Some Tunisian journalists had hoped that an influx of world business, media, and human rights figures attending a United Nations conference in Tunis in November might prompt the government to relax its grip on the local media. Instead, President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali’s 18-year-old administration ran true to form, stifling the critical press and preventing a fledgling journalists’ union from holding its first conference.
Three journalists went on hunger strikes in 2005, two of them to protest their detention, one in jail and one under virtual house arrest. Tunisia, one of the most efficient police states in the region, found itself in the spotlight as an unprecedented number of international groups sent fact-finding missions and wrote reports on press freedom in the run-up to the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS), a U.N.–sponsored gathering seeking to establish international regulations for the Internet. Three fact-finding missions undertaken in January, May, and September by the Tunisian Monitoring Group, which operates under the umbrella of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, concluded that attacks on freedom of expression and association and the media “have escalated since January 2005.”
International attention did not deter attacks on the press. Just days before the WSIS began in the capital, reporter Christophe Boltanski of the French daily Libération reported that he was beaten, blinded with pepper spray, and stabbed by four men near his hotel in the otherwise heavily guarded diplomatic quarter. The attackers took his cell phone, notebook, and personal belongings as nearby police ignored his cries for help. Boltanski, who was in Tunis to investigate human rights abuses in advance of the summit, had just published an article that described plainclothes police assaulting human rights activists. As the WSIS unfolded, a number of instances of police surveillance, harassment, and property confiscation were reported by press and human rights advocates.
The government, which used a range of Soviet-style techniques to keep the media in check, dismissed foreign criticism of its media policy, saying that freedom of the press in Tunisia “is a tangible reality.” Independent journalists said they were harassed by plainclothes police. Their phone lines were monitored and often arbitrarily cut. Charges were fabricated against them and heard by courts under the thumb of the executive branch. Mohamed Fourati, a freelance journalist, appeared before the Court of Appeals in the southern city of Gafsa, on June 29 and again on September 21, on fabricated charges of “belonging to an unauthorized association,” even though he had twice been acquitted of the charge. On October 26, the Gafsa Court of Appeals also acquitted Fourati.
In October, Ambeyi Ligabo, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, called on Tunisia to relax press restrictions. Voicing alarm over the lack of dialogue between the authorities and the media, Ligabo urged the government to lift restrictions on independent journalism and to adopt legislation for “the decriminalization of defamation and related offenses.” In a press release issued on October 14, Ligabo urged Tunisian authorities to “guarantee full access to information for media professionals, as well as for ordinary citizens,” to ensure that “all media workers can exercise their profession without any impediment or restriction.”
The authorities questioned the sources of Ligabo’s information, calling them “neither independent nor credible.” They claimed that “nobody can be imprisoned in Tunisia because of his opinions or journalistic activities.”
Yet Hamadi Jebali, former editor of the now-defunct Al-Fajr, the weekly newspaper of the banned Islamist Al-Nahda party, has been serving a 16-year prison sentence since 1991 for “defamation” and “belonging to an illegal organization plotting to change the nature of the state.” In April, he went on a hunger strike until the government ended the solitary confinement that had been imposed on him and other political prisoners for more than a decade. On September 15, Jebali began a second hunger strike in protest of inhumane prison conditions. He ended it on October 21 after authorities promised to look into his case.
Abdallah Zouari, a former Al-Fajr reporter, went on hunger strikes in February and September to protest his virtual house arrest since his release from prison in 2002. Sentenced to 11 years in prison by a military court in 1992 for “belonging to an illegal organization” and planning “to change the nature of the state,” Zouari is under virtual house arrest in the southern city of Zarzis, more than 300 miles (500 kilometers) from his wife and children. He is prevented from working or using public Internet cafes.
The third journalist to resort to a hunger strike was Lotfi Hajji, head of the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate (SJT). On October 18, he embarked on a fast with a group of seven human rights and political activists to defend press and political freedoms. Police began harassing Hajji in May 2004, when he helped set up the SJT. Hajji was interrogated in May 2005 after the release of an SJT report about attacks on the press in Tunisia. Hajji said he was warned that the Tunisian authorities did not recognize the SJT, even though it had been set up in accordance with Tunisian law. In August, Hajji was questioned again by police and told that the government had decided to bar the SJT from holding its first congress, which was scheduled for September 7 in Tunis. The congress was supposed to elect the group’s first board of directors. Hajji was also told that the group could not hold a seminar, planned for the same week, that would have brought together journalists from across North Africa.
At the same time, journalists working for both state-controlled and privately owned media were summoned by managers and editors and asked to choose between their jobs and the SJT. Hajji was denied a national press card and accreditation as correspondent for the Arabic satellite-TV channel Al-Jazeera.
Other independent journalists regarded as being close to opposition parties were also denied press credentials. Official figures indicate that the government has issued 960 cards. Nearly 80 percent of Tunisian journalists work for state-owned media. The private media are kept on a tight leash by the Tunisian External Communication Agency, which controls advertising and other forms of government support to the media.
The privately owned press is sometimes used to smear dissidents and independent journalists, such as Sihem Bensedrine, editor of the online magazine Kalima, and reporter Mohamed Krichene of Al-Jazeera. Editors are often instructed by high-ranking officials to tarnish the image of democracy advocates or independent journalists. In May, for instance, an insulting and obscene campaign was launched against Bensedrine by three privately owned papers, Ashourouq, As-sarih, and Al-hadath. They presented her as a “prostitute,” a “creature of the devil,” a “hateful viper,” and an “agent of the Zionists and Freemasons.” One of the smear campaigners, Abdelhamid Riahi of Ashourouq, was later decorated by the president.
On October 6, Tunisian dailies ran a front-page message from the state-run Tunisian Journalists Association thanking Ben Ali for “the support he has given to journalists to help them carry out their noble mission under the best conditions.” This came at the same time that the media, with the exception of the beleaguered opposition papers Al-Mawkif and Al-Tariq al-Jadid, had for weeks turned a blind eye to the hunger strikes of Jebali, Zouari, and Hajji, and to a series of unprecedented attacks on freedom of association and expression that included the closure of the office of the Association of Tunisian Judges in July and the banning of the Tunisian League of Human Rights conference in September.
In July, the authorities allowed the establishment of the private radio station Radio Jawhara. Independent journalists saw this as an attempt to spread the illusion of media pluralism ahead of the U.N.-sponsored conference. They noted that the station was owned by a businessman close to the president.