Global Journalist

The Tunisian Illusion

For economic observers, Tunisia is a model to follow. Its economic performance generally surpasses its neighbors and gains constant praise from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as it is “making impressive progress in its reform agenda, and its prospects are favorable.”

But underneath the country’s perceived economic success lies a series of dysfunctional institutions. Those have often been purposely stifled by the regime and the governing elites to eliminate opposition and undermine democracy and accountability.

Established opposition parties are irrelevant in the Tunisian political landscape, and so is the national media, which has long been subdued and brought to its knees by an overbearing president and a severe enforcement apparatus at every level of society. Journalists in Tunisia are either employees integrated into the state propaganda machine or are subject to continuous harassment and intimidation if they happen to demonstrate independent thinking.

News and analyses emanating from the Tunisian media and the foreign press that maintain a bureau or a correspondent in the country are always stunningly positive. When reading most, if not all, of the press reports from Tunisia, positive perceptions and upbeat statements dominate.

This phenomenon does not just affect political stories, as is the case in Morocco where criticism of the monarchy is a punishable offense, but criticism of the executive branch is tolerated. Or in neighboring Algeria where the press has gained more independence than anywhere in the region, albeit an extremely fragile one.

In Tunisia, this phenomenon extends beyond politics to the most mundane pieces of news including commodity exports, expatriate remittances, foreign tourist entries and similar non-regime-threatening news tidbits. Data reported by the press shows in most cases growth, positive economic performance and social stability. Reporting otherwise could underscore economic weakness, a situation the Ben Ali regime will not tolerate.

Crackdown on Independent Thinking

This reporting phenomenon is indicative of a state of fear that has been imposed on reporters in Tunisia and of the difficulties facing honest and ethical journalists to break the stalemate. This is coupled with the proliferation of sub-standard journalism and reporting practiced by state-trained bureaucrats who value propaganda over independent thinking. Since Ben Ali rose to power in 1987, reporters who tried to do their job have been repeatedly attacked by the regime.

The hard-line stance of the Ben Ali regime was first justified as a need to deter Islamist activists who reportedly sought to introduce Sharia law and potentially topple secular regimes. A later justification was to avoid a repeat of the events in Algeria: Confrontation between the government and the Islamists turned into an open takeover by the military, resulting in a devastating civil war.

Unsurprisingly, one of the first noticeable media harassments in Tunisia was that of pro-religious party newspaper editor Hamadi Jebali. Jebali’s reporting style was controversial and politicized, given his affiliation with the banned Islamist Nahda party. Although in prison since the early 1990s, Jebali’s case did not generate widespread passion among defenders of journalists, precisely because of his religious leaning.

In contrast, the case of journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who went on a hunger strike while in jail, attracted significantly more attention in the French media, and worldwide support was nearly instantaneous.

Other high-profile incidents followed, including that of Sihem Bensedrine. An active journalist, passionate on political issues, Bensedrine became a focal point of the Ben Ali regime when she established an independent watchdog organization in 1998 called the Conseil National pour les Libertés en Tunisie (National Council on Liberties in Tunisia). Her militancy in that organization and in the press brought her mounting harassment and intimidation from the country’s police and security services, which culminated in an arrest in 2001. Subsequently, Bensedrine became a public image of the Tunisians who fight for press freedom. She has been the recipient of numerous awards in Europe and North America.

In addition to Ben Brik and Bensedrine, the Tunisian security system had to deal with a series of other cases against a number of reporters who refused to toe the line to the Ben Ali regime, including the outspoken Abdallah Zouari, who was jailed in 1991 and then was sent 12 years later into forced exile in the Sahara. There are myriad other cases.

Sustained Persecution

While many high-impact violations of press freedom occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, more recent years have also witnessed sustained stalking and persecution of independent journalists, as well as the foreign press. And although the Internet was expected to bring a proliferation of cost-effective media to the masses, the burgeoning Tunisian independent online press was quickly brought under government control, using, once again, a legal arsenal to maintain control, from independent reporting all the way to simple debate.

