Attacks on the Press 2003: Tunisia

Since President Zine Al-Abdine Ben Ali seized power in 1987, Tunisian authorities have crafted a nearly perfect system to censor and suppress the media. The few courageous voices remaining in the country succeed in circumventing these controls mainly by publishing on the Internet, but Tunisian authorities do not hesitate to block their Web sites, harass them, and even imprison them. Ben Ali’s 16-year reign is almost certain to continue; the government held a referendum in May 2002 in which officials said 99.52 percent of voters approved constitutional changes that will allow him to run for a fourth term as president in 2004. Opposition figures and other critics called the referendum a sham.

Tunisia has escaped the kind of criticism heaped on other repressive regimes in the region, partly because of the shortsightedness of its allies–Europe and the United States–who tend to focus on Tunisia’s economic successes. During his state visit to Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, in December, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell did mildly prod the government when he said that the “world is looking for more political pluralism and openness and a standard openness that deals with journalists being able to do their work.” His remaining public comments, however, were largely laudatory.

Tunisian newspapers are by and large private. But independent journalists say that editors must remain loyal to Ben Ali, resulting in hagiographic coverage of the president and his policies.

Those who don’t toe the official line are dealt with swiftly and severely. Over the years, the government has prosecuted dissenting reporters and banned newspapers. Critical journalists have been dismissed from their jobs, denied accreditation, put under police surveillance, assaulted, and prevented from leaving the country. Regularly published opposition papers are uncritical and belong to government-sanctioned opposition parties, which receive state subsidies.

In addition to co-opting private newspapers, the state dominates the broadcast media. In November, however, President Ben Ali announced the establishment of the country’s first private radio station, Radio Mosaique FM. According to press reports, the station airs mainly music with some news and is run by a former journalist with close ties to the regime.

The government censors the Web for politically objectionable material and has lashed out at online critics. In an apparent attempt to deflect scrutiny of its poor rights record, the government released jailed cyberjournalist Zouhair Yahyaoui on November 18, weeks before U.S. Secretary of State Powell and French President Jacques Chirac visited Tunis. Yahyaoui, who edited and published the online journal TUNeZINE (, had been in prison since June 2002, after he was arrested and sentenced to 28 months in jail on charges of intentionally publishing false information and using stolen communication lines to post his Web site. (In July 2002, an appeals court reduced the sentence to 24 months.)

Material posted on TUNeZINE included a mock referendum ridiculing the May 2002 referendum and an open letter to Ben Ali from Mokhtar Yahyaoui, the journalist’s uncle and a dissident judge, who complained about the lack of independence in the judiciary.

During his detention, Yahyaoui staged numerous hunger strikes to protest his prison conditions. His lawyers and family members told CPJ that his reading and writing materials were confiscated, and that prison guards tampered with his food.

During 2003, the Tunisian Embassy in Washington, D.C., ignored CPJ’s repeated requests to discuss Yahyaoui’s case and that of another jailed journalist, Hammadi Jebali, who has been in prison since 1991. In October, CPJ gave an informational briefing to the U.S. Helsinki Commission in Washington, D.C., on Tunisia’s appalling press freedom record.

In 2003, the government put more pressure on Internet journalists. In September, the Tunisian Customs Bureau summoned Naziha Rejiba, an editor of the online publication Kalima, which is hosted abroad and blocked inside the country by Tunisian authorities, for questioning following her return from Europe. Rejiba, who is also known as Om Zied, was charged with violating currency exchange laws for giving 170 euros (US$200) to the friend of an acquaintance when she returned to the capital, Tunis. Rejiba’s colleagues insist that she did not violate currency laws, which are designed to punish people who funnel large amounts of undeclared foreign currency into Tunisia. It is common for Tunisian authorities who are unhappy with a journalist’s writing to find another reason to harass the journalist, and Kalima‘s staff have faced harassment for years. Rejiba was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence on November 18–the same day that Yahyaoui was released from prison.

According to Rejiba’s colleagues, the case against her stemmed from her writing about the government’s poor human rights record, as well as an appearance she made on a now defunct Paris-based satellite channel, Al-Hiwar, during which she criticized shopkeepers who display photos of Ben Ali.

Officials carefully screen foreign publications and confiscate issues when they enter the country if they contain articles that criticize the Tunisian government. The government has frequently harassed journalists and activists when they express critical views in the foreign media. In the summer of 2003, in anticipation of the 2004 presidential election, Parliament adopted an amendment to the Electoral Code that prohibits individuals from supporting or criticizing candidates on foreign or domestic broadcast media. Violators of the law are subject to a crippling fine of 25,000 Tunisian dinars (US$20,000).