Area: 163,610 sq. km.
Head of state: President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali
Tunisia’s media are like the election results - 94.48 per cent of them vote for President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In other words, they are official media, docile and subservient to the government. It is a cruel irony that Tunisia will host the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005. The "Tunisian model" cares about appearances and the official media include many French and Arabic-language newspapers, but the news is all the same. Radio and TV supposedly opened up to the private sector in 2003, but in practice they are reserved for the government’s close associates and for entertainment. No politics please.
President Ben Ali was so busy rewarding an 11-year-old Tunisian who was taekwondo junior world champion in Seoul that he forget to mark World Press Freedom Day this year. But Ben Ali, the recipient of the Association of Tunisian Journalists’ Golden Pen award in 2003, had said this to his country’s press corps on 3 May 2000: "Write! That would at least allow us to find something to read. And if someone gives you a hard time, or if someone tries to interfere with your work, let me know, and I will take appropriate action. But please do not hide behind unthinking fear or self-censorship."
Nonetheless, the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) issued a report entitled "Media under Surveillance" in May 2004 accusing the authorities of keeping all possible spaces for expression "under lock" including websites, to which access is either "monitored or banned."
In office for the past 17 years, President Ben Ali was able to get re-elected to a fourth, five-year mandate on 24 October 2004 thanks to a constitutional amendment. Tunisia’s 4.6 million voters did not have the right to any independent news or information throughout the election campaign. The information they were offered in the media was mutilated, partial and pompous.
The Tunisian media work in a strait-jacket. The press code stipulates heavy fines or prison sentences for the author of any overly critical article or comment. A new anti-terrorism law adopted in December 2003 imposed additional limitations on free expression and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. The authorities boast that Tunisia has 245 privately-owned newspapers and magazines, but most of them are owned by associates of the presidential clan and privately-owned does not mean independent.
Repressive laws, bureaucratic harassment, the withdrawal of state advertising, corruption, police violence, political trials and torture are all common practices that have been condemned by human rights organizations. Self-censorship has become second nature for journalists confronted by a brutal and ubiquitous apparatus of repression.
When Tunisia was hit by the worst rain and flooding in a century in December 2003 and January 2004, journalists in both state and privately-owned media concentrated on describing how farmers would benefit and made no mention of the flood damage or the plight of those living in the stricken areas. "It’s insane to censor reports on the flooding as no one would have thought of blaming the authorities for a natural disaster," said lawyer Mokhtar Trifi, the LTDH’s president.
In an unprecedented action, journalist with the main official French-language daily La Presse wrote an open letter in 2004 to Prime Minister Mohamed Ghanouchi to complain about censorship. "There is total confusion at the newspaper. The journalists no longer know what is publishable and what is not," the letter said, citing 18 explicit bans including one on "publishing photos of John Kerry, the Democratic candidate in the US presidential election."
The opening-up of Tunisia’s broadcast sector, announced with great fanfare at the end of 2003, gave birth to just one privately-owned radio station, Mosaïque FM, which just has music programmes. In practice, there is a complete lock on the news media. Even the US station, Radio Sawa, which is tolerated by several governments in the Middle East and in Morocco, is banned in Tunisia despite the insistent requests of the US authorities. In February 2004, the government accepted a proposal by wealthy entrepreneur Larbi Nasra to launch a satellite TV station targeted a young people, to be called Hannibal TV and costing about 15 million dinars (10 million euros). Nasra said there was no intention to include news initially as it could not compete with Al-Jazeera (which is banned in Tunisia). "There would be no point offering mediocre news programmes with reports that were neither credible or verified," Nasra said, disputing the existence of censorship in Tunisia. He added, "I have confidence in our political system and our authorities. They would never harm anyone who respects the law."
A journalist released
Abdallah Zouari, 48, a journalist who wrote for the independent Islamist newspaper Al-Farj, was released on 10 September after serving a 13-month sentence for libel and for violating an administrative order banishing him to the south-eastern town of Zarzis. Originally imposed upon his release from prison in June 2002 after completing an earlier, 11-year sentence, the order remained in force after his second release. His wife and four children, who live in Tunis, were regularly summoned by the police and harassed.
Police and judicial harassment
Meetings held by organizations and political parties (recognized and clandestine) in support of press freedom on 19 February and 27 March were violently dispersed by the police. The demonstrators tried twice to hand in a letter to the head of the state radio and TV broadcaster requesting airtime for civil society representatives.
The Tunis appeal court on 28 February upheld the sentence of eight months in prison (suspended) and a fine of 1,200 dinars (800 euros) imposed by a lower court on journalist Om Zied of the online independent weekly Kalima.com for currency and customs violations. Zied (whose real name is Néziha Réjiba) had been summoned by the customs investigation department on 25 September 2003 and taken to task for giving a young Tunisian 170 euros in euros shortly after returning from a trip abroad. But Zied had not broken any currency regulations as Tunisians are allowed a week to change foreign currency back into dinars after travelling outside the country. Zied’s lawyers had said the charges were politically motivated, and Zied had refused to attend what she said would be mock trial. As a result, she had been tried in absentia.
Kalima is still banned. Journalist Sihem Bensedrine again tried to file a declaration for registering and publishing the magazine with the interior ministry on 13 January but officials again refused to give her the receipt which printers must see before they will print a newspaper or magazine. This was the third time she has tried to file registration papers for Kalima since 1999. A home-made, hard-copy version is produced intermittently and circulated clandestinely inside Tunisia. The online version is on a foreign-based website but is not always accessible from within Tunisia.