In May, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali won 99.52 percent approval for constitutional changes that allow him to run for a fourth term in 2004. The poll–condemned by human rights groups inside and outside the country as rigged–did not surprise those familiar with Ben Ali’s 15-year, strongman rule of Tunisia.
Through a combination of censorship and intimidation, Tunisian authorities have all but stamped out independent voices in the country’s media, with the exception of a few courageous dissident journalists who publish their work underground, on the Internet, or in Western newspapers.
Those who write critically about political affairs have faced an array of official reprisals: physical attacks, imprisonment, the banning of their publications, the withholding of state advertising, anonymous telephone threats, cut phone and fax lines, the removal of accreditation, and travel restrictions. The result is a press that–although mostly privately owned–is almost completely subservient to the regime. In April, when 19 people were killed after suspected al-Qaeda operatives drove a gas-filled truck into a synagogue on Tunisia’s Djerba Island, the local media described the incident as a traffic accident, even when foreign media correctly speculated that terrorism was the cause.
While officials have long censored critical Internet content (including CPJ’s Web site), during 2002, authorities prosecuted and imprisoned an Internet journalist for the first time. In June, Zouhair Yahyaoui, editor of the online newspaper TUNeZINE (www.tunezine.com), was sentenced to 28 months in prison on charges of publishing false information and using stolen communication lines to post his Web site, which
had been functioning for nearly a year before his prosecution. He remained in jail
at year’s end.
Tunisian authorities had regularly blocked the site to users inside Tunisia, but TUNeZINE circumvented these barriers by establishing alternate addresses. Observers believe that authorities targeted Yahyaoui because many young Tunisians were visiting the site and learning how to access other blocked addresses. In addition, Yahyaoui regularly published content that criticized the Tunisian regime, including a satirical poll mocking the May referendum.
Tunisian officials are beginning to realize just how powerful the Internet is for the clandestine press. Many independent journalists who have left the country during the last few years communicate via the Internet with activists and journalists in Tunisia. These exiled members of the media complain that they regularly receive e-mail viruses that may come from the government.
When human rights activist and journalist Sihem Bensedrine applied for a publication license in 2002, officials ignored her request. She then established Kalima, an online journal that carries articles in Arabic and French from such noted independent journalists as Taoufik Ben Brik. Authorities began blocking access to the site, so she and her staff resorted to secretly printing and distributing the paper to individual readers.
In addition to restricting local print, broadcast, and electronic media, Tunisian authorities regularly monitor and ban foreign publications. Foreign journalists deemed unfriendly to the regime are denied accreditation and ordered to leave the country. In May, Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, a reporter with the French newspaper Le Monde, was refused entry into Tunisia while en route to cover the referendum because, authorities said, he had “ill will” toward the country. In 1999, Tuquoi co-authored the book Our Friend Ben Ali, which lambasted Tunisia’s human rights record.
While publications affiliated with legally sanctioned opposition parties exist, they
do not receive government subsidies as do other papers, and as a result do not
Although Tunisian newspapers and government television stations have lost credibility among much of the public, satellite television has become very popular, especially Arabic-language stations such as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and the private, London-based El Zeitouna, which is affiliated with Tunisia’s banned Al-Nahda Party.
Zouhair Yahyaoui, TUNeZINE
Abdullah Zouari, Al-Fajr
Zouari, formerly with the banned Islamist weekly Al-Fajr, was sentenced to eight months in prison for defying a July 15 Interior Ministry order banishing him to the small southern Tunisian village of Khariba Hassi Jerbi, about 370 miles (600 kilometers) outside the capital, Tunis. The journalist unsuccessfully contested the decision and was arrested on August 19 for defying the order.
Zouari’s arrest came nearly three months after he was released from prison on June 6, when he completed an 11-year sentence for “association with an unrecognized organization.” Zouari had been tried by a military court in 1991, along with 279 other individuals, for belonging to the banned Al-Nahda party, of which Al-Fajr was the mouthpiece.
Zouari again appealed the order, but a court in the small southern town of Medenine ruled against him on September 4, 2002. The president pardoned Zouari in November, and he was released soon after.