In the run-up to 20th anniversary of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's takeover as president on 7 November, the pro-government newspapers, which constitute most of the Tunisian press, have of course been praising the “president of change.” The local media is making much of Tunisia's economic and social development and is ignoring civil liberties and human rights, which have been flouted for the past 20 years.
President Ben Ali enjoys the support of most western countries because they seem him as a “bulwark against the Islamist threat.” This is the case with the European Union, which signed an association accord with Tunisia in 1995 that is nothing like as binding on human rights issues as the accords reached with countries of the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific regions.
His first years as president saw an easing of political tension, but Ben Ali lost no time in reining in the media. The early 1990s and especially the first Gulf war marked the end of media diversity and free expression in Tunisia. Independent newspapers, which had been very active in the latter years of Habib Bourguiba's presidency, were closed one after another.
In the past 20 years, Ben Ali has neutralised all the checks and balances and brought them under his control, starting with the press and the justice system. At least 48 publications have been subjected to various forms of censorship (including seizure of issues, suspension and closure), half of them in his first six years in office.
During all these years, Ben Ali has never stopped silencing dissidents, both in the press and in civil society. Using either seduction, intimidation or repression, the authorities have taken over the main news media, which are nowadays managed by the government directly or by the regime's supporters.
Yet another hunger strike in defence of freedom of expression and association has been waged by government opponents in the run-up to the 20th anniversary. This seems to be the only way to make oneself heard in Tunisia. Journalist Taoufik Ben Brik in 2000, lawyer Radhia Nasraoui in 2002, journalist Hamadi Jebali in 2003, journalists Abdallah Zouari and Lotfi Hajji, and lawyer Mohammed Abbou in 2005, and journalist Slim Boukhdir in 2006 are just some of the people who have gone hunger strike in order to appeal to the international community.
On 20 September, it was the turn of Maya Jribi, the general secretary of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), and Mohamed Néjib Chebbi, the managing editor of the Arabic-language weekly Al-Maoukif (the PDP's mouthpiece), to launch a hunger strike in protest against a court case aimed at evicting them from their premises in Tunis. The PDP says the authorities got their landlord to break the rental contract on the pretext of “misuse of the premises.” They finally ended the hunger strike after 30 days, when the government's intervention paved the way for an agreement with the landlord.
Al-Maoukif (which means “The Viewpoint”) will therefore continue for the time being to be published. It has overcome many obstacles to double its circulation to 10,000 in the past two years ago. It is denied any state subsidy and it is boycotted by all private-sector advertisers bar one, who is in conflict with the authorities.
“Our problems are not just financial,” editor Rachid Khechana told Reporters Without Borders. “We have a lot of difficulty getting access to information. Officials refuse to answer our questions or to receive us. So we have to find other channels and sources of information.” Khechana added: “Printers and distributors are also subjected to a great deal of harassment, including on tax matters, which means they often have to distribute the newspaper up to 48 hours late.”
Two other publications that belong to opposition parties - the weekly Mouwatinoun and the monthly Attariq Aljadid - are subject to the same constraints. The Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedoms (FDTL) launched Mouwatinoun (Citizens) in January of this year after getting a permit - something that is extremely rare - in less than six months. Managing editor Mustapha Ben Jaafar told Reporters Without Borders that the newspaper nonetheless was subject to drastic discrimination as regards distribution.
“There are very few news stands that put it on display,” he said. “Mouwatinoun is invisible because that is what the government wants, and because vendors are scared.” These obstacles obviously have financial consequences for the newspaper, which has already reduced its print run from 5,000 to 3,000 copies. These party newspapers are not safe from censorship either. Sometimes issues are unofficially seized. “The police may confiscate an issue from the news stands without warning us and without giving us an explanation,” Ben Jaafar said.
Independent newspapers and magazines are in very short supply. Many applications for permission to create a new publication are unsuccessful. Since 1999, Sihem Bensedrine has applied four times to the interior minister to register and publish a weekly print version of the French and Arabic-language news website Kalima. Each time, the authorities have refused to issue her with the receipt that a printer needs in order to print a newspaper. As Kalima's website is inaccessible in Tunisia, Bensedrine currently distributes it as an email newsletter.
Overall, the rest of the privately-owned media take a pro-government line tinged with proselytism. They have become the main vehicle for orchestrated attacks on regime opponents, whether journalists, hunger strikers, intellectuals or politicians. The journalists working for these media, like those working for the public media, are instructed to cover only information coming from the governmental news agency, Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP), which is under the interior ministry's control. The Association of Tunisian Journalists (AJT) said: “The only subjects they are allowed to cover are those in the TAP's news schedules, and most of the time these are official activities. Any additional initiative is unwelcome.”