Among the most recent developments is the assault on Bensedrine in January 2004 by alleged police officers after she applied for a permit to launch a magazine. Her request was denied so she turned to the Internet as a publishing medium. Foreign print newspapers, which carry independent op-eds from the likes of Ben Brik and others, are routinely banned from circulation in Tunisia. Such newspapers include the Paris-based daily newspaper Le Monde or the weekly publication Le Nouvel Observateur.

In the approach to the 2009 presidential elections in October, further action against the press and journalists has been escalating and is likely to sustain until next winter. Such anti-press offense is affecting not only the written press, but also extends from radio and television to the Internet.

The radio station Kalima, for example, is the latest victim of an overzealous security apparatus and a paranoid regime. One of its journalists, Faten Hamdi, was taken into police custody and questioned about the station’s messages and editorial policy. In late January, Radio Kalima was abruptly shut down by authorities.

Tunisia’s media watchdog Observatoire pour la Liberté de Presse, d’Edition et de Création reported that three journalists of Al Hiwar El Tounissi television station, Aymen Rezgui, Amina Jabloun and Badr Essalam Trabelsi were also rounded up by police in February for what authorities called their “work for an illegal station.”

The offense on the print media remains unabated. Ettarik Al-Jadid magazine was seized in January after publishing an article about the police questioning of a political opposition leader ahead of the coming presidential elections.

Controlling New Media

Despite promises of wider access to news and information, the Internet has been particularly and aggressively targeted by the Tunisian regime. Dozens of Internet sites that feature opinion pieces on democracy and governance, including tunisnew.net, nawaat.org, and dozens more, are blocked by authorities. Many of these banned sites are listed on various web pages for reference purposes, such as Tuniezine.com, created by the late Zouhair Yahyaoui who spent time in jail until his release in early 2005.

Blocking Internet sites has been a constant feature of the anti-free speech environment, and that is so pervasive in Tunisia. The country’s anti-press activities are in stark contrast to the significant progress achieved in technology. This is an ironic position because more technology means more ubiquitous access. Although access is being blocked today, it remains to be seen how the Tunisian regime will be able to keep up with technological innovation in an attempt to block dissensions.

Indeed, in a world of advanced social networks, the Tunisian government continues to find ways to block sites that foster communication and dialogue. Sites such as Youtube.com or dailymotion.com, which use audio-visual platforms generated from cell phones and digital cameras, have been on Ben Ali’s radar screen and subject to IP bans.

A frequently discussed case is the ban on social media site Facebook. For more than 10 days, the Tunisian government made a drastic error to block Facebook. This event has stirred passion among tens of thousands of Tunisians. The public reaction forced the Ben Ali regime to reverse course. In late August, nearly 30,000 Tunisians seeking to join their Facebook network were shocked to see that their attempts were banned.

The Ben Ali regime perceive Facebook and other social networks as high-security risks because ideas could emerge out of government control. Given the pace at which Tunisians are joining Facebook, some expect the number of subscribers to reach the 100,000 mark by mid-year. And with the elections scheduled for October this year, such a figure could be politically disruptive as it accounts for 10 percent of the nation’s population.

President-for-life

The outlook for press freedom in Tunisia remains negative and rather bleak. The current political and military leader, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, forced a constitutional amendment that would enable him to run for another term. This means the idea of a President-for-life is now more a reality than ever before. In such an environment, Ben Ali will not have a sudden change on the press he perceives. As with many Arab leaders, there is very little appetite for independent thinking and even less interest in press freedom.

In addition, pressure from Western nations may diminish. The economic turmoil facing Europe and North America will keep Western governments busy with internal problems and distracted from remote issues including the state of the press in Tunisia. In the near future, press freedom in the North African nation is unlikely to emerge from the abyss.

In a long term, however, technological innovation may change the way Tunisians communicate and exchange ideas, although such a transition is likely to be gradual at best.

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