Tunisia tries to oust head of journalist syndicate

New York May 13, 2009Tunisian government efforts to force out the president of a critical journalists union is part of a campaign to eliminate independent media in the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The campaign started on May 4 when a group of pro-government journalists and followers of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali prevented National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (NSTJ) President Neji Bghouri from speaking during a press conference in Tunis, amid threats and insults. Bghouri was discussing the deterioration of press freedom in Tunisia.

Later that week, amid a wave of intimidation and pressure, three members of the NSTJ board who are close to the government resigned. They issued a petition backed by the Ministry of Communications calling for the withdrawal of confidence by members of the syndicate in its board and an extraordinary meeting to elect a new board.

“Either you sign the petition or take the risk of losing your job,” Bghouri told CPJ.  “Privately owned media are pressuring their journalists to sign the petition for fear of being deprived of public support and advertising revenue.” In Tunisia, advertising is selectively granted by the Tunisian Agency for External Communication to newspapers aligned with the government.

The syndicate issued a report critical of the state of press freedom in Tunisia just hours after Ben Ali extended his customary “warmest congratulations and best wishes” to Tunisian journalists on World Press Freedom Day, on May 3, and reiterated his as-yet unfulfilled commitment to “freedom of speech as a fundamental human right.”

“The Tunisian government must bring this shameful campaign of intimidation of our colleagues and destabilization of their syndicate to an immediate end,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The only way for this government to improve its tattered image is to abide by international standards for freedom of expression, not only in words, but also in action.”

The government’s campaign primarily targets the president of the syndicate, which emerged last year out of the now-defunct Tunisian Association of Journalist (TAJ). TAJ used to be one of the most critical journalists’ groups in the region before Ben Ali seized power in 1987. Bghouri angered top officials last year when he told local opposition papers that NSTJ would not back any presidential candidate in October elections. TAJ voiced its support for Ben Ali’s candidacy in the presidential elections held in 1994, 1999, and 2004.

CPJ wrote to Ben Ali in March, on the eve of the 53rd anniversary of Tunisia’s independence from France, to urge him to end an ongoing cycle of repression of critical journalists and media outlets. That letter remains unanswered.