Tunisia:A CPJ Briefing

During little more than a decade in power, President Zine Abdine Ben Ali has reduced Tunisia’s once-respectable press to one of the most restricted in the Arab world. On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, CPJ named Ben Ali as one of the world’s 10 worst Enemies of the Press. Tunisian journalists continue to operate in a climate of fear, practicing near-total self-censorship on a host of political and social issues. Indeed, independent-minded journalists over the years have experienced swift government reprisal for their reporting. Attempts to cover such sensitive topics as human rights and the activities or viewpoints of the political opposition have resulted in intimidation, prosecution, and imprisonment of offending journalists. Others have been dismissed from their jobs, denied accreditation, and barred from leaving the country for what authorities perceived as critical coverage. As a result, journalists today avoid criticism of even the most benign political topics, leading to a banal press largely devoid of substantive news coverage.

Since self-censorship has become virtually universal, the government has little cause to actively harass journalists. But when journalists do cross the boundaries of accepted journalism, authorities are quick to respond. On June 18, the Ministry of Interior summoned Taoufik Ben Brik, a correspondent for the Paris-based daily La Croix, following the publication of an article about police harassment. An official accused Ben Brik of writing “subversive” material and urged him to stop working as a journalist.

The local press has not been the only target of state reprisal. This year, authorities maintained their hold on the flow of information, once again banning foreign publications entering the county. The London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, for example, estimates that the paper was banned an average of three to five times a month. Issues of the French-language Le Monde were also confiscated during the year.

Along with its muzzling of the press, the government oversees one of the more sophisticated public relations programs, extolling Ben Ali for his purported human rights achievements. A government-run website, www.amnesty-tunisia.org, proclaims that Tunisia has “distinguish[ed] itself in a striking way by its exemplary work in the domains of Human Rights, freedom of expression and public liberties.” Authorities have gone to even greater lengths to protect their image by banning Internet access to websites that contain information critical of the regime, like that of Amnesty International.

At year’s end, Hamadi Jebali and Abdellah Zouari, journalists with the now-defunct weekly Al-Fajr who have been imprisoned since 1991, remained behind bars.

*This report covers the period January-December 1998

Included are materials on Tunisia’s ongoing repression of the press: