Against a background of debate about a fourth mandate (proscribed by the constitution) for Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in the presidential elections of 2004, the year 2001 was characterised by repression. The master of Carthage, destabilised by criticism expressed publicly by several personalities of the establishment, cracked down even harder on opponents. Assisted in this task by a formidable police force (130,000 agents), he repeatedly attacked human rights activists, opposition leaders and journalists throughout the year.
These opponents, unable to express themselves within the country, nevertheless found an unhoped-for mouthpiece for their ideas: Al Mustakillah. With its leading programme "Le Grand Maghreb", this London-based Arabic television channel directed by a Tunisian, Mohammed Elhachmi, has managed to empty the streets every Sunday afternoon. To counteract the growing popularity of the channel, considered to be "harmful" to Tunisia, public sector television organised, for the first time ever, two televised debates on democracy and human rights! The new minister in charge of human rights and communication, Slaheddine Maâoui, has tried a number of times, in vain, to show the Tunisian authorities’ determination to improve freedom of expression in the country.
The media scene remains unchanged. Even if a few titles have dared to publish some criticism of the government, the majority have encouraged Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to stand again in the 2004 presidential elections. The April reform to the press code disappointed many journalists who were hoping for "an end to the existing paradox of official liberal discourse and continued censorship".
The same journalists also asked for the lifting of restrictions on "a number" of their confreres "banned from practising their profession". In the past few years many journalists have had to work for the foreign press, to create on-line newspapers or even to go into exile because unable to practise in their own country. Sihem Bensedrine, managing editor of the on-line newspaper Kalima, was jailed for several weeks in the summer after being subjected to various forms of pressure. Although Taoufik Ben Brik, who went on a hunger strike in April 2000, was not directly intimidated, his family was pressurised. Two journalists with Islamist leanings have been in jail since 1992 and a third has been living underground since 1998.
Control over the means of communication, including the Internet, was again stepped up in 2001. All access to sites judged "dangerous", whether they are Tunisian or French and belong to newspapers or human rights organisations, are blocked by "information police". Message services are treated likewise, telephone lines are regularly cut and post is opened.
Three journalists jailed
Two journalists of Islamist persuasion have been in jail since 1992. Hamadi Jebali, managing editor of the weekly Al Fajr, the unofficial organ of the Islamist movement Ennahda, was sentenced by the Tunis military court to 16 years’ imprisonment for "agression with the intention to change the nature of the state" and "membership of an illegal organisation". Shortly before that the journalist had served a one-year jail sentence for publishing an article criticising the system of military courts.
Abdellah Zouari, also with Al Fajr, was arrested on 12 April 1991 and sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment for "membership of an illegal organisation". The two journalists were tried on 28 August 1992 along with 277 members of the Ennahda movement, for being involved in an "Islamist plot". This trial failed to meet international standards of fairness and was characterised by vague indictments, torture, arbitrary detention, limited access to lawyers, and so on. Since then Hamadi Jebali and Abdellah Zouari have been detained in difficult conditions: overcrowded cells, lack of medication, obstacles to family visits, pressure on lawyers, etc.
Sihem Bensedrine, managing editor of the on-line magazine Kalima and spokesperson for the CNLT, the Council for Freedom in Tunisia, was arrested on 26 June at Carthage airport on her return from France. She was taken to the Manouba women’s prison in Tunis. A few days earlier the journalist had appeared on the programme "Le Grand Maghreb" on the London-based television channel Al Mustakillah.
On that occasion she had discussed corruption, torture and the judiciary’s lack of independence in Tunisia. She was charged with "libel" and "undermining the judiciary" and released on parole on 11 August. On 1 January 2002 her trial had still not opened.
A journalist attacked
On 3 February 2001 Jalel Zoghlami, managing editor of the monthly Kaws el Karama (not recognised by the authorities), was assaulted by a man in the street who hit him on the head with an iron bar. Three days later the journalist and his friends were assaulted by plainclothes policemen outside his home. Some of them were injured. At the same time about 100 plainclothes policemen blocked the road.
Due to these incidents, the journalist decided to go on a hunger strike. Kaws el Karama had been launched a few days earlier at the home of Taoufik Ben Brik, Jalel Zoghlami’s brother. The first issue of Kaws el Karama had run the headlines "Ben Ali, 13 years, that’s enough!".
Pressure and obstruction
Hamma Hammami, managing editor of El Badil and leader of the POCT (Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party), has been living underground since February 1998. After being sentenced, along with his editor-in-chief, to two and a half years in jail in 1992 for "spreading false news", he was again convicted in August 1999 for "maintaining an inauthorized party". He was sentenced in his absence to nine years and three months in jail. In 2001 police intensified surveillance of his wife, advocate Radhia Nasraoui, his three daughters and other members of his family, who are regularly victims of intimidation.
