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Circle of media repression widens over Tunisia’s history

A barman in a coffeehouse in Tunis switches out the official photo of former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, right, to one of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after a bloodless coup in 1987. (AP/Laurent Rebours)
The escalating attacks on critical journalists in Tunisia are unprecedented since the establishment of the first Arab-language newspaper in the North African country, 150 years ago this July.

Unlike scores of newspapers launched later by political activists to rally against the second-class-citizen status imposed on Tunisians in the wake of the French occupation in 1881, the weekly Arra'id Attunisi solely mirrored the views of the local authorities and echoed news mainly carried by Egyptian and Turkish papers. After the country’s independence in 1956, it became the official gazette.

The price for critical journalism during the 75-year French Protectorate was sometimes costly. In 1911 Arab-language newspapers were banned for nearly 10 years. And in 1912, Ali Bach Hamba, editor of Le Tunisien, the first Tunisian French-language newspaper, and some of his colleagues were forced into exile. Other writers were jailed. All were all accused of being behind social unrest that led to repression and bloodshed in Tunis.

But there were times of tolerance for freedom of expression during the French occupation unseen after the country’s independence in 1956, and particularly since Gen. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali toppled President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup 23 years ago. Despite the colonial climate of segregation and humiliation, “journalists enjoyed then more freedom and censorship was less stifling than today,” Mohamed Talbi, 89, former dean of the Tunis Faculty of Arts and currently president of the banned Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation (OLPEC) told CPJ.

Bourguiba and his companions, who led the resistance to French occupation, established groups and critical newspapers, such as L’Action Tunisienne. Rarely, however, were they targeted by the kind of vengeful persecution like that of ailing journalist Fahem Boukaddous. His wife and lawyers told CPJ that his acute health problems could lead to his death in prison. Scores of political prisoners have died of lack of medical care in the country’s notorious prisons over the past two decades.

The imprisonment in October of Zouhair Makhlouf and Taoufik Ben Brik was just as rancorous. Since his release in April, Ben Brik has been constantly harassed and receiving anonymous threats on the phone and his home and visitors under tight police surveillance.

The circle of repression of critical journalism has not stopped widening since Ben Ali’s top advisers ordered the closure of the independent weekly Ar-Rai a few weeks after his coup. The last and banned issue carried a column by CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner Naziha Réjiba casting doubt on the ability of the new ruler to lead Tunisia toward democracy.

Scores of Tunisian journalists have been forced into exile. And more foreign correspondents have been expelled or denied entry to Tunisia under Ben Ali than under most of his Arab counterparts, according to CPJ research. One of the latest to be denied entry to cover the mock elections in October was Florence Beaugé of the French daily Le Monde. Yet the price paid by local journalists is much higher and never stopped rising.

On July 27, Zied El Heni of the democratically elected board of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists evicted in 2009 (and a leading figure in the African Federation of Journalists) spent several hours at a police station in Tunis for his blogging. He wrote an article titled “Jailing Fahem Boukaddous, a sad day in the history of Tunisian press" on his blog, which is blocked locally. 

No wonder Tunisia has topped the lists of enemies of the press and the Internet worldwide and prompted more alerts and reports and letters to its president than any other Arab ruler from international groups committed to freedom of expression, including a coalition of 20 IFEX members.

Attacks on freedom of expression intensified before Ben Ali’s reelection in October 2009 for a fifth term and in the wake of the publication in France of a critical book, La Régente de Carthage, on the rising political and economic influence of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and his ubiquitous relatives and in-laws. At least four journalists received death threats, and oblique tactics to harass and to drag reporters into courts and to block websites and prevent the distribution of beleaguered opposition news papers—particularly Al-Mawkif—have been on the rise over the past months.

Like Rejiba, many believe that the decision to intensify the war on freedom of expression is intended to shield Ben Ali’s family from criticism at a time when their influence over the country’s economic and political institutions, including the media and the judiciary, is increasing rapidly. The sudden adoption in mid-June by the Tunisian Chamber of Deputies of a bill that reinforces the arsenal of legislation used to stifle of freedom of expression is widely seen as a new weapon to further protect the ruling family from scrutiny.

So far concern expressed by Tunisia’s European and U.S. allies have prompted only the customary and groundless claim by the government that all documented facts about press freedom violations, whether gathered by human rights researchers or Western diplomats, were based on “false information.” In July, the Tunisian ministry of foreign affairs said the U.S. State Department spokesman, who had deplored “a decline in political freedoms in Tunisia,” should have spoken instead about “the increasing strength of these freedoms both in theory and in practice.”

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