Attacks on the Press 1999: Tunisia

In a year that saw strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali reelected in October with 99.42 percent of the vote, the press remained in the stranglehold of the Tunisian police state. For the second year in a row, CPJ named President Ben Ali one of the world’s top 10 enemies of the press.

Since ousting “president for life” Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in November 1987, Ben Ali has squeezed the life out of a press that had previously struggled to maintain a modicum of independence. The closure of opposition and independent newspapers, the criminal prosecutions of reporters, economic pressure against publications, and intimidation by security agents have helped make Tunisia’s press one of the most heavily self-censored in the region. “The duty of a journalist is to inform, to report, and to analyze situations linked to current interests. However, to perform such a duty has become almost a luxury,” commented one local journalist . “In fact, how can I describe this feeling of frustration which consumes me every time I witness an event or an act which is newsworthy, knowing that I cannot draft anything about it?”

With few exceptions, the press is devoid of substantive news and information, avoiding coverage of even the most benign political or social topics for fear of state retribution. Both private and state papers regularly extol the “achievements” of Ben Ali while eagerly launching smear campaigns against political-opposition figures and human-rights activists. Such individuals have been branded “sex maniacs,” “traitors,” and foreign agents.

Most journalists who have tried to produce more-independent work have been swiftly prosecuted or jailed. Others have faced more-subtle harassment: they have been dismissed from their jobs, denied accreditation, put under police surveillance, or prevented from leaving the country. Less than totally docile newspapers, meanwhile, have been denied advertising or government subsidies.

Throughout the year, authorities conducted a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Taoufik Ben Brik, a free-lance journalist working with a number of European newspapers and news agencies, because of his critical reporting on human rights and his attempts to take a stand against the government’s efforts to suppress both him and his work. In January, his wife’s car was vandalized. Three months later, Tunisian airport police confiscated his passport, preventing him from leaving the country for a planned trip to Switzerland. On May 20, he was violently assaulted outside his home by three chain-wielding men believed to be plainclothes policemen. Four days later, uniformed police arrested him without warrant and held him for three hours.

In a 1999 essay describing the daily rigors of police surveillance and intimidation, Ben Brik wrote: “These are not ordinary surveillance tactics. Around here, the police are the human bars of an invisible prison…. It’s a very public form of punishment, designed to discourage people from having any contact with you, and it works.” He added that his residence “has become … a haunted house. People who still have the guts to visit me do so only because they feel it’s their duty to show solidarity. Even when the line hasn’t been cut, my phone never rings. And I’m never invited out. It’s not safe to associate with me.”

A number of restrictive criminal statutes hamper independent journalism. Tunisia’s press code contains a number of harsh, vaguely worded provisions. Article 49, for example, bans the dissemination of “false news likely to disturb law and order,” which is punishable by up to three years in prison. The defaming of the president, government officials, or state institutions also carries prison terms. Both these provisions have been enforced.

In a November 15 speech, President Ben Ali threatened to prosecute those who disseminate false or insulting information. “Freedom of opinion does not mean freedom to insult or make unfounded accusations, as is often the case at the national level and from external sources,” he said. “In this context, we will launch the appropriate investigations into whatever is reported as abuse, so the judicial authorities would deal with the culprits. Those who make false accusations must face the law, and it is to up the law to decide.”

In October, Ben Ali announced his intention to submit a new press code to Parliament in order to “stimulate democratic dialogue even further” and to “allow journalists to definitely liberate themselves from the shackles of self-censorship.” As of this writing, the details of this bill were not known, but it was difficult to give any credence to Ben Ali’s stated commitment to ending self-censorship, particularly considering the authorities’ unremitting harassment of Taoufik Ben Brik and other critics.

Government censorship of foreign publications continued at the pace of previous years. Several editions of the French dailies Le Monde and LibŽration and the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi were confiscated because of content that authorities deemed undesirable. Al-Quds al-Arabi was barred from distribution on several occasions when it reported on Tunisia’s exiled political opposition. According to the paper’s editor, Tunisian authorities frequently delayed distribution of issues for periods of up to three days.

Before and after the October 24 presidential election, authorities intensified their censorship efforts. Beginning on October 21, Le Monde was barred from distribution without explanation, apparently in retaliation for its hard-hitting pre-election coverage, which included reports about the human-rights situation (the French daily LibŽration and the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique were also banned after the election and remained banned at year’s end). At the same time, the French television station France 2, which broadcasts in Tunisia with technical support from the state, was inexplicably interrupted while airing human-rights programs. And on October 25, authorities summarily canceled all France 2 broadcasts after the network ran a feature about the highly critical book Our Friend Ben Ali, written by French journalists Nicolas Beau and Jean-Pierre Tuquoi.

According to journalists and international human-rights organizations, the government continued to block access to Web sites, such as the Amnesty International site and CPJ’s own site, that criticized the excesses of the Ben Ali regime. There were also reports that authorities monitored Internet use and that police had in the past interrogated citizens who visited certain Web sites.

Western governments have remained remarkably silent in the face of Ben Ali’s repression of press freedom and other human rights. Indeed, U.S. and European officials (as well as a number of journalists and academics) frequently minimize the government’s human-rights abuses, instead emphasizing Tunisia’s role as a strong regional ally and a model for economic development. During a trip by a U.S. congressional delegation to Tunis, congressman Earl Hilliard (D-Alabama) was quoted as saying that President Ben Ali is a statesman who has “done a tremendous job in Tunisia and who is well respected back home as well as here in the Arab world.”

