On the main thoroughfare in Tunis, protesters came head-to-head with a row of police officers who were blocking their way. It was late January and hundreds of Tunisians were marching to call for the release of nearly 2,000 young people detained during the violent crackdown on protests that took place throughout the month. Pressed up against the police shields, 23-year-old Hamma, wearing a grey beanie and red face mask, got into an argument.
A passer-by had called Hamma a “fag” as she stopped to defend the police. “My dear, as much as I’m a ‘fag,’ I respect him [the police officer] as a man and so he should fucking respect me,” he told her, recalling the harassment he has experienced at the hands of the police. The heated two-minute exchange was filmed and clips of it were shared on Facebook – where it took on a life of its own. As the video spread online, Hamma was forcibly outed as gay in a country where homosexuality is not widely accepted and people are routinely persecuted if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ).
But the video of Hamma had some help going viral. Its spread was amplified by Facebook pages belonging to Tunisia’s police unions, which have hundreds of thousands of followers and have become increasingly influential. The video also made it onto Instagram and TikTok. One Facebook post of the video by a police officer has more than 239,000 likes, comments and shares, according to data from CrowdTangle, an analytics tool owned by Facebook. The police officer’s post tells people to “focus on the one wearing the beanie” and is followed by three cry-laughing emoji.
Over the last six months, Tunisia’s increasingly powerful police trade unions have become more political on Facebook. Whereas their pages used to be mainly centred on social and work-related demands – such as salaries and career progression – they’re now being used to attack critics. Analysis of 40 Facebook posts and messages show union pages being used to target protesters and human rights groups. One post from March 7, which was later removed, when translated from Arabic, says: “we have the ability to shoot but the ammunition is expensive and the target is cheap”. Another, with 75 shares and 324 comments, shows a photo of an activist alongside the comment “if you did the maths and found a missing policeman, it would be in this slut’s stomach”.
Private messages and voice notes shared by the victims targeted also reveal direct threats and insults sent by police officers. “You’re insulting the police? I swear I’ll put a metal bar in you and your mother in the street or anywhere,” reads one direct message sent to a 22-year-old on Facebook after her photograph was posted on a union Facebook page. Another woman, whose photo was published on a union page, and has 143 shares and 693 comments, was sent messages from police officers that contained her personal information, such as her son’s birth certificate and kindergarten address, and her grandfather’s home address. The personal details were also shared in the comments on public Facebook posts on the union pages.
Since the video featuring him went viral, Hamma is trying to keep a low profile. His beanie is gone. He has changed his hairstyle, too. “It used to be longer than this, I cut it so that no-one would recognise me, not the police or the public,” he says.
The first police unions were created in April 2011, in the months after the authoritarian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was toppled by a mass uprising during the Arab Spring. The revolution, which went on to spark revolts across the region, signalled a possible end to Tunisia as a police state. It was a “context of uncertainty for the security forces,” says Ouiem Chettaoui, a freelance security reform policy specialist based in Tunis. The unions were formed to help advance police causes and their activity comes as Amnesty International has reported Tunisian authorities are clamping down on people’s right to freedom of expression online.
These unions claim to have more than 100,000 combined members, which is likely exaggerated since the total number of law enforcement officials across Tunisia is only a little higher than this. They now mobilise to obstruct justice when police officers are on trial, including for murder and torture, according to Amnesty’s monitoring. The transitional justice process, which was set up after 2011 to treat abuses committed under the former dictatorship, and which is openly opposed by the unions, has not concluded a single case largely due to security officer absences.
Increasingly the union Facebook pages are playing a key role in denigrating their critics. They promote an image of the police as heroes defending the country from crime and terrorism, as well as the police being victims that need protection.
This narrative fits in with the police unions’ lobbying efforts to pass a law that would protect security forces from criticism and legal prosecution for use of force. In October, when the law was debated in parliament, a few hundred people demonstrated and the debate was shelved. The police didn’t just repress the protesters with violence and arrests that day, they also began to target them via the union Facebook pages. “That was a key moment that created this anger, but it also coincides with who is in power right now,” says Chettaoui, who has been monitoring the Facebook activity. Hichem Mechichi, the prime minister and acting interior minister, has not criticised the actions of the police unions, Chettaoui says. “On the contrary, he praises their professionalism.”
A second flashpoint was in February, when protesters threw paint on the police. The union Facebook pages posted photos of the protesters, calling them “sluts and perverts”, and they went on strike the next day to denounce the “humiliation” and the Ministry of Interior’s decision to not “apply the law” against protesters.
Some union Facebook pages are more hostile than others. There are altogether some 50 police unions registered with the Ministry of Interior, but only three have any clout and the others are made up of just a handful of members. They are officially not allowed to strike – but sometimes do – and are organised into geographical sections with secretary generals, finance committees and spokespeople. The two biggest unions have started to professionalise their online activity: one has employed a digital marketing student; another has hired four content producers.
