Middle East

Press Freedom

Tunisia: 'Seven Versions of Pravda'

Tunisian President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali
Tunisia's President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, "one of the 10 worst enemies of the press," according to New York's Committee to Protect Journalists (Photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo/AFP).

Tunisia was the first Islamic country to have a constitution, and the third after Turkey and Egypt to develop an independent press—but despite these achievements, press freedom in Tunisia today is almost non-existent. While the economy has made impressive strides since President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali came to power in 1987, setting it apart from many of its Arab peers, political freedoms have witnessed a sharp decline.

The country of 10 million has two terrestrial television stations (Tunis 7, which doubles as Tunisia’s single satellite channel, and Canal 21), seven radio stations, and a plethora of daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers in Arabic and French. The state has a monopoly on all television and radio, and along with the ruling RCD party owns a small number of major newspapers, including the main French-language daily La Presse, as well as Al-Sahafa, Al-Hurriya, and Le Renouveau.

The main Arabic-language dailies Al-Sabah and Al-Shurouq are both privately-owned, but they rarely challenge the government on serious policy issues. The newspapers of opposition parties, which are allied to the government, have run into the ground for lack of readership, leaving in business only two papers that put up serious opposition to the government—the Renewal Movement’s monthly Al-Tariq al-Jadid (The New Way) and the Progressive Socialist Rally’s weekly Al-Mawkif (The Stance).

Since the beginning of 2001, Al-Mawkif has appeared irregularly because of pressure exerted by the state (including withholding advertising by government ministries and public sector companies) after it published articles highlighting corruption and criticizing the government’s policies on democracy and the media. “Today you can’t produce a weekly paper that is concerned with news because the government will make it too difficult,” says a leading opposition journalist involved with the paper, which most ordinary Tunisians haven’t even heard of.

The government’s no-go areas for the media are corruption and human-rights issues. This includes discussion of banned Islamic movements, whose strength is hard to gauge because of a comprehensive government crackdown on their activities throughout the 1990s. According to the opposition journalist, “The government fears that if the door opens to criticising corruption, it will get wider and wider and they won’t be able to control it.” The monthly Realités found itself in hot water after it published an article on prison conditions in its December 2002 issue, and was forced to sack the journalist who wrote the story. No paper opposed constitutional changes in 2002 which allow the president to stand for unlimited terms in office. A referendum for a fourth five-year term is due in 2004.

As a result there are two styles of journalism in Tunisia: anodyne daily news reports of government actions, and a flood of tabloid-style crime, entertainment, and gossip news.

Here are some recent examples. The cover of the weekly Annouar of Feb. 7 featured two stories on soccer, one on Iraq, one on car thieves, one on an Israeli presenter accused of sexually harrassing guests on air, and another on wasted youth growing up smoking in coffee shops. Akhbar al-Jumhouriya of Feb. 6 had a skimpily-clad Tunisian actress illustrating an article on cinema, and other stories concerning a student attacked by a jealous boyfriend and a man who confessed that he was tempted by a woman into an urfi, or “unofficial,” marriage.

This issue of Akhbar al-Jumhouriya, however, did carry rare comment about recent floods in the north of the country, which television almost entirely ignored, while foreign media reported that several people died in the floods. “While those affected praised the efforts of police, the municipality, the army, and government ministries to help them in their crisis, they resented the absence of television in reporting what happened and in giving warnings about the state of the valleys and water level. Even the weather reports had nothing, unlike the foreign television stations,” the paper ventured, without referring to any deaths.

“The Tunisian main papers are seven versions of Pravda—they all are the same. Tunisia, North Korea, and Libya are the only countries that still have a Stalinist media,” says the opposition journalist. “There is a cordon around the Tunisian reader.”

There are a few exceptions. Economic news items appear weekly in L’Economiste Maghrebien and Paris-based Jeune Afrique L’Intelligent and the occasional issues of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi that make into the country. The major pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, also based in London, has been effectively banned from distribution in Tunisia for more than two years, as have France’s Le Monde and Libération, for articles critical of the Tunisian government. It’s no surprise, then, that the law still prevents Tunisian papers from entering into the partnerships with the well-known foreign papers that are currently the rage in Lebanon and Morocco.

Meanwhile, even the biggest selling dailies have a small circulation: Al-Shurouq sells around 45,000 copies, La Presse around 30,000. Publishers complain that it is a small market and the state, with its obsession for control, isn’t helping much. Licensing regulations are restrictive, and a system whereby the government places some dozen daily adverts from state bodies is a form of subsidy that further affects the sector. Most papers are heavily dependent on advertising directed their way by the government, allowing for pressure over the material published. The authorities can also interfere with the postal service to remove subscription issues of papers carrying articles they find objectionable. Finally, the government buys newsprint from abroad and sells it to the Tunisian press at a discount, forming another control mechanism that can be used to exert pressure when necessary.

Arabization policies adopted since 1987 by the Ben Ali government to reverse the domination of French in public life—a hangover from the colonial era—have succceeded in creating a new middle and lower class for whom formal Arabic is a first language of education. As a result, the market share of the French-language press is ever shrinking and observers estimate that within a decade there will be few French publications left. Previously, Tunisians whose mother tongue was colloquial Tunisian Arabic found it easier to use French to articulate anything more complex than everyday talk.

