For nearly two decades, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has quietly run one of the region’s most efficient police states, stifling the media with an array of Soviet-style tactics. Even allies of Ben Ali, such as U.S. President George W. Bush, expressed concern in 2004 about the troubling lack of press freedom. On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, the U.S. State Department criticized the Tunisian government for “censorship [and] harassment” of journalists and its failure “to investigate attacks on the media.”
Despite the scrutiny, prospects for press freedom remain dim. On October 24, Ben Ali was re-elected to a fourth consecutive five-year term, taking 94.5 percent of the vote in an election seen as neither free nor fair. Ben Ali’s prolonged reign is likely to spell more frustration for the country’s beleaguered media.
Tunisia’s press is largely privately owned but often reads like government-sponsored propaganda. In most newspapers, articles lauding Ben Ali are standard; publications are heavily self-censored, avoiding even the most benign scrutiny of government policies or local news events.
Officially sanctioned opposition newspapers are published, and at least two—Al-Mawkif (The Situation) and Al-Tariq al-Jadid (The New Path)—provide critical coverage of the government. But their circulation is low, and they must contend with government pre-screening of content and distribution delays.
Journalists have learned that crossing the government can be costly. Those who have run afoul of authorities have been imprisoned, physically assaulted, and harassed. Many dissenting writers and editors have fled the country or left journalism. For the few remaining independent voices—people who often double as human rights activists—police surveillance, tapped phone lines, and e-mail monitoring are the norm.
Government retaliation can also be violent. Thugs believed to be members of the secret police attacked prominent Internet journalist and human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine outside her home in the capital, Tunis, in January, punching her in the face and chest. Bensedrine was treated at a local hospital.
The Internet has been a refuge for dissenting voices, but authorities bar access to Web sites critical of the government and have closed certain Internet cafés. In 2004, authorities continued to block access to Kalima, the online news site operated by Bensedrine, and refused to license a print edition of the site. Internet journalist Zouhair Yahyaoui, who spent almost 18 months in prison on spurious charges before being released in late 2003, started posting again on his Web site, TUNeZINE, but the government blocked access to it as well. The government did ease some strictures, allowing access to once-banned sites, such as CPJ’s and those of other international rights groups, according to press reports.
Radio and television are mostly state controlled. The government licensed its first private radio station in 2003, but Radio Mosaique FM continued to offer mostly entertainment and steered clear of any criticism of the regime. Tunisia’s first private television station was licensed in 2004 but had not begun broadcasting by year’s end. The Hannibal Channel, owned by a pro-regime businessman, is expected to focus on entertainment programming.
Al-Jazeera and other pan-Arab stations, available to viewers with satellite dishes, are popular. Local sources say that Al-Jazeera negotiated with Tunisian authorities about opening a Tunis bureau but was rebuffed in 2004 because the station wanted to employ a Tunisian journalist whom authorities did not like. Pan-Arab newspapers are closely monitored and summarily confiscated at ports of entry if they carry criticism of Ben Ali or report critically on the government. Some of these newspapers have decided that it is not worth the effort and have stopped shipping copies to Tunisia altogether.
The government has earned a reputation for alternately browbeating and bribing regional media outlets. Tunisian diplomats have pressured Al-Jazeera, for instance, by threatening to withdraw Tunisia’s ambassador to Qatar. At the same time, Tunisian officials pay Arab newspapers to publish articles that trumpet the government’s accomplishments, and they give journalists all-expenses-paid trips in exchange for favorable reporting.