Journalists working for the official press - the two government newspapers, La Presse and El-Sahafa, and the ruling RCD's two mouthpieces, Le Renouveau and Houria - are allowed no room for manoeuvre and follow this directive strictly. They clearly fulfill the role of propaganda tools. Yesterday's issue of La Presse, Tunisia's leading French-language newspaper, had this perfect example of government cant:
“On this 20th anniversary of the Change that Tunisians of all categories and ages are celebrating with extraordinary pride, the gains of the economic, political and social achievements initiated and promoted by President Ben Ali continue to confirm our conviction that Tunisia's development experience is clearly a model to be followed.”
The broadcast media are even more uniform. The state TV stations (Canal 7 and Canal 21) just broadcast news favourable to government policies. There are some commercial TV and radio stations, but they all belong to people who support the government. The foreign minister, for example, is the biggest shareholder in Mosaïque FM, while Hannibal TV, which was inaugurated on a 7 November, is owned by a member of the First Lady's family.
Only one privately-owned TV station, Al-Hiwar Attounsi (Tunisian Dialogue), offers a bit of diversity, but it broadcasts for just one hour a day because its resources are limited. Its chief executive, Tahar Ben Hassine, has never obtained the required permits to launch the station inside Tunisia. It has been broadcasting from Italy since 2002. “There is a complete lack of definition as regards the criteria for assigning broadcast licences,” Ben Hassine told Reporters Without Borders. “The reasons for refusals are never given. Any decision is directly subject to President Ben Ali's approval.”
No favours for the foreign media
“If you are invited to Tunisia and you want to thank your hosts for their hospitality, bring them the latest issue of a newspaper that is censored inside the country,” a Tunisian journalist recommends. His advice highlights the news shortage suffered by his fellow-countrymen, for whom many foreign publications are banned. Le Canard Enchaîné, Al Hayat and Charlie Hebdo are among those that are no longer available. Many others are occasionally denied entry in an arbitrary manner, or are held up for several days at the port of entry. These seizures are not random. In most cases they are prompted by articles about the country's leaders, above all Ben Ali.
The Qatar-based satellite news station Al-Jazeera has also had a lot of problems in Tunisia. The authorities have refused to issue accreditation to its correspondent, Lotfi Hajji, and have prevented it from opening a bureau. Tunisia even decided to close its embassy in Qatar in October 2006 in protest against Al-Jazeera's “hostile campaign” after it broadcast an interview with opposition member Moncef Marzouki.
Foreign journalists generally have little problem in travelling to Tunisia, but once there, they are subject to surveillance by plain-clothes police who do not prevent them from working but, by their very presence, intimidate all those who would like to talk to them. The activities of local journalists working as stringers for foreign media is closely controlled and often banned.
Swiss TV reporter Flore Dussey of Télévision Suisse Romande (TSR) went to Tunisia on 2 November with a cameraman but could not interview members of the public. “We were constantly followed throughout our visit,” she told Reporters Without Borders. “We requested shooting permission from the Tunisian Agency for External communication (ACTE), but it was never granted. Instead, an official from the agency accompanied us everywhere we went. Our chaperone refused to allow us to be accompanied on a shoot by someone who works for Al-Hiwar Attounsi.”
Unusually, a visiting reporter from the French daily Libération, Christophe Boltanski, was stabbed in the back in November 2005 as policemen looked on without intervening. He had gone for a World Summit on the Information Society that the UN was staging in Tunis, and was preparing a story on the human rights situation.
Playing cat and mouse on the Internet
The Internet does not escape government control, either. Internet cafés are watched. In the provinces, Internet users must often show ID in order to be able to sit down at a computer. And Internet café owners often ask them not to visit certain “subversive” sites in order to spare them problems. Under Tunisian law, they are responsible for their clients' online activities. The regime thereby enlists their help in its policies of repression and control.
To download something or add an attachment to an email message, the client must go through the central server, in other words, the manager's computer. Furthermore, under a post and telecommunications law adopted in 1998, the authorities can check the content of email messages at any time. The law authorises the interception of any message that could “jeopardize public order and national security. The communications ministry keeps information exchanged online under very close surveillance.
Bloggers and independent website editors are also exposed to sanctions. Lawyer Mohammed Abbou spend 28 months in prison because of what he posted on opposition websites. Since leaving prison on 24 July, he has been banned twice from leaving the country. In one case, he was supposed to go to London to record a programme about human rights.
The Reporters Without Borders website is not accessible within Tunisia, like the sites of many human rights organisations and foreign news media. The authorities regular block and unblock access to certain sites in order to protect itself from charges of censorship. The private connections of some journalists and opposition members are often cut because of “technical problems” or their speed is slowed right down so that web pages take a long time to load and surfing becomes almost impossible. Tunisia currently has around a dozen ISPs but Planet.tn, owned by one of Ben Ali's daughters continues to have the lion's share of the market.
President Ben Ali is on the Reporters Without Borders list of the world's 34 worst press freedom predators. Tunisia was ranked 145th out of the 169 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, issued last month.