told reporters on the condition of anonymity that Washington “raised the issue of what looks like Tunisian government interference with the internet, most noticeably Facebook accounts”.

“We’re quite concerned about this and we are looking at the most effective way to respond and to get the result we want,” the official said.

Hacking into Facebook
The issue was brought to US government attention by Facebook itself, another senior US official said on the condition of anonymity.

“We’ve received some information from Facebook that helped us understand what was happening,” he said.

“This is a case of hacking into private accounts, stealing passwords and being able to effectively curb an individual’s access to social media,” the official said.

An internet activist group has accused Tunis of an “outrageous level of censorship, not only blocking the websites of dissident bloggers but also sites like Flickr and any website or news source mentioning WikiLeaks”.

“Anonymous,” an Internet activist group which recently attacked sites and services it deemed opposed to WikiLeaks, has also managed to shut down the Tunisian government’s official website, the national stock exchange site, and other sites.

US officials were more cautious about events in Algeria where riots broke out over unemployment, high food prices and what one official called “an acute housing shortage which have not been well managed by the government”.

“It’s frankly too soon to tell exactly what is happening there,” in Algeria, the official said on the condition of anonymity. “We’re also looking there about what’s the most effective and immediate thing to say and do.”

Crowley echoed those concerns.

“We continue to monitor the situation,” he said.
“We continue to review this and both engage the government in Algeria, as well as look after the safety of our own citizens.” - Sapa-AFP