• Government engineers ouster of independent journalist union leaders.
• Two journalists are jailed in retaliation for critical reporting.
97: Percentage of newspaper campaign coverage that was devoted to President Ben Ali.
President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was re-elected to a fifth term with 90 percent of the vote amid severe restrictions on independent reporting. Ben Ali’s government went after the country’s journalist union, bringing down its democratically elected board, while his police bullied and harassed critical reporters. Two journalists, one of them a leading critic of the president, were in jail in late year.
THE PRESS: 2009
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The election appeared predetermined. Ben Ali faced three obscure candidates, two of whom said they actually supported the incumbent. No independent observer was allowed to monitor the October 25 vote. Ben Ali received an astonishing 97 percent of print media coverage, according to a survey by five local human rights groups. Nevertheless, Ben Ali assailed a “tiny minority” of Tunisians for “waging a desperate campaign with a number of foreign journalists, so as to cast doubt upon the outcome of elections.”
Florence Beaugé, a correspondent for the French daily Le Monde, tried to cover the polling but was put on a flight back to Paris on October 21. Government sources quoted by Agence France-Presse said she was denied entry because she had “always adopted an obvious malevolence toward Tunisia and systematically took hostile positions.” Two days later, Le Monde was informed by Tunisian authorities that the daily and its sister publications were indefinitely banned in the country. The paper’s Web site was accessible, but links to critical articles about Tunisia were disabled.
The independent news site Kalima, which is blocked domestically, was targeted throughout October. Kalima journalists were detained by police for several hours after taking pictures of campaign scenes in the northern city of Tabarka without authorization from the state-run Tunisia External Communication Agency. (Established in the early 1990s to promote the regime’s image abroad, the agency has gradually taken charge of media accreditation, photo authorization, and official advertising distribution.) Plainclothes police roughed up Kalima editor and founder Sihem Bensedrine and prevented her from taking part in a workshop concerning coverage of the campaign, she told CPJ. Agents also assaulted Moez el-Bey, a contributor to Kalima and the opposition weekly al-Mawkif in the southern city of Sfax, and confiscated his equipment.
In November, CPJ honored Naziha Réjiba, a fellow Kalima editor and founder, with a 2009 International Press Freedom Award. “I am neither a hero nor a victim, but a journalist who wishes to work under normal conditions,” she told a crowd of hundreds who gathered in New York for the award ceremony. “The degree of repression in Tunisia is such that it transforms normal activities into something exceptional.”
That repression includes censorship, assaults, and detentions. On October 10, authorities seized an issue of the weekly Al-Tariq al-Jadeed, owned by the opposition Al-Tajdeed Movement, for “violating the electoral code” after the paper published the platform of its candidate, Ahmed Ibrahim, the movement said in a statement.
Slim Boukhdhir, a journalist long persecuted for his criticism of Ben Ali, said he was kidnapped near his Tunis home just hours after he gave a post-election interview to the BBC. Four men forced him into a car, beat him, stripped him of his clothes, and took his wallet and cell phone. The assailants dumped him, covered in bruises, in a public park, Boukhdhir told CPJ. The attack was reminiscent of a 2008 episode in which Boukhdhir was briefly abducted—in that instance, shortly after he wrote about then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s criticism of Tunisian press policies. Boukhdhir had also been jailed for eight months beginning in 2007 after writing articles critical of Ben Ali.
Two writers were in jail when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1. Taoufik Ben Brik, a contributor to several European media outlets and one of Ben Ali’s top critics, was arrested in late October and later sentenced to six months in prison on trumped-up charges of assault, property damage, defamation, and violating public morality, according to CPJ interviews and news reports. Ben Brik was not brought to the Tunis court when the verdict was issued, according to his wife, Azza Zarrad. His lawyers and family were prevented from visiting him for several days before the court hearing, she said.
Zuhair Makhlouf, a political activist and contributor to Assabil Online, a Tunisian news Web site, was arrested on October 20 and charged with “harming and disturbing others through the public communication network.” He was arrested after taking pictures and writing an article about pollution in the industrial areas of Nabeul, south of Tunis. He was sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay 6,000 dinars (US$4,700) in damages.
Tunisia has a well-developed telecommunications system and high Internet penetration, but the government conducts pervasive filtering of content, according to research published in August 2009 by OpenNet Initiative, an academic collaboration that studies online censorship. The government extensively censors Web sites devoted to human rights and the political opposition, along with sites critical of government policies, research by OpenNet and CPJ shows. Prominent video-sharing sites such as YouTube were also blocked, OpenNet noted, “apparently because Tunisian activists used them to disseminate content critical of the regime’s human rights practices.” The state-run Tunisian Internet Agency also blocked links to online reviews of La Régente de Carthage, a book by French journalists that was critical of Tunisia’s first lady. This pervasive filtering of Internet content—along with extensive monitoring and blocking of e-mail traffic—propelled Tunisia onto CPJ’s list of the 10 Worst Countries to Be a Blogger.
Mohamed Abbou, a formerly imprisoned blogger and human rights lawyer, was placed under constant police surveillance and subjected to a smear campaign in government-backed newspapers beginning in mid-year. Abbou had given interviews to European media and Al-Jazeera in which he described his 36 months in prison, denounced police torture, and criticized the government’s use of the courts to settle scores, according to local human rights groups. Two other formerly imprisoned journalists, Abdallah Zouari and Hamadi Jebali, told CPJ that they, too, were under tight police surveillance. The journalists, colleagues at the now-defunct Islamist weekly Al-Fajr, had both served long prison terms on vague antistate charges.
The government helped engineer the ouster of the elected leaders of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, a professional organization that had been considered independent. The syndicate’s leadership had drawn authorities’ ire by issuing a report in May critical of press freedom conditions, and later refusing to endorse Ben Ali or any other candidate for president. With the backing of the Ministry of Communications, pro-government syndicate members circulated a petition of no-confidence in the leadership.
Neji Bghouri, then syndicate president, told CPJ that a number of journalists had been intimidated or threatened with loss of employment if they did not join the petition. “Privately owned media are pressuring their journalists to sign the petition for fear of being deprived of public support and advertising revenue,” he told CPJ at the time. The Tunisia External Communication Agency selectively distributes official advertising to outlets aligned with the government, CPJ research shows.
In August, the syndicate’s leaders were replaced at a meeting stacked with pro-government members. The first order of business for the reconstituted syndicate was sending a message of allegiance to Ben Ali for his “sustained keenness on further promoting the Tunisian media landscape.” The new leadership ignored attacks on press freedom, among them an October police raid at the Tunis offices of Internet Radio 6 and the confiscation of the station’s broadcasting equipment, journalists told CPJ.
Ownership of private broadcast media was dominated by Ben Ali’s relatives and close friends, a situation the Tunisian Syndicate of Free Radio Stations condemned in October as a “policy of cronyism.” Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Sakhr Materi, established a religious radio broadcaster called Ezzeitouna in 2007 and was given approval to set up a television station under the same name, according to news reports. In April, Materi also took control of Dar Assabah, the oldest and one of the most important privately owned print media groups in the country. Most privately owned media outlets continuously praised Ben Ali’s leadership and attacked his critics.
CPJ wrote twice to Ben Ali in 2009 to urge him to end attacks on journalists and to bring his government’s practices in line with standards outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon noted that “acts of reprisal against critical journalism are routine, systematic, and continue unabated.” He added: “The failure to protect freedom of expression is all the more disheartening because Tunisia was among the first countries in the region to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and to do so without reservations.”