Attacks on the Press 2010: Tunisia

Top Developments
• Targeting journalists, government criminalizes contact with foreign organizations.
• Private broadcast licenses are controlled by Ben Ali’s family and friends.

Key Statistic
5: Years of imprisonment for violations of new law barring contact with foreign groups.

Tunisia remained one of the region’s most repressive nations even as it sought to project an image of liberalism and modernity. The government of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali jailed at least three journalists during the year, one of whom remained in custody when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1. Vague new legislation targeted critical journalists and human rights defenders by criminalizing international communications that the government deemed harmful to its interests.


Main Index
Middle East and North Africa:
Suppression Under the
Cover of National Security

Country Summaries
Israel and the Occupied
Palestinian Territory

Other nations

Under the measure, an amendment to the penal code, Tunisians were barred from having “contacts with agents of a foreign power or a foreign organization with a view to inciting them to harm the vital interests” of Tunisia or its “economic security,” the official Tunis Afrique Presse reported. Violations were punishable by up to five years in prison. The Chamber of Deputies, largely controlled by Ben Ali’s ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, passed the measure on June 15 and the president quickly signed it into law. CPJ condemned the legislation, saying its broad language allowed the government to punish anyone who reported critical information of international interest.

Passage of the law, in fact, came just as Tunisian human rights defenders had stepped up their advocacy with the European Union. They had urged the EU not to grant Tunisia advanced status unless the government took concrete steps toward improving its human rights record, particularly in regard to its long-standing efforts to silence dissent. Advanced status would enable Tunisia’s gradual integration into EU markets. The EU did not publicly react to the passage of the restrictive amendment to the penal code, and talks over advanced status continued in late year. Under pressure from France and Italy, which have close ties to Tunisia, the EU was expected to eventually grant Tunisia advanced status.

The government’s hard-line tactics were reflected in the imprisonment of Fahem Boukadous, correspondent for the satellite-television station Al-Hiwar Al-Tunisi. Authorities jailed Boukadous in July after an appeals court upheld a conviction stemming from his coverage of violent labor protests in the Gafsa mining region in 2008. Sentenced to a four-year prison term on charges of “belonging to a criminal association” and spreading materials “likely to harm public order,” he was taken into custody a day after he left a hospital in Sousse, where he was treated for acute asthma. Family and colleagues expressed great concern about the well-being of the journalist, who waged a hunger strike in October to protest his detention.

The U.S. State Department criticized the harsh verdict and the “decline in political freedoms in Tunisia.” The Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that the U.S. concerns were based on “false information,” and that “freedoms” have been strengthened “both in theory and practice” under Ben Ali. The Tunisian government has employed an ongoing tactic of flatly denying press freedom abuses, CPJ research shows.

Its repressive practices, though, were evident. In March, police ordered journalists not to attend a scheduled press conference at which Human Rights Watch planned to release a report on Tunisian political prisoners. The press conference had been moved to a law office after several Tunis hotels, at the direction of Tunisian authorities, refused to host the event, local sources told CPJ. At least four journalists told CPJ that police physically prevented them from meeting with the human rights organization.

Two journalists imprisoned for their work, Zouhair Makhlouf and Taoufik Ben Brik, were released during the year. Makhlouf, a contributor to the Tunisian news website Assabil Online, served more than three months in prison on charges of “harming and disturbing others through public communications,” which stemmed from his reporting on pollution in the industrial areas of Nabeul. Ben Brik, a harsh critic of the administration, served six months in prison on assault charges that CPJ concluded were fabricated in reprisal for his work.

Critical journalists faced harsh retaliation even after they were released from custody, CPJ research showed. Slim Boukhdhir, a blogger and freelance journalist, was released in 2008 after serving eight months in prison on a fabricated charge of assaulting a government employee and breaching “public morality standards.” But freedom was relative for Boukhdhir, whose movements were severely restricted; police seized his national identification card in 2009, and authorities ignored his repeated applications for a passport. Four Tunisian journalists exiled in France told CPJ in June that Tunis authorities had refused to renew their passports, thus restricting their movements. One of the journalists, Slim Bagga, editor of the now-defunct opposition monthly L’Audace, said he had also received anonymous death threats by phone and mail.

Authorities continued to block domestic access to the independent news site Kalima, and they harassed journalists working for the outlet. Mouldi Zouabi, a correspondent, faced assault charges in October that his lawyer said had been fabricated. Kalima co-founder Sihem Bensedrine, in exile in Spain, remained under official investigation for alleged broadcasting violations concerning the site’s online radio component. As in the past, pro-government media outlets targeted Bensedrine with smears, CPJ research found.

Kalima and Radio 6, another Internet radio station, had applied several times for broadcasting licenses, but to no avail. Private broadcasting licenses have been granted solely to Ben Ali’s family and friends since the government began considering applications in 2003, CPJ research showed. In September, the president’s daughter, Cyrine Ben Ali Mabrouk, launched an FM station called Chems. “I am confident that this radio will contribute to developing the national media landscape, in light of our decision to open up the audio-visual field to the private sector so that it contributes to enriching and diversifying the Tunisian media scene and improving its performance,” Ben Ali said in a congratulatory message to Chems.

The greatest beneficiary of the licensing has been the president’s son-in-law, Sakhr Materi. Since his marriage to Nesrine Ben Ali in 2004, Materi has been granted licenses to launch Zitouna Radio and Zitouna TV; in 2009, he also took control of the leading private media conglomerate Dar Assabah, which publishes two dailies and two weeklies. In October, the government granted a broadcast license to Mourad Gueddiche, son of Mohamed Gueddiche, Ben Ali’s adviser and medical doctor, to establish a private radio station called Express FM.

Opposition journalists faced ongoing harassment. Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, managing editor of the opposition weekly Al-Mawkif, waged a hunger strike in September to protest government pressure being exerted on his printing contractor. Such pressure delayed production of a September issue that carried several stories critical of the government. Among them was a front-page piece detailing the theft in Paris of documents and other belongings from Al-Jazeera producer Ahmed Mansour. The journalist had traveled to the French capital to interview Ahmed Bennour, a former Tunisian official who had been Ben Ali’s supervisor before the 1987 coup.

Many independent and opposition journalists told CPJ that their e-mails were routinely monitored and their international phone calls impeded. The Tunisia Monitoring Group, a coalition of 20 organizations under the umbrella of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, published a report in June titled, “Behind the Façade: How a Politicized Judiciary and Administrative Sanctions Undermine Tunisian Human Rights,” which included a sampling of websites blocked in Tunisia. The monitoring group, which had conducted seven fact-finding missions to Tunisia since 2005, described a “dire” climate for free expression in which critical reporters were regularly harassed, applications for independent newspapers and radio stations ignored, and online new sites consistently censored. It noted that at least 30 international and local news, human rights, and political websites were blocked domestically.

CPJ website pages concerning Tunisia were disabled within the country, local journalists said, noting that similar, selective blocking was seen on other news and human rights websites. The website of the new Tunisian Observatory for Union Rights and Freedoms was blocked in October immediately after its launch.