A constitutional referendum to abolish presidential term limits and so allow President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to run for a fourth term in 2004 officially won the approval of 99.52 per cent of voters on 26 May 2002. The approved changes also gave him immunity from prosecution.
Tunisians had expressed themselves "in complete freedom and in a climate of democracy and total openness" and their action "reinforced the rule of law and the protection of civil liberties and human rights," the president said the next day, spurring one journalist, Taoufik Ben Brik, to dub him "Ben à vie" (Ben-for-Life).
On 21 July Ben Ali praised the "commendable improvement in quality" in the country’s legal system despite the fact that the year was marked by sham trials. In February, at a hearing that many international observers said was "a mockery," Hamma Hammami, leader of the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party (PCOT) and editor of the party newspaper El Badil, was sentenced to nine years in prison.
In August, Abdallah Zouari, an Islamist journalist who had spent more than 10 years in jail, was arrested again and given an eight-month jail term. Hammami was freed in September and Zouari in October after a campaign by Tunisian and foreign human rights organisations. Some foreign journalists who came to cover Hammami’s trial and the referendum were prevented from working.
Even the timid pro-government Tunisian Journalists’ Association (AJT) denounced the gagging of the media in a critical report in May about press freedom, the first of its kind for some years. It caused a row between its authors and the head of the AJT. Some members were concerned about the gap between the government’s liberal talk and the reality of limited freedom of expression and opinion. The report said journalists had been "pushed aside" and harassed, censored, banned from covering some events and sometimes arrested or imprisoned.
AJT president Mohamed Ben Salah, a member of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Union (RCD), said the report was just an "internal draft" that did not speak for the AJT. But Lotfi Hajji, of the privately-owned weekly Réalités, said the report was in fact supported by the AJT membership.
The authorities made great efforts to silence the voices of opponents, who got round censorship at home by trying to make themselves heard outside the country. The regime paid Arab newspapers to print virulent articles attacking dissident journalists such as Sihem Bensedrine, Souhayr Belhassen and Slim Bagga. The harassment sometimes got results. The London-based Arab TV station Al Mustakillah, which had unexpectedly given a platform to the opposition in 2001, returned to the government line after its director was repeated harassed.
The regime tightened its already-rigid control of phone, fax and especially Internet communications. In early June, Zouhair Yahyaoui, founder of an opposition website, was arrested in a cybercafé, tortured and sentenced to two years in prison. He had criticised President Ben Ali on the site.
Three journalists imprisoned
One was still in prison at the end of 2002.
Hamadi Jebali, editor of the weekly Al Fajr, unofficial organ of the Islamist An Nahda movement, had been in jail since 1991. He was sentenced in 1992 by the Tunis military court to 16 years in prison for "aggressively intending to change the nature of the state" and "belonging to an illegal organisation." He had just served a one-year sentence for writing an article criticising the system of military courts.
Two journalists were freed during the year. Abdallah Zouari, who also worked for Al Fajr and had been arrested in 1991 and sentenced to 11 years in prison for "belonging to an illegal organisation," was freed in June, but was arrested again in August for defying an order banning him from living in Tunis and sentenced to eight months in prison. He was freed in October.
Hamma Hammami, leader of the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party (PCOT) and editor of the party newspaper El Badil, was sentenced on appeal on 31 March to three years and two months in prison. He had been arrested on 2 February, tried the same day and an earlier nine-year jail sentence on him was confirmed for belonging to and fostering an illegal organisation (the PCOT), distributing leaflets and putting out false news. He was freed in September.
A cyber-dissident imprisoned
Zouhair Yahyaoui, founder and editor of the news website TUNeZINE, was arrested on 4 June 2002 in a Tunis cybercafé by plainclothes police. He was interrogated by the interior ministry’s special security police, the DES, and tortured until he revealed the access code to his website. He was sentenced on 10 July to a year in prison for "putting out false news aimed at giving the impression there had been a criminal attack on persons or property" and another year and four months for "theft by unauthorised use of an Internet connection." He had put opposition material on his website and several times made fun of President Ben Ali online.
Pressure and obstruction
Two Arabic-language weeklies, Essada and Sabah El Kheir, were seized on 24 January 2002 because of articles criticising the Tunisian General Workers’ Union (UGTT).
Mohseni Loumamba, a journalist on the unauthorised monthly Kaws el Karama, was beaten about the head on 30 January by plainclothes police who attacked him in the street after an editorial meeting at the paper.
A team from the French TV station France 2 which had come to cover the trial of Hamma Hammami, had a videotape confiscated on 1 February and their equipment damaged. The next day, a cameraman of the Franco-German TV station Arte was roughed up outside the court, his camera smashed and a videotape seized. Another cameraman, from the French TV station France 3, was also manhandled.
During Hammami’s appeal hearing on 9 March, a member of Reporters Without Borders and a Swiss journalist for the daily paper La Tribune de Genève, Laurence Bezaguet, were not allowed into the courtroom, although local media were allowed to report on the hearing in a normal way.
The February-March issue of the monthly Al Tariq al-Jadid, organ of the Ettajdid Movement, was seized by the authorities without explanation after it had been printed. The issue contained criticism of proposed constitutional reforms. Ettajdid was the only group in parliament that did not call for a "yes" vote in the referendum and was shunned by radio and TV stations.
A meeting organised by the monthly Kaws el Karama could not be held on 1 May because a large police contingent barred the entrance of the hall where it was to be held. As people saw this and drifted away, Mohammed Ioua Noughene, of the Algerian daily El Khabar, was set upon by five plainclothes police who beat him even though he had told them he was a journalist.
Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, North Africa specialist of the French daily Le Monde, was turned back at Tunis-Carthage airport on 16 May. "Tuquoi has never made any secret of his consistent ill will towards Tunisia, through his insults, open hostility and determination to harm the country," officials said. Tuquoi and Nicolas Beau wrote a book called "Notre ami Ben Ali: l’envers du ’miracle tunisien’" ("Our Friend Ben Ali: the other side of the ’Tunisian miracle,’" put out in 1999 by the French publisher La Découverte), exposing the hidden repressive system in the country and its gangster-like abuses. Tuquoi had not been to Tunisia since the book appeared. The authorities regularly censor Le Monde when it contains articles criticising the regime.
Several foreign journalists covering a meeting in support of Hamma Hammami outside the civil prison in Tunis on 25 May were set upon by plainclothes police. Régis Nuysbaum and Hervé Dhinaut, of the French TV station France 3, had their camera seized, and Denis de Montgolfier of the Franco-German TV station Arte had his smaller camera confiscated. Two BBC journalists, Paul Wood and Robby Wright, who were filming at a distance the incident between the police and the other journalists, were stopped by several men who questioned them and took several of their videotapes. Police then ordered all the journalists to leave. The same day, dozens of police surrounded the home of writer and journalist Taoufik Ben Brik and prevented journalists from the US daily The Los Angeles Times and several Euro-MPs from attending a meeting there.
In June, a special issue of the French weekly Courrier international focusing on the World Cup football tournament was removed from newsstands a few hours after it had been normally distributed. The magazine contained an article by Ben Brik called "Football, cash and trickery," which criticised President Ben Ali’s son-in-law Slim Chiboub, who controls the football scene in Tunisia.
Hedi Yahmed, of the privately-owned weekly Réalités, was summoned on 14 December by the prosecutor-general for "putting out false news" in a report on the country’s prisons which coincided with a campaign support political prisoners kept in solitary confinement. The weekly’s management forced him to resign soon afterwards. Many copies of the paper were removed from newsstands.
Journalists and government opponents had their fixed and portable phones cut at various times throughout the year.