Rice, Tunisia in press reform dance

Tunisia’s media, one of the most muzzled in the Arab world, reported for the first time a couple weeks ago that a high-ranking U.S. official had raised the issue of reform with the country’s autocratic ruler, who is also a zealous supporter of President George W. Bush’s war on terror.

The official was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She briefly stopped on September 6 in Tunis, as part of a North African tour that led her to pay a historic visit to Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi before traveling for talks mainly on counterterrorism issues with his Tunisian and Algerian counterparts, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, as well as King Mohamed VI of Morocco.

The official Tunisian news report came as a surprise in a country where the state-run media has a history of censoring Western allies and friends or distorting their statements for propaganda purposes. In fact, in February 2004, Bush’s public and embarrassing call on Ben Ali to loosen his grip on the media, during an official visit by the Tunisian leader to Washington was bluntly ignored by the state-run press.

This undiplomatic attitude on the part of the Tunisian government was apparently not appreciated by U.S. diplomats, who do not understand why other Arab countries enmeshed in greater social and economic problems than Tunisia show more tolerance for independent journalism.

Tunisian officials seemed to have reluctantly instructed the media to report Rice’s brief reference to the issue of reform in her statement, following her talks with Ben Ali and Abdel Wahab Abdallah, her Tunisian counterpart, considered by many to be one of the top enemies of independent journalism in the country.

Journalists accompanying Rice told the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV that she argued during her discussions that Tunisia could do more to enact political reform and allow access to the media. This report angered aides to Ben Ali, who amended the constitution in 2002 so that the ensconced politicians could run for additional five-year terms, including in 2009, to undermine genuine opposition and to secure immunity from prosecution for life.

Unlike Bush, Rice did not seek to embarrass Tunisian officials by publicly calling on them to implement political reforms or refrain from settling scores with independent journalists. “We have been very clear that we would hope that Tunisia will do more, and particularly in the lead-up to the 2009 elections, that media access, freedom of the Internet, access to television for the opposition, will really be enshrined,” the U.S. Secretary of State told journalists accompanying her to Tunisia.

But there is no doubt that this kind of soft diplomatic pressure is not understood or appreciated by Tunisian officials, who seem to be under the illusion that their docile cooperation with the Bush administration, particularly in the context of the so-called war on terror, is thought to shield them from any criticism of their declining human rights record. Such cooperation is often interpreted in Tunis as a prescription for repression of all forms of dissent.

“The U.S. call for political reform and for allowing the opposition to access public space is a new and good opportunity for the government to improve its bleak image, as far as liberties and human rights,” said Slim Boukhdhir, who, until July, was serving a one-year prison sentence for criticizing Ben Ali after denouncing his in-laws’ increasing illicit influence over the country’s economy.

He added in a piece run by the popular–and domestically blocked–news Web site Tunisnews that the biggest threat would be to see the Tunisian government squander such an opportunity as it did before and to “carry on  confiscating public space and using tyrannical methods and ignoring calls for reform.”

Other independent and continuously harassed journalists doubted that something good would come from Rice’s visit or calls for reform. “She is far from being the right person to advocate genuine democratic reform, because it’s a long time since she lost her credibility,” said Neziha Rejiba, editor of the blocked online Kalima magazine. Rejiba is one of the few Tunisians who, more than 20 year ago, publicly doubted that Ben Ali could keep his promise to democratize Tunisia.