During his address to the nation on the anniversary of Tunisia’s independence on March 20, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali did not hesitate to reject critical journalism and the right of journalists to cover corruption or mistakes by the government. As customary, local groups concerned with press freedom, including the Tunisian Observatory for Press Freedom and the Tunisian Journalists’ Syndicate, hesitated–until Wednesday–to rebut the president’s statements.
Ben Ali was addressing the media establishment in Tunisia when he referred to what he termed “the persistence [on the part of journalists] on emphasizing mistakes and violations” in their writing, describing the practice as “an activity that is unbecoming of our society and is not an expression of freedom or democracy,” as he put it.
In what can only be described as a direct attack on journalists and the freedom to write, Ben Ali plainly asked journalists during his address to virtually not criticize anybody in their articles. He warned them against what he described as “assailing the standing of organizations and agencies, be they administrative, professional, social, or judicial.” This rhetoric can be understood to mean that the Tunisian regime is willing to punish any journalist who dares direct any criticism toward any government agency, considering that any organ of the government will, by definition, be of an administrative, professional, social, or judicial nature.
The government in Tunisia insists on a press law that includes prison terms for journalists–a press law whose excessive provisions have allowed the government in the past to charge many writers, journalists, and opposition figures with assailing the standing of state agencies, denigrating officials, or with publishing false news even when they were able to prove that their reporting was accurate.
Ben Ali’s March 20 address and his demand that journalists abandon their duty to write about government corruption in Tunisia is, in essence, a threat if they insist on expressing themselves by writing critically and exposing the violations that take place. It is also a grave deviation from the Constitution, which guarantees the right to free expression and thought. It is also a blatant violation of a number of international agreements ratified by Tunisia.
We also note that Ben Ali’s use of the phrase “persistence” (by journalists) to “emphasize mistakes and violations” of the government is rooted in a desire to prosecute intentions. This expression grants the government an abundance of future opportunities to place any critical article in the nebulous category of “persistence on emphasizing mistakes and violations” and punishing its author.
Ben Ali’s latest speech sends a clear message to journalists that they must abandon their most elementary right, which is the right of free expression, in spite of his attempt to use the same address to point out that “successful journalism is drawn from the lives and concerns of the citizens, and is characterized by seriousness, humor, and excellence; it is exemplified by a spirit to educate, guide, and raise awareness.” Such words are devoid of meaning when they are preceded by a statement calling on journalists to refrain from covering transgressions.
The president’s address comes just a few months ahead of Tunisia’s presidential elections, which are slated for October of this year. Ben Ali’s call for journalists to abandon the right to critique at this time in particular constricts any media outlet that attempts to fulfill its role of voicing opinions that run counter to those held by the regime. This eliminates, without a doubt, even the most rudimentary conditions for a democratic environment during the upcoming election.
Ben Ali will be running for a fifth presidential term, in spite of promising the Tunisian people that he would end the practice of lifelong presidency upon coming to power after a November 7, 1989, coup.
Slim Boukhdir is a Tunisian journalist and writer who spent eight months in prison for writing articles critical of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
(Translated from Arabic)