These larger groups are more careful with their output, says Audrey Pluta, a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies in Aix en Provence, France, whose PhD is on police unions in Tunisia. “You find there is nothing that allows you to take legal action – that happens more in private groups, regional section pages and the ‘empty shell’ unions.” These “empty shell” unions, while they barely have any members in real life, have a following among officers on the internet, including those from the larger unions, Pluta adds. Neither of the two largest police unions, or three most hostile union Facebook pages, responded to requests for comment from WIRED.
The unions are especially targeting activists from Tunisia’s LGBTQ movement, says Saif Ayadi, an activist with Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality (DAMJ). Ayadi has been arrested four times since October. “Along with football ultras, the LGBTQ community experiences the most police violence,” he says. “These are the two most vulnerable groups,” he adds. One Facebook post on February 7 by a regional section of the country’s biggest union shows pictures of the protest in Tunis with a mocking comment: “these strange creatures should not be allowed to walk on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, and these rights activists who talk about the homosexual rainbow flag.”
“The police unions focus on homosexuality [as] a way to make the general society withdraw their support from the movement,” explains a 33-year-old queer activist, who has started wearing a Spongebob Squarepants mask at protests to avoid being identified. “We are marching to free the detainees, for social justice, economic justice, and we are marching for our individual liberties, like against the Article 230 [criminalisation of homosexuality]. But they focus on this to make a rift.” He says his family know that he is gay, but he dresses as Spongebob as they may suffer if it were to become public knowledge.
The union Facebook posts have led to increased harassment for those photographed, as well as the forced outing of at least eight LGBTQ people, according to DAMJ. Marwa*, one of those photographed in the “strange creatures” post, says she received threats and insults after a link to her Facebook profile was posted in the comments by a police officer who had harassed her in the streets and on Facebook. “There isn’t a day I don’t get stopped by the police now when I go to town,” she says. She also says she lost her job at a restaurant because her employer was worried customers would recognise her.
Facebook’s community standards state that the company will remove language inciting violence and disable accounts that post threats. Posts that “put LGBTQI+ people at risk by revealing their sexual identity against their will or without their permission” are also in violation of these standards. Bullying and harassment is “not tolerated” according to the community standards, including death threats, misogynistic insults and claims about sexual orientation.
After WIRED sent Facebook a number of links to police union posts, Facebook deleted them for violating its policies on hate speech, bullying and harassment. “We do not allow hate speech directed at the LGBTQI+ community, harassment or death threats,” a spokesperson says. “These policies apply to everyone. We’ve removed a number of these pieces of content for violating our policies and we’re continuing to investigate to find the rest.”
It is rare for someone from the LGBTQ community in Tunisia to file complaints against police officers because of the risk of their families finding out about their sexual orientation, says Sahar El Arbi, a criminal and human rights lawyer, who is part of the defence team for DAMJ. “They believe – and it is what most Tunisians believe – that you cannot do anything against police officers.”
This has so far been the experience for one of her clients – Rania Amdouni, an activist for LGBTQ rights – who was arrested in February for “insulting a police officer” outside the police station where she had come to file a harassment complaint against the police. She was initially sentenced to six months in jail but later released on appeal.
While Amdouni is no longer behind bars, her complaints about police harassment have led nowhere. Her face was a familiar one on the union Facebook pages, alongside comments calling her a slut, questioning her gender and body-shaming. She previously took two police officers to court after they harassed her and then laughed while she was physically attacked by members of the public in August 2020. She lost the case after police failed to provide CCTV footage, her lawyers say. “The police stop things by procedure,” claims Hammadi Henchiri, a lawyer specialising in criminal law, who represented Amdouni in this case. “The [CCTV] archive was removed after one month so by the time the prosecutor got access to the camera, the videos were gone.”
In some cases, officers have even started arresting those who criticise the unions by using Article 125 of the penal code, which criminalises “insulting a public officer while he is carrying out his duties”. In March, three activists – who had been present at the protests – claim they were arrested after an officer overheard them discussing the police unions on their roof at night. On March 9, a municipal councillor from Sidi Bouzid was arrested after criticising the unions on his personal Facebook account.
Tunisian civil society and human rights groups are now pressuring the government to dissolve the unions – and curtail their Facebook activity. “This should be a conflict between the state and the unions, which do not respect the law, our constitution and the freedoms of citizens,” says Romdhane Ben Amor, of the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights. Spongebob, the masked activist, agrees. “The police are not protecting us, the police unions are serving their own separate agenda and so they are no longer police. They are a militia, an armed militia.”
Hamma is looking for his own solutions. The viral video hit him and his family “like an atomic bomb”, he says. The day the video was published, January 30, his family were busy with the birth of his nephew. He barely joined in the celebrations as his mind was elsewhere: the video was being shared widely and his inbox was filling with messages from friends and acquaintances, sending him the video and photographs of him at the protest, and bombarding him with questions like “is this you?” and “why would you do that?”. The following day, his brother was shown the video by colleagues at work; he came home in the evening and beat Hamma up.
Hamma says his mother asked him to leave the house despite having suspected her son was gay for six years. “I want to leave Tunisia, I don’t want to have to lie to people and to myself, I want to live as I am,” he says. Even his boyfriend of two months dumped him because of the video. “He is scared for himself, he has a small business – he could lose it if people find out, if people recognise me with him.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity
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