February 12, 2004, New York—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) today called on U.S. President George W. Bush to raise the issue of Tunisia’s deplorable press freedom record in his upcoming meeting with Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, scheduled for Tuesday, February 17.

In a letter to President Bush, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper urged the president to “use your visit with President Ben Ali to express deep reservations—both in public and in private—about the poor state of press freedom in Tunisia.” She called on Bush to “make it clear that, as a close ally of the United States, Tunisia will be held accountable when it violates the fundamental right to freedom of expression.”

Since President Ben Ali seized power in 1987, he has helped transform Tunisia’s press into one of the most restricted in the Arab world. During Ben Ali’s autocratic rule, the government has responded swiftly and severely to journalists who have not toed the official line. Over the years, the government has banned newspapers and jailed dissenting reporters. Critical journalists have been dismissed from their jobs, denied accreditation, put under police surveillance, assaulted, and prevented from leaving the country. Two journalists are currently in prison, and the few courageous voices remaining in the country circumvent government control by publishing on the Internet. But Tunisian authorities do not hesitate to block their Web sites, harass them, and even imprison them.

Holding the Tunisian government accountable for its excesses provides an opportunity to “emphasize the administration’s recently stated goal of promoting democracy in the region,” Cooper wrote in the letter

The full text of the letter is available online. For background information on press freedom conditions in Tunisia, click on the following links:

Tunisia country summary from Attacks on the Press 2002

Fear and Loathing in Tunis: Special Report (1999)

“Enough is Enough”: A Tunisian journalist’s view from the ground (1999)