On 12 January 2001, without any explanation, the authorities seized the 198th issue of the weekly El Mawkif which contained articles on recent trials of human rights activists. El Mawkif, the organ of the legal opposition PDP, the progressive democratic party, is the only opposition newspaper deprived, because of its independent standpoint, of government subsidies and advertising allocated by the state and public-sector or para-state businesses.
While four members of Reporters Without Borders were distributing copies of Kaws el Karama on 21 February in the centre of Tunis, about ten plainclothes policemen grabbed the copies of the monthly form them and confiscated the organisation’s video camera. General secretary Robert Ménard and another member of Reporters Without Borders were taken to the airport and expelled.
In March the fortnightly Salama, published in Paris, was banned. In one of the articles a journalist had highlighted "the limits of Tunisians’ freedom of expression". In the following month, the 6 April edition of the French daily Le Monde was seized. The full-page article on Tunisia, headed "Tunisian opposition growing slowly but surely", addressed the question of human rights. The minister in charge of human rights and communication, Slaheddine Maâoui, said: "We have to free information from its shackles, so that it can stop being insipid. We have to open up to interviews, to different opinions, to discussions about ideas".
On 30 April a law amending the press code was passed. Despite the abolition of the offence "libel against public order", the offence "libel against public office, the army, constituent bodies and public administrations" are still liable to a jail sentence of between one and three years. The amendment simply transferred articles concerning libel to the penal code, thus extending prescription periods from six to three years.
In May 2001 the inquiry into the attempted murder of Riadh ben Fadhel, former editor-in-chief of the Arabic version of Le Monde diplomatique, had still not reached a conclusion. The journalist was seriously wounded on 22 May 2000 when unidentified persons shot at him.
El Mawkif was seized once again on 1 August. The issue contained the point of view of the PDP, the opposition party, on the presidential election, as well as an article on Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui’s revolt against the functioning of justice in Tunisia.
A border police officer at Carthage airport informed Sihem Bensedrine on 1 September that she was not allowed to leave the country, even though a magistrate had told the journalist that no interdiction to leave the territory had been served against her. The journalist was on her way to London to participate in the programme "Espace Francophone" on Al Mustakillah.
In early October the Tunisian authorities banned the sale of Le Monde Diplomatique which featured an article by Kamel Jendoubi, president of the CRLDHT, the committee for human rights in Tunisia. In that article, headed "Can fear change sides? Race for time in Tunisia" he referred to the "authoritarian abuses of the regime". Several French publications are still banned in Tunisia, including La Croix, Libération and Le Canard enchaîné.
On 27 October border police at Carthage airport confiscated a manuscript in Arabic, six disks, an audio tape and a laptop computer from Taoufik Ben Brik as he was about to board a plane for Paris.
The journalist was to promote his latest book, "Chronicle of an Informer", banned in Tunisia along with four of his other books. He had been searched in the same circumstances on 3 March by police who had confiscated many books and his address book. The journalist’s family has also been pressurised. During the summer is sister Saïda Ben Brik and her husband were prosecuted for "mutual violence and participation in an altercation".
These accusations, made shortly after Taoufik Ben Brik had appeared on Al Mustakillah (where he had announced his candidature in the forthcoming presidential elections), concerned an entirely put-up neighbourhood affair in 1999 in which Saïda Ben Brik herself had lodged a complaint! On 17 October the couple was sentenced to pay a fine of 450 dinars (about 450 euros).
On 21 November the car of the journalist’s wife Azza was damaged by a plainclothes policeman. After visiting her mother with her two children at the end of the Ramadan fast, Azza Ben Brik had noticed that a window of her car had been broken and wires ripped out inside. She had noticed a "suspicious" looking individual alone in the street near the place she had parked, at a time when Tunisians were at home because of the Ramadan.
Due to the success of Al Mustakillah, its director Mohammed Elhachmi Hamdi, one of the government’s bêtes noires, as well as certain members of his family resident in Tunisia, have regularly been intimidated. During the summer a Tunisian judge even lodged a complaint for "libel" against him, with the ITC, the Independent Television Commission, the British regulatory authority for private-sector broadcasting.
In October the ITC rejected the complaint. Mohammed Elhachmi Hamdi has also been the victim of a libel campaign in several Tunisian media, a method regularly used against opponents. Zouhir Latif, who hosted the programme "Le Grand Maghreb" on the same channel, has also been threatened and insulted.
Fethia Beji, journalist with the weekly Sabah el Kheir, was dismissed in mid-November.
On 11 November she had signed a story headed "What is there between Ouled Ahmed and Ben Brik?" in which she mentioned the journalist’s latest book in Arabic "Ben Brik in the Palace". At the same time Ouled Ahmed, a great poet and journalist, was also dismissed from the weekly L’Observateur. He had written the preface to the book "Ben Brik in the Palace" published in France the previous week.
President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has been denounced as a predator of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders.