02 July 2007
Special Feature:
Corrupting the Press is the Hallmark of Ben Ali

An interview with Omar Mestiri, who has a lot to say about Tunisia, as well as the pressure and repression faced by its free press. Kalima, the online newspaper he founded with Sihem Bensedrine in 1999, is the only outspoken Tunisian publication that covers topics, such as corruption, that anger the authorities.

If Omar Mestiri lives now in Hamburg, Germany, he formerly managed a company that sold seeds in Tunisia. "It was one of its sector's leading companies," he said. However Mestiri was at the same time a fervent militant for human rights. "In 1999 I was secretary general of CNLT (National Council for Liberties in Tunisia), which had just published a report on the shortcomings of the Tunisian electoral system. I was charged with various crimes at the time, including spreading false information. The examining magistrate forbade me to leave the district of Tunis on the pretext of preventing me from continuing my "criminal activities." My lawyers pointed out that these alleged criminal activities, which notably consisted of following cases against prisoners of opinion, took place precisely in Tunis. This measure would fail to end them as a result. In fact, the real goal was to stop me from going to work, which was around sixty kilometres from Tunisia. One of the methods employed by the Tunisian authorities is to strangle activists however they can, including driving them to the wall professionally and financially," he said.

A few months after this trial, the Tunisian president Ben Ali was elected after a controversial ballot for the third time. "It was November 1999 and Tunisia had just been through a bleak decade of terror and repression," said Mestiri. "The Tunisian press had literally been massacred. Journalists were not murdered as they had been in Algeria; but practices were utterly outrageous. Journalists were formatted by the security services and editors-in-chief faxed them their articles prior to publication. The result was an appalling press sector, with all publications conveying the same speech. The best authors had left the media scene and retrained," he said.

Even President Ben Ali admitted that the situation of the Tunisian press left much to be desired...blaming this on journalists skilled in self-censorship. The journalist Sihem Bensedrine (Omar Mestiri's wife) was to take this "scandalous argument" literally. The day afterwards she published a press release promising to found a newspaper that would never practise self-censorship.

This marked the birth of Kalima via a declaration submitted on 16 November 1999 to the Ministry of the Interior, since that is the official procedure in Tunisia. "The problem with this pernicious method is that a receipt for any declaration is required in order to print. The Ministry of the Interior refused to issue this receipt, so it was impossible to go ahead and publish," Omar Mestiri said.

Faced with this refusal, Kalima's founders, who remained convinced that, "In this type of system the best way of defending rights is to exercise them," capitalised on a legal void to launch Kalima on the Internet. That is how the first Tunisian electronic newspaper was born in the course of 2000 thanks to the support of Reporters Without Borders. Kalima's editorial line was based on two key principles: openness and independence. "The hallmark of Ben Ali's regime is to corrupt the press and force it to renounce its principles," said Mestiri, "And we offer a different school of thinking."

On top of editor-in-chief Sihem Bensedrine, several other journalists known for their intransigence contribute to Kalima. It is worth mentioning Taoufik Benbrik, who received a lot of media attention after his hunger strike, and Oum Ziad, who is less well-known, but no less talented. "In 1988, she worked for the newspaper El Ray, a symbol of the independent press in Tunisia. In one of her articles, Oum Ziad questioned a speech by Ben Ali that promised to work miracles and result in democratisation. She believed that the president's qualities and past history would not enable him to turn his promises into a reality. The newspaper was shut down and that was the end of El Ray. Oum Ziad did not write another line until Kalima republished her article to refresh the memory of Tunisians. The republication of this article made her want to write again after ten years of silence and today she is one of the pillars of our newspaper," Mestiri said.

Paradoxically, although most of Kalima's contributors live in Tunis, where they have an office, their articles are not accessible in their own country. Access to the website has been blocked since its creation. It can only be accessed by IT experts who know how to use proxy and other technical tools to get round this censorship. In order to reach Tunisian readers in spite of this, the Kalima team illegally prints and distributed samizdats that offer the same contents as the online newspaper. To defy the censor's red pen, the articles are also distributed via an electronic newsletter.

Kalima is not the only publication to publish truths that anger the authorities. "The government allows a few opposition newspapers to exist like the weeklies El Mawkif and Mouwatinoun, as well as the monthly El Tarik El Jadid," said Mestiri. "After having been seized during the dark years, they are now tolerated but poorly distributed. Only a marginal group of Tunisian intellectuals subscribe to such publications; and the regime ensures that their readership does not grow. These titles are fairly free and highly critical of politics and human rights. The sensitive subject that they do not address is corruption. Unlike Kalima, which refers to scandals and those close to the president who are involved," said Mestiri. "More people have undoubtedly started speaking out in society since the beginning of this decade. There have been acts of defiance," he said. Mestiri believes that the regime was even destabilized, but has quickly readapted to this audacity. "Today the authorities no longer try to threaten this claim to freedom, but seek to confine and compartmentalize it, thus limiting its impact. Dissidents are put in a cage and excluded from society. This is one way for the regime to prove their failure, sterility and impotence. Moreover, with the alibi of cooperation in the fight against terror since September 11th, the international community is no longer exerting any pressure," said Kalima's director.

But the pseudo-freedom given to these publications with tiny circulations is not a good sign. Not a week passes in Tunisia without even the smallest gleam of hope fading. The latest incident to date was when Kalima's offices in Tunis were surrounded several weeks ago and there were attacks on a series of the newspaper's contributors. It is precisely for this reason that Sihem Bensedrine and Omar Mestiri have been living for some years in Germany. "The Hamburg foundation to support political prisoners gives us the opportunity to live in Germany. We accepted this chance to get around the surveillance and harassment that we suffered in Tunisia," said Mestiri, who insists that he and his wife nevertheless remain in touch with the situation in their country and return there regularly. What kind of a welcome do they receive? "At the airport we are thoroughly searched. Our documents are also confiscated, which is obsolete because what does document confiscation mean in a digital age? It is nevertheless an opportunity for us to cause a minor scandal by declaring very loudly that this is a job for a policeman, not a customs officer. We tell the customs officers that they would be better off keeping a close eye on the suitcases of the president's cronies. They do not feel very proud then and are quite impressed. We try to win the moral battle", he said  

As repressive as the climate may be, dissent has not been stifled. It just seems to take a frightening turn. "Today several thousand Tunisians are tempted by Salafism because they can no longer bear to remain on the fringes of society. This trend is under-estimated, but actually poses major threats," said Mestiri. And in such a context, Kalima's fight and the values that it represents are even more important. "I believe that the information war is the greatest battle. And the challenge facing us today is to gain access to the means of communication that allow us to reach out to Tunisians and encourage them to demand their rights as citizens. To this end we are planning to launch a radio station by the end of the year. We hope that others will follow our lead, giving us the upper hand as a result," said Mestiri.