Independent Tunisian Journalists Still Face Harsh Attacks
By Joel Campagna
Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, London
Last month in these pages, columnist Mohammed Krechene chastised Tunisia's media for its initial failure to report the government's decision to invite Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to an information technology summit in Tunis later this year. Predictably, Tunisian newspapers soon launched a volley of personal attacks against Krechene, a respected and refreshingly independent voice in the Arab press.
For years, Tunisia's private press has eagerly instigated smear campaigns against political opposition figures, human-rights activists, and journalists who openly challenge the government, branding them as "sex maniacs," "traitors," and "foreign agents."
The attacks are especially disconcerting given the lamentable state of Tunisian media. In Tunisia, President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali has virtually squeezed the life out of the country's media through crude censorship and sheer intimidation. Just ask independent journalists like Sihem Bensedrine, Taoufik Ben Brik, and others who regularly endure surveillance, harassment, and even violent attacks from the secret police. Tunisian journalists are so compliant to the state's wishes that columnists assail government critics while remaining silent about the most critical issues of the day and reminding us of the regime's "achievements."
The media attacks against Krechene and others are symptoms of a broader malaise afflicting the Arab media. Governments throughout the region have created an intimidating climate for independent journalists through criminal prosecution under harsh press laws, censorship, job dismissal, and intimidation by security forces. These threats, while deterring serious examination of important issues, also foster an environment of fear and submission in which newspapers are willing to attack government opponents and serve up glowing coverage of their leaders.
Tunisia is among the region's worst press freedom offenders—but it is by no means the only one. Take, for example, the case of nearby Morocco, where the press enjoys far greater independence and where journalist Ali Lmrabet has endured imprisonment and the closure of his newspapers for writing about taboo political topics such as the monarchy. He has recently been the target of withering attacks in pro-government newspapers that have accused him of treason. And just last week, a Moroccan court banned him from practicing journalism for 10 years over an article he wrote contradicting official views on the Western Sahara dispute.
Thankfully, there are journalists such as Lmrabet willing to take risks and confront official pressures and personal smears. From Algeria to Yemen, small bands of independent journalists are pushing the margins of freedom in their local media, on satellite television, and on the Internet, often at great personal risk. Growing numbers of press freedom activists and human rights groups are providing support for their beleaguered colleagues.
Greater media freedom will ultimately go hand in hand with real reform. If governments are serious about backing up their rhetoric in support of a free press they must take meaningful steps such as abolishing repressive media legislation, disengaging the security services from the media, and allowing true independent news organizations to flourish.
In the meantime, risk-takers and independent voices like Lmrabet, Krechene, and others will continue to play a crucial role in laying the foundations of the future of free media. Their work should be applauded.
Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator responsible for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists.