Tunisia:A Decade of Stifling the Press

On May 3, 1999, World Press Freedom Day, the Committee to Protect Journalists, for the second consecutive year, named Tunisian President Zine Abdine Ben Ali as one of the world’s top 10 Enemies of the Press. Since ousting strongman Habib Bourguiba from power in 1987, Ben Ali has helped to transform Tunisia’s press into one of the most restricted in the Arab world while overseeing one of the most sophisticated police states in the region.
Tunisian journalists who struggled during Bourguiba’s presidency to maintain a modicum of independence have seen their hopes dashed under Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule. Gripped by fear, the press is hobbled by self-censorship and devoid of substantive news and information. Although private newspapers exist, they avoid meaningful social or political commentary for fear of swift reprisal from authorities. Tunisian journalists who dare to veer from a path of strict self-censorship and have reported on such sensitive topics as human rights and the activities or viewpoints of the political opposition have been dismissed from their jobs, denied accreditation, or 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 or 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. At the same time, both private and state papers have eagerly engaged in smear campaigns against political opposition figures and human rights activists, often depicting them as “sex maniacs,” “traitors,” or “agents” serving the interests of foreign states.

One of the few Tunisian journalists to defy the authorities in recent years is Taoufik Ben Brik, who works as a correspondent for several European newspapers including the Paris-based daily La Croix. Ben Brik has been the frequent target of harassment for his coverage of sensitive domestic issues. He has been prevented from leaving the country and interrogated by authorities about his reporting. In January, his wife’s automobile was vandalized by a group of thugs, and his telephone lines have been regularly interrupted.

Foreign correspondents have also experienced the Tunisian government’s intolerance for independent coverage of domestic issues. Since 1991, four have been expelled from the country as a result of their reporting. Authorities have threatened to expel correspondents or close their news agencies’ offices to discourage unwanted news coverage.

Authorities have also systematically censored foreign publications entering the country. Hundreds of editions of newspapers such as the French-language Le Mondeand Liberation and the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi have been banned for their unfavorable coverage of Tunisia. And authorities, according to Tunisian journalists, have blocked access to websites–including those of CPJ and Amnesty International–offering information critical of the country’s dismal rights record.

Indicative of the overall climate for the press, the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers decided on June 4, 1997, to expel the Tunisian Association of Newspaper Editors for its failure to condemn government violations of press freedom.

Despite the woeful state of press freedom in Tunisia, U.S. politicians and government officials frequently downplay the country’s human rights violations and stress its role as a strong regional ally and as a model for economic development. During a recent trip by a U.S. congressional delegation to Tunis, Congressman Earl Hilliard (D-Alabama) was quoted as saying that President Ben Ali is a statesman who has “done a tremendous job in Tunisia and who is well respected back home as well as here in the Arab world.”

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