Since Zine Abdine Ben Ali assumed the presidency nearly 10 years ago, the Tunisian press has become among the most restricted in the Arab world. Journalists who exhibit any independence in this police state suffer censorship, harassment, and imprisonment. The result is a climate of fear for local and foreign journalists, resulting in widespread self-censorship on a variety of social and political issues.

Although private newspapers exist, they avoid meaningful social or political commentary for fear of state reprisal. In recent years, the state has actively targeted journalists and newspapers critical of official policies—part of its all-out assault on political opposition groups. Attempts to report on such sensitive topics as human rights and the activities or viewpoints of the political opposition have provoked swift official responses, including the prosecution, imprisonment, and intimidation of reporters. Journalists have been dismissed from their jobs, denied accreditation, or have been prevented from leaving the country. The state has also exerted economic pressure on newspapers it deems undesirable by withholding vital revenue-producing advertising. As a result of these policies, Tunisian authorities have little reason to actively harass and censor journalists; privately owned newspapers refrain from reporting on even the most benign political issues and have become virtual carbon copies of the state-controlled press on policy issues.

Foreign correspondents have also experienced the Tunisian government’s intolerance for independent coverage of domestic issues. Since 1991, four correspondents have been expelled from the country as a result of their reporting. One of them, BBC correspondent Alfred Hermida, was expelled in February 1994 for his coverage of Tunisian human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, who was then a self-declared candidate for president. Authorities have used threats of expulsion against correspondents or the closure of their news agencies’ offices to discourage unwanted news coverage.

Beyond intimidation, authorities have maintained their control over the flow of information through systematic censorship of foreign publications entering the country. Since 1994, newspapers such as the French-language Le Monde and Liberation have been subjected to distribution bans on numerous occasions for their unfavorable coverage of Tunisia. In 1997, CPJ documented distribution bans of at least 37 issues of Le Monde. The London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, meanwhile, estimates that the paper was banned an average of five to seven times a month for what it believed was the paper’s coverage of topics such as the activities of Islamist groups in Algeria and Egypt.

The World Association of Newspapers on June 4 decided to expel the Tunisian Association of Newspaper Editors—formerly one of the most independent press associations in the Arab world in the 1970s and 1980s—for its failure to speak out against government violations of press freedom.

Two journalists remain in prison: Hamadi Jebali and Abdellah Zouari of the now-defunct weekly Al-Fajr, which was closed by authorities in February 1991 after repeated harassment by authorities. Jebali, the newspaper’s editor, was arrested in January 1991 and sentenced to one year in prison under the country’s press law for a news article published in Al-Fajr condemning the government’s use of military courts against civilians. During Jebali’s imprisonment, a second case was raised against him, Zouari, and 279 other people accused of being members of the Islamist Al-Nahda movement. On August 28, 1992, a military court sentenced Jebali and Zouari to 16 years and 11 years in prison, respectively, for their alleged membership in an illegal organization and "attempting to change the nature of the state." According to international human rights organizations, their trial fell far short of international fair-trial standards, and in the cases of Jebali and Zouari, the state failed to present credible evidence, relying instead on the journalists’ association with Al-Fajr.

In separate letters sent to Tunisian President Zine Abdine Ben Ali and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright on August 27, the eve of the bicentennial of U.S.-Tunisian diplomatic relations, CPJ called for joint government efforts to end the Tunisian government’s ongoing harassment of the press.