Throughout his 15 years in power, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has sought to stifle all dissent while portraying Tunisia as a progressive and democratic nation. Sadly, he has had considerable success. Members of the U.S. Congress, for example, continued to heap praise on Ben Ali while ignoring his dismal human rights and press freedom record. Meanwhile, CPJ named Ben Ali to its Ten Worst Enemies of the Press list for the fourth consecutive year. See CPJ’s 2001 Enemies list.
Though mostly privately owned, Tunisia’s press is one of the meekest in the Arab world. And for good reason: Over the years, authorities have banned some newspapers and used economic pressure to intimidate others. Journalists who criticize the regime have been assaulted, dismissed from their jobs, denied accreditation, and put under police surveillance. They have had their phone lines cut and have been prevented from leaving the country.
Other journalists, including members of the state-controlled Tunisian Journalists Association (AJT), enthusiastically perform Ben Ali’s dirty work by attacking human rights activists and other critics of the regime.
Ben Ali and other officials continued to blame the press for its own submissiveness and encouraged papers to be more critical. “I will say to you once more loud and clear: Do write on any subject you choose,” Ben Ali trumpeted in a May interview with the dailies As-Sabah and Ech-Chourouq. “There are no taboos except what is prohibited by law and press ethics.”
While the press deserved some of the blame for its poor coverage, it was difficult to take Ben Ali’s words seriously given the state’s ongoing crackdown on dissent. Authorities often confiscated the few papers that were critical, such as the small, poorly funded opposition paper Al-Mawkif, on the rare occasions that they were printed.
In late April, parliament passed a series of cosmetic amendments to the Press Code, eliminating an ambiguously worded article prohibiting “defaming public order,” eliminating prison penalties for violating advertising regulations and other restrictions, and decreasing the period of time the government can suspend newspapers.
However, Tunisian journalists continued to work in a highly restrictive environment. They faced threats, monitoring, disconnected phone service, and arrest. In January, authorities barred human rights activist Jalel Zoghlami from publishing a new newspaper, Kaws al-Karama, and then assaulted him and several of his supporters when they tried to distribute unlicensed copies in Tunis. Zoghlami is the brother of exiled journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who captured international attention in 2000 when he launched a 43-day hunger strike to protest government harassment of himself and his family.
Tunisian journalists and activists have used foreign newspapers, the Internet, and satellite television to express their views. Exiled dissidents and domestic critics appear frequently on the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera or on Al-Mustaqila, a London-based satellite channel run by a Tunisian opposition figure. Hungry for uncensored political news, many Tunisians devour the lively debates in these media.
In June, Sihem Bensedrine, a human rights activist who edits the weekly online magazine Kalima, was arrested upon her return to Tunisia from Europe, where she had criticized Tunisia’s judiciary and human rights record on an Al-Mustaqila talk show that was broadcast in Tunisia. Bensedrine was held for six weeks and denied visits from her family and lawyers. In August, plainclothes security forces attacked a group of supporters and family members who had gathered to celebrate her August 12 release. Charges against Bensendrine were still pending at year’s end.
In 2001, Tunisia protested an Al-Jazeera program featuring Bensedrine and other dissident Tunisian intellectuals.
In August, a Tunisian judge filed a complaint against Al-Mustaqila with the British Independent Television Commission (ITC), a regulatory body that oversees standards in private television. Alleging that the station had misrepresented Tunisia’s political situation and personally libeled him, the judge sought sanctions against the station that could have included fines or closure. The ITC rejected that complaint, whereupon Tunisian authorities filed another in late December.
The government bans foreign publications that criticize Tunisia and also blocks access to Web sites that highlight human rights abuses in the country, including the Amnesty International site and CPJ’s own site (www.cpj.org).
More than one year after an assassination attempt against former editor Riad Ben Fadhel, Ben Ali has failed to deliver on promises to bring the perpetrators to justice. Ben Fahel was wounded in a drive-by shooting outside his home in Tunis on May 23, 2000, just days after publishing a negative article about Ben Ali. The attack took place a few hundred meters from the presidential palace, one of the most secure areas in Tunisia.
Now that the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party appears poised to push through a constitutional amendment allowing Ben Ali to stand for an unprecedented fourth term in 2003, the prospects for press freedom appear bleak. And despite Ben Ali’s abysmal record, the president has largely escaped international criticism so far. On March 19, U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Ct.) and other Senators paid tribute to Tunisia on the 45th anniversary of its independence. Lieberman stated that “the United States and Tunisia have shared a mutual commitment to freedom, democracy, and a peaceful resolution of conflict.”
Tunisian authorities seized issue 198 of the weekly newspaper Al-Mawkif, a publication of the small opposition Progressive Socialist Rally Party, at the paper’s printing house.
Authorities gave no explanation for the seizure, but it was apparently triggered by articles dealing with human rights issues.
Al-Mawkif publishes irregularly due to its shaky financial situation, which it attributes to the government’s refusal to give it the subsidies received by all other opposition papers. Sources at the paper add that public sector companies refuse to buy advertising space in its pages.
Sihem Bensedrine, Kalima
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION
Bensedrine is the spokeswoman for the nongovernmental National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) and the editor of an Internet magazine called Kalima. On June 17, she took part in a television debate about Tunisian human rights on Al Mustaqilla, a London-based Arabic television station owned by émigré Tunisian dissident Mohammed El Hachimi Hamdi.
Tunisian police detained Bensedrine at the airport when she returned to the capital, Tunis, on June 26, 2001. That same day, according to her lawyer, Radhia Nasraoui, Bensedrine was charged with undermining the authority of the judiciary and spreading false information with the aim of undermining public authority. She was brought before an examining judge, who ordered her incarcerated.
Following her arrest, Nasraoui said, Bensedrine was missing for more than five hours before anyone knew what had happened to her.
Undermining the authority of the judiciary carries a penalty of up to six months’ imprisonment and a 1000 dinar (US$660) fine. The false-information charge carries a prison sentence of up to three years and a fine of 1000 dinars.
Bensedrine was released on August 12, after spending six weeks in detention. Authorities provided no explanation for her release, and the charges against her were still pending at year’s end.
CPJ published an alert about the case on June 28.
Sihem Bensedrine, Kalima
Plainclothes police officers attacked Tunisian journalist and human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine and a group of supporters who had gathered to celebrate her recent release from prison.
Bensedrine, who edits the online news magazine Kalima, was jailed for six weeks after criticizing the Tunisian government during a June 17 television appearance in London.
As Bensedrine and some 150 to 200 supporters and friends gathered in front of an events hall in the afternoon, about 200 plainclothes police officers denied them entry. The police attacked the guests after they refused to disperse and sang the Tunisian national anthem.
One officer kicked Bensedrine in the side. Her husband and 13-year-old daughter were also beaten, along with several of her supporters.
Bensedrine was arrested on June 26 after returning from London, where she had taken part in a televised debate about Tunisian human rights on Al Mustaqilla, a London-based Arabic television station owned by émigré Tunisian dissident Mohammed El Hachimi Hamdi.
She was released from prison on August 12 but continued to face charges of “undermining the authority of the judiciary and spreading false information with the aim of undermining public authority.”
CPJ published an alert about the attack on August 20.