A voice for moderation, perhaps. But oppressive and intolerant nonetheless

By Joel Campagna
Published in St. Paul Pioneer Press
July 22, 2008

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum’s recent visit to the North African nation of Tunisia hardly made headlines in Minnesota. But in Tunisia the state-run media hailed her visit as a success for U.S.-Tunisian relations, citing the congresswomen’s praise for Tunisia as a “voice of moderation and wisdom in the world.”

Tunisia, a close friend of the United States, also happens to be a police state intolerant of free speech and a free press. Tunisia is the Arab world’s leading jailer of journalists, and it actively targets the few courageous individuals who attempt to speak critically of the government with imprisonment, police surveillance and violent attacks.

Disappointingly, McCollum did not raise any of that during her trip. “The premise of her visit was security,” said the congresswoman’s chief of staff, Bill Harper, explaining that Tunisia, while cooperating with the United States in the war on terror, opposed the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq. It was in that context that McCollum called the Tunisian leadership moderate and wise, he added.

The nation’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is a dictator who has been in power for 21 years. His government has long welcomed U.S. congressional delegations to the sunny capital of Tunis, where they

record, or the first to allow the Tunisian state-controlled press to exploit her visit for propaganda.

Just before McCollum’s visit I witnessed Tunisia’s repression firsthand while leading a 10-day fact-finding mission to Tunis for the Committee to Protect Journalists. There, I met Delinda Boukhdir, the young wife of Slim Boukhdir, an Internet journalist at the time serving a one-year jail term on trumped-up charges of insulting a public employee.

The real reason Boukhdir was in jail was his harsh criticism of Ben Ali and his family. Boukhdir published online articles — such criticisms are unpublishable in the country’s Soviet-style print press — accusing them of corrupt financial practices.

Until his welcome early release on Monday — the result of an intensive international campaign waged by journalists and press freedom groups — Boukhdir had endured difficult prison conditions that included a cramped cell with no running water and occasionally threatening cellmates. He had contracted scabies due to unsanitary prison conditions.

Through overt surveillance, Tunisia’s omnipresent secret police frequently intimidated Delinda Boukhdir and her family. When I unsuccessfully attempted to visit Slim Boukhdir in prison, I saw how a dozen plainclothes police menacingly tracked Delinda and me through the streets of Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city, on foot and in cars in a clear show of force.

Being subjected to such crude harassment is the norm for the country’s small group of outspoken independent journalists, who are forced to write mostly online or for very small-circulation opposition papers. These critics have been placed under surveillance, assaulted by plainclothes police, had their phone and Internet lines cut, and been prevented from leaving the country.

Tunisia has enamored its supporters in the United States with its strong economic growth, its support for women’s rights and its overall political stability. But these notable gains have come at the same time the nation has withheld basic rights such as free expression.

Some have argued that Tunisia is among the best-suited Arab nations to make a transition to democracy. Tunisia boasts the region’s largest middle class; unlike many of its neighbors, it has no history of political or sectarian violence. To help Tunisia embark on a process of democratic reforms, we need to support the brave Tunisians risking their own livelihoods in pursuit of basic freedoms.

McCollum and her colleagues on the Tunisia Caucus could use it as a forum not only to strengthen bilateral relations, but to also speak out in support of democratic reforms. The caucus should start by expressing concern for the troubling state of media freedoms in Tunisia and the government’s insidious harassment and censorship of independent journalists. Such a stand would also help set the record straight on where McCollum really stands on Tunisia — and not let the Tunisian state media do it for her.

Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ is a New York-based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. For more information, visit www.cpj.org.