Other notable visitors during the year included first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. secretary of defense William Cohen, and Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, none of whom spoke in public about the country’s deplorable human-rights record. However, Hillary Clinton reportedly raised concerns about human rights in a private meeting with Ben Ali.

January 28
Taoufik Ben Brik, free-lancer HARASSED

A group of five men drove up in a Peugeot 405 automobile and vandalized a car belonging to Ben Brik’s wife, Azza. They smashed the car’s windows and windshield and stole a baby seat. Later that evening, Ben Brik, a correspondent for the French daily La Croix and several other European papers, received an anonymous phone call informing him that he hadn’t seen anything yet.

These two incidents followed the publication earlier that month of an article by Ben Brik in the Swiss daily La Tribune de Genve entitled “Ben Ali’s Quest for New Mandate Faces Student Challenge.” The article discussed the recent release of seven students who had been arrested after protesting measures instituted by the Ministry of Higher Education that limited the number of teaching positions available for graduate students.

This was not the first harassment that Ben Brik and his family have experienced. His telephone and fax lines have been regularly interrupted in recent years, which has made it difficult for him to communicate with the outside world (see April 28 case).

April 28
Taoufik Ben Brik, free-lancer HARASSED

Authorities prevented Ben Brik, a correspondent for the Paris-based daily La Croix and other European papers, from leaving the country for a trip to Switzerland after police at Tunis-Carthage Airport confiscated his passport, claiming that the document was missing a page. The police had apparently ripped out the page before bringing the mutilated passport to Ben Brik’s attention. The officers then kept the passport and told Ben Brik that he should report to the Ministry of Interior.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, Ben Brik went to the Ministry of Interior. “I was interrogated for four hours, and I must confess that I was afraid,” said Ben Brik in a press release published by the Paris-based ComitŽ pour le Respect des LibertŽs et des Droits de l’Homme. According to the release, Ben Brik’s police interrogators told him that he was a “coward and dishonest and ungrateful person” who turned a blind eye “to the good things achieved by President Ben Ali.” He was also accused of making up stories about his “so-called harassment” by police.

May 21
Taoufik Ben Brik, free-lancer ATTACKED

Three unidentified men wielding bicycle chains assaulted Ben Brik, a free-lance reporter who works for a number of European newspapers including the Paris-based daily La Croix, at about 1 p.m. outside his home in Tunis. The journalist suffered injuries to his right arm before escaping his attackers. He was treated later that day in a local hospital.

The attack was believed to have come in retaliation for an article Ben Brik wrote for the May 10 edition of Le Temps, a Swiss publication, in which he discussed the case of Khemais Ksila, a vice president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, who was imprisoned for speaking out about Tunisia’s human-rights restrictions.

CPJ expressed its outrage about the attack in a May 21 letter to Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, urging him to launch an immediate investigation and bring the perpetrators to justice.

May 24
Taoufik Ben Brik, free-lancer HARASSED

Ben Brik, a free-lance reporter working for a number of European newspapers including the Paris-based daily La Croix, was arrested without warrant in Tunis. He was held for about three hours during the early afternoon and then released.

Earlier in the day, police surrounded Ben Brik’s home and attempted to arrest him. He refused to accompany them, because they did not have a warrant. He fled his home and took refuge with his brother but was subsequently arrested.

In a May 24 press release, CPJ called on Tunisian president Zine Abdine Ben Ali to take all necessary measures to prevent further attacks and ensure Brik’s safety.

October 21

Censors banned distribution of the Parisian daily Le Monde. They gave no reason for the ban; however, journalists at Le Monde suspect that it resulted from the paper’s critical coverage of the October 24 presidential election.

They also pointed to a piece by Catherine Simon on the human-rights situation in Tunisia and to Le Monde‘s coverage of a book critical of Tunisian president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali. The book, Our Friend Ben Ali, was written by two French journalists, Jean-Pierre Tuquoi and Nicholas Beau.

As of mid-December, the paper was still banned inside the country. “Every day we send 200 copies to Tunisia, and they are back in Paris a few days later,” said one Le Monde staffer.

October 25

Tunisian authorities halted local transmis-sions of France 2 after the French television channel broadcast a number of news programs critical of the government of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The programs aired before and after the country’s October 24 presidential election.

For several years, France 2 has been transmitted in Tunisia by agreement with the Tunisian government, which provided technical facilities for the broadcast. On October 25, France 2 aired a feature about the newly released book Our Friend Ben Ali, written by French journalists Nicolas Beau and Jean-Pierre Tuquoi. The book paints a scathing picture of human-rights abuses in Tunisia. Also on the 25th, the station broadcast a story about the Tunisian government’s continued harassment of journalist Taoufik Ben Brik.

In the days preceding the October 25 ban, authorities censored a number of France 2 news segments about the election campaign.

According to France 2 officials, Tunisian authorities denied banning the channel for its content. Instead they claimed that they had long intended to terminate the broadcasting agreement. Despite the ban, France 2 is still available to Tunisians who have satellite dishes.