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Tunisian TV station's suspension reflects tenuous freedom

On Sunday, the privately owned broadcaster Hannibal TV was forced off the air for more than three hours. The state-owned news agency Agence Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) issued a statement stating that an arrest warrant had been issued for the station's owner on charges of "high treason" for an alleged "plot to destabilize national security." The statement accused the owner of using the Hannibal broadcasts to undermine Tunisia's stability. 

The station's owner, Larbi Nasra, is a relative of the ousted president's second wife, Leila Trabelsi, a deeply unpopular figure among Tunisians. Nasra almost certainly relied on nepotism to gain a license to operate his television station; CPJ research indicates that the only individuals to be granted licenses to operate private radio or television stations during the former regime's 23-year rule were members of a handful of influential families within Ben Ali's inner circle.

But the claim that Nasra has used his television channel to destabilize the interim government or otherwise agitate against the state is not supported by fact. Neither CPJ's own research nor local Tunisian journalists I've interviewed have encountered anything on Hannibal that could reasonably be interpreted as agitation in favor of the ousted regime.

So what's the significance of an hours-long suspension of a television station and why should anybody care? For starters, this suspension may well be the first documented press freedom violation since the collapse of the former regime less than two weeks ago. It also illustrates the frailty of recent press freedoms gains. (See here and here).

The interim government in Tunis did acknowledge the blunder and allow the station to resume operations. Within a few hours, Minister of Regional and Local Development Ahmed Chebbi appeared on Hannibal's airwaves to convey the interim government's apology. Nasra was released on Monday, a day after being arrested.

Chebbi stated that the interim government would take measures to ensure that such episodes would not recur. We hope so. It did not take long for the new government to use its powers to abuse press freedom standards.

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