“I don’t think the French market has a future. In 10 years time Arabic will dominate,” says Hedi Mechri, editor of L’Economiste Maghrebien. “We are at a crossroads. My education was all French in primary and secondary school and Arabic had a minor role. Now it’s the other way round.” The state’s attempts to squeeze out French have also reflected official displeasure with criticisms of the country in the French media: renewed zeal in Arabization of various sectors of public life has coincided with periods of tension with France. On the other hand, English is slowly making inroads: L’Economiste supplements in English have proven a big success in recent years, but there are as yet no major English-language publications.

In a sign of how sensitive the authorities are about criticism abroad—which it fears will affect the country’s mini economic miracle of the last decade—Ben Ali told the ruling RCD party in July 2001 that while dissenting opinions were fine, those who criticized the country in the international media were “traitors” who would find the full force of the law in their face.

Television is scarcely more liberated. In its style and content, state-run television is a throwback to the 1970s, a fact that has Tunisians seeking refuge in the array of Arabic and European satellite channels now on offer. While state television commanded some 80 percent of viewing in 1999, figures for 2002 and 2003 show that percentage at around 50, rising only during the holy month of Ramadan when state TV airs Tunisian and Arab specially-made soap operas to win a captive audience. Pressure on television to change is coming from the Tunisian Advertising Syndicate, which managed after four years of lobbying to get local authorities to allow large advertising billboards in 1999. But as one ad industry expert put it: “They are public servants and don’t care about what people really want.” Only 3 percent of the population ever watches Canal 21, a channel that appears to carry the programs Tunis 7 doesn’t want. Opposition figures say the government is upping its entertainment budget at the expense of political and cultural programs as a deliberate ploy to keep Tunisians’ minds off serious issues of state that could challenge the political status quo.

Even in light entertainment, state television has problems. Official figures show that the Egyptian Satellite Channel is consistently the second most popular channel in Tunisia, while Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Dubai Television are attracting viewers interested in news. Two London-based satellite stations run by dissident Tunisians, Al-Mustaqilla (The Independent) and Zeitouna (named after the main Tunis mosque, an important Islamic theology school in North Africa), began in 2001 with heavy discussion of the human rights situation in Tunisia, but now run ads for tourism in the country, prompting ordinary Tunisians to speculate that the authorities have struck a deal with the channels’ owners. It is not clear how much market share these channels have.

The government says that it is promoting press freedom as much as possible. In April 2001, parliament passed a series of amendments to the Press Code, lifting some of its more restrictive clauses. In an interview with journalists from Al-Sabah and Al-Shurouq Ben Ali said, “I will say to you once more loud and clear: Write on any subject you choose…. There are no taboos except what is prohibited by law and press ethics.” But the authorities say they must defend public figures against bad and sensationalist reporting in an undeveloped media culture, as well as prevent media outlets from going beyond rules of public morality.

These positions have led to a number of infamous incidents, documented by international press watchdogs and the U.S. State Department in its annual human-rights reports. During a period of bad relations with France in 2000-01, a number of journalists and rights activists complained of harrassment over critical opinions they expressed in local and foreign media. In one incident, journalist Fethia el-Beji was fired from her position at Al-Sabah for articles about the books of Taoufik Ben Brik, a prominent dissident in France. Ben Brik’s brother, rights campaigner Jalel Zoghlami, failed to win official approval for a new newspaper called Qaws al-Karama (Arch of Dignity). And journalist Sihem Bensedrine resorted to the Internet to publish her newspaper Kalima (Word), which Tunisians can access despite a block by the only official Internet server.

In 1998, the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) placed President Ben Ali on its list of the “10 worst enemies of the press,” and in 1997 the Tunisian Newspaper Association was expelled from the World Association of Newspapers over what it said was a failure to support a more open press.

Recently the country has become known for its policing of the Internet. Zouhair Yahyaoui, a 35-year-old Tunisian, was jailed for two years in 2002 over criticism of the government in his web publication TUNeZINE, which included comment on the May 2002 referendum in which 99.52 percent of voters approved constitutional changes allowing Ben Ali to run for a fourth term as president. “His imprisonment clearly illustrates the Tunisian government’s disregard for critical media coverage,” CPJ said in a statement on Feb. 10. Opposition papers, Bensedrine, and other dissident figures have held seminars in support of Yahyaoui, but few people attend and even fewer read about them in a press that has learned to keep its head down.

For the moment, it seems, Tunisians have more pressing concerns than freeing their media. Off the record, European diplomats say that the limits within which the media operate are “bearable” for the majority of people in a country that has managed to achieve impressive economic progress. But opposition figures call this a dangerous situation, and say that the bombing in 2002 of a synagogue in Jerba, probably by Al-Qaeda, shows the dangers. “All friends of Tunisia say that the Jerba bomb was a warning bell, that if there are no steps to allow peaceful expression, terrorism will come here like it has elsewhere,” said the opposition journalist. “Since the Gulf War, there has been no political, media, and democratic development at all in Tunisia.”