Attacks on the Press in 2008: Tunisia

The September abduction of writer Slim Boukhdhir was a chilling reminder of the insecurity that critical journalists face in this North African nation. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in power since 1987, continued to operate a virtual police state, despite the moderate image his government vigorously promoted to the rest of the world.

Boukhdhir, who had just spent eight months in prison for writing critical articles about Ben Ali, told CPJ that he was abducted on September 20 by four plainclothes police officers as he was heading to an Internet café in his hometown of Sfax, Tunisia's second-largest city. He said his abductors forced him into a car and took him to a police station near the city's old district and then to an isolated area about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Sfax. He said the agents "threatened to inflict on me the same fate as Libyan Internet journalist Daif al-Ghazal," who was kidnapped and killed in 2005.

Boukhdhir, a contributor to numerous Tunisian and Arab news Web sites, said he believed the abduction had been sparked by an online article describing U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's September 6 visit to Tunis. In the article, posted on the Tunisian news site Tunisnews and the Egyptian news site Al-Masryun, Boukhdhir said Rice’s call for human rights and press freedom reforms should prompt Ben Ali to take action. Rice’s comments were largely ignored by the state-run news media.

Boukhdhir had been freed from prison on July 21, shortly after CPJ concluded a fact-finding mission to Tunisia and issued a call for his release. CPJ later detailed the politicized prosecution of Boukhdhir and described the country’s repressive climate in a special report, “The Smiling Oppressor.” Boukhdhir had been jailed on charges that he had insulted a police officer and refused to hand over identification–allegations CPJ and other groups found to be fabricated.

In July, Ben Ali accepted the nomination of his party, the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally, to run for a fifth term in 2009. As he has in the past, Ben Ali issued a disingenuous call for the news media to end rampant self-censorship. "We have constantly considered freedom of expression as a fundamental human right," Reuters quoted Ben Ali as saying on World Press Freedom Day in May. "We reiterate our call to redouble efforts ... to diversify and enrich spaces of dialogue in the various media to guarantee developed and audacious national information ... away from all forms of self-censorship and external censorship."

Ben Ali’s words were consistently belied by the government’s repressive policies and its abusive actions toward Tunisia’s few critical journalists. In “The Smiling Oppressor,” CPJ’s Joel Campagna noted that Tunisia’s press code outlines an array of coverage restrictions–including outright bans on offending the president, disturbing public order, and publishing what the government vaguely defines as “false news.” Outspoken newspapers are subject to confiscation by police. Critical online news sites, those belonging to international rights groups, and the popular video-sharing site YouTube have been blocked by the government.

Authorities tightly control the licensing of broadcasters and the distribution of state advertising. This decade, the National Frequencies Agency has licensed just one television station and three radio broadcasters, all of which are owned by business interests close to the regime. The agency’s approval criteria have never been disclosed, and several independent applicants have never gotten a response from the agency. The Tunisian External Communication Agency, which distributes advertising for government agencies and publicly owned companies, punishes outspoken media by withholding advertising, CPJ research showed. That agency doesn’t disclose guidelines on how it doles out ads.

Independent journalists, some of whom double as human rights activists, are regular targets of harassment, CPJ found. Their phone lines are cut, they receive anonymous threats, their e-mail is hacked, they are placed under police surveillance, and they are denied the right to travel freely.

Abdallah Zouari, a reporter for the now-defunct Islamist weekly Al-Fajr, remained under virtual house arrest, more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) from his wife and children in Tunis. A military court sentenced Zouari in 1992 to 11 years in prison and five years of  ”administrative surveillance” for “belonging to an illegal organization” and “planning to change the nature of the state.” Several weeks after his release in June 2002, he was forced to move to the outskirts of the southern city of Zarzis, where he has remained under continuous police surveillance.

The long-term obstruction of the independent news Web site Kalima and the harassment of its editors provided another stark example of the government’s tactics. For the fifth time in nine years, founder Sihem Bensedrine unsuccessfully sought permission to produce a print edition of Kalima; officials at the Ministry of Interior would not accept her application in 2008. Although Kalima‘s Web site remained blocked in Tunisia, its biting critiques of the government were available, and widely read, abroad. In March, customs officials at the port of La Goulette roughed up Bensedrine and seized documents, computer discs, and a cell phone as she and her husband, Omar Mestiri, Kalima‘s managing editor, returned from Europe. In August, border police at Tunis-Carthage International Airport prevented Bensedrine from boarding a plane bound for Vienna, Austria. In October, vandals hacked into Kalima‘s site, hosted in France, shutting it down and destroying eight years of archives. When Editor Neziha Rejiba wrote an opinion piece for the opposition weekly Mouatinoun attributing the destruction to state agents, the government seized copies of the weekly and summoned Rejiba to court for potential prosecution.

Mouatinoun, affiliated with the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties, and Al-Mawkif, owned by the Progressive Democratic Party, maintained a consistently critical editorial policy. Both were subjected to regular harassment, CPJ research showed.

In March, copies of Al-Mawkif began to disappear from kiosks after the paper ran tough stories on human rights abuses and a questionable deal involving a businessman close to Ben Ali. Over four weeks in March and April, vendors reported that security agents had scooped up copies in bulk, Editor Rachid Kechana said. Al-Mawkif also discovered large numbers of undistributed copies in the offices of its circulation contractor, Sotupresse. Although Sotupresse denied withholding copies from distribution, Al-Mawkif‘s circulation, ordinarily about 10,000, plummeted to 744 one week.

Mouatinoun also faced political and economic obstacles. Mustafa Ben Jaafar, the paper’s director, said plainclothes security agents had camped outside the building where he published. “They are there 24 hours a day,” Ben Jaafar told CPJ. “This is a form of intimidation for ordinary citizens.”

Tunisia‘s mainstream print press is dominated by pro-government publications that offer fawning coverage of Ben Ali, praising him as an architect of change and a promoter of liberty. A 2007 U.S. State Department report found that even nominally private news media take direction from senior government officials and that “all media were subject to significant governmental pressure over subject matter.” Front pages feature a daily photo of a beneficent Ben Ali, the inside pages are heavy with social news and sports, and the occasional criticism avoids naming officials or faulting government policies. In June, as Tunisians in the southern town of Redeyef were demonstrating against unemployment and the rising cost of living, front page news in the daily press was dominated by students who passed their baccalaureate exams.

“You can write about sports all you want,” Al-Jazeera correspondent Lotfi Hajji told CPJ. “But issues important to society, like the demonstrations in Redeyef, the press can’t do anything except print what the government wants.” Hajji himself has been denied official accreditation and blocked from covering news stories.

Ben Ali’s government has enjoyed strong relations with the United States and Europe. Seen as a bulwark against Islamist militancy in North Africa, Tunisia is a trusted partner in the U.S. war on terrorism and has impressed U.S. supporters with its economic growth, support for women’s rights, and political stability. Many U.S. supporters are members of Congress, particularly those serving on the recently formed Tunisia Caucus. CPJ, after completing its mission to Tunisia, urged U.S. and European Union officials to speak out against the harassment and censorship of independent journalists and to make clear to the Ben Ali administration that bilateral relations are contingent on respect for press freedom.

Pre-empting the Satellite TV Revolution


Egypt Morocco
Iran Sudan
Iraq Tunisia
Israel /Occupied Palestinian Territory Yemen
Lebanon Other Attacks and Developments in the Region

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