Tunisia responds to critical CPJ report

We received a large package from the Tunisian Embassy in Washington on Friday. The package contained an official response to our September special report, “The Smiling Oppressor” and a hefty collection of Tunisian newspapers and individual articles that the government says demonstrates a “liberal and pluralistic media landscape” under President Zine El Abidine’s 21-year rule. Our report was highly critical of the Tunisian government’s repressive press policies. 

“I would like to seize this opportunity, at a moment coinciding with Tunisia celebrating 21 years of continuous, steady, and comprehensive reforms in all fields, to highlight the firm and irreversible commitment of my country to further anchor democracy, political pluralism and expand the scope of participation of all stakeholders at the national level,” wrote Tarek Ben Youssef, chargé d’affaires at the Tunisian embassy.

Joel Simon, our executive director, wrote back on Monday, saying that we found nothing in the response to change our findings. We regretted Tunisian officials would not agree to meet with us when we were conducting our fact-finding mission in late June and early July.

Our research shows that President Ben Ali, who celebrated his regime’s 21st anniversary this month, has employed some of the most restrictive press tactics in the Arab world, including harassment, censorship, and imprisonment of journalists.

Those tactics continue to be used. This passage comes from our most recent alert, issued November 7:

In September, plainclothes security agents abducted Slim Boukhdhir, an online writer and critic of Ben Ali. Agents held him for two hours, threatened him, and directed him to stop his work. Boukhdhir had just written an online piece urging Ben Ali to follow the advice of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and loosen the state’s grip on civil society.  Authorities had harassed Boukhdhir in the past, jailing him for several months earlier in the year.

In October, the public prosecutor issued a court summons to Neziha Rejiba, editor of the online magazine Kalima and one of the country’s most critical journalists. In a piece for the weekly Mouatinoun, Rejiba accused the government of being behind the recent destruction of her Web site. The summons could be a precursor to criminal charges. Authorities also seized the entire issue of Mouatinoun.

Although the situation in Tunisia remains very poor, Simon noted that CPJ remains receptive to a meeting with government officials to discuss our concerns about press freedom.