|Newsletter No 30
||22 June 2006
Newspapers Punished and Information Controlled in Tunisia
elaborate system of administrative restrictions severely limits press
freedom in Tunisia today. Despite a constitution that guarantees press
freedom, Tunisian media are far from being free.
remain no independent newspaper and no new ones have been granted the
right to publish since Ben Ali came into power (in 1987),” says Sihem
Bensedrine who is the editor of the online newspaper Kalima and a well-known human rights activist.
reprisals and severe restrictions over the flow of information are the
main methods to keep newspapers under control. One of the key actors in
doing this, is the Tunisian Agency for External Communications (ATCE in
controls all public advertising expenditure. They choose the papers
that will receive ads. As public advertising represents the biggest
proportion of revenues from advertising, it t is the most significant
way of exercising financial pressure,” says Abdelkrim Hizaoui, who
teaches media laws and ethics at the Manouba University.
The weekly Al Mawqif,
is a clear example of how this kind of media repression works. Al
Mawqif is the newspaper of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party
and one of the very few publications that dares to cross some of the
red lines imposed by the government.
The weekly does
not carry any advertising. “We do not even have access to private
advertising because companies know that buying ad space in our paper
can lead to problems,” says editor in chief Rachid Khechana. “Companies
even remove their ads from newspapers if these write about sensitive
Today it is difficult to buy Al Mawqif
in the newsstands in Tunisia. According to the international Tunisia
Monitoring Group (TMG), this is linked to the influence the government
exerts on distribution.
Some years ago, Al Mawqif
had a parallel distribution network that newsstands could rely on once
the issues provided by the only distributor in Tunisia were sold out.
Khechana says that today newspaper sellers do not use it any more for
fear or reprisals. “This has led to a big decrease in sales.”
newspaper actually makes it to the newsstand, it is up for some more
trouble. “Security officers ask newsstands to remove Al Mawqif copies
from visible places and force them to return every unsold copy two or
three days after publication. If they refuse, they are threatened with
is the only newspaper covering activities of civil society groups such
as the Tunisian League for Human Rights. As a result, the newspaper has
been seized from newsstands several times in the past years, the last
time in January 2006.
In addition to
that, five of the newspaper’s journalists have had their press cards
taken away in the past years, and today they can no longer access any
press conferences in the country. “We have no access to sources. We are
denied the right to inform,” says Khechana.
Due to its
difficult position, the newspaper has to watch what it publishes to
avoid problems with the authorities. “We practice self-censorship,”
says Khechana. “We have to chose between carrying a part of the message
or present ourselves as victims of repression. We have decided to pass
explains that self-censorship is practiced by avoiding topics such as
corruption or the illegal islamist parties. Criticism of the President
can only be published as a response to his speeches. Khechana points
out, however, that his newspaper is the only one giving a voice to
civil society activists, such as the opposition movement “18 October”,
whose members went on hunger strike during the World Summit on
Information Society which was held in Tunis in November 2005.
about the practice of self-censorship, both professor Hizaoui and
editor Bensedrine say it is widely extended, but that the journalists
are not to be blamed for it. For the professor, self-censorship is just
a consequence of censorship. “Newspapers choose not to publish certain
materials because of fear, not because of media ethics. When
self-censorship is practiced ’freely’, it can be a bad or good
decision. But when it is the result of fear of reprisal or pressures,
it is just censorship.”
newspapers want to report on what they consider to be sensitive issues,
they wait for the wire from the official Tunis Africa Press agency
(TAP), even if they have their own sources or information,” says
self-censorship is a way of adapting to an extremely severe system
where everything is subject to censorship. “The ultimate goal is to
give a positive image of the country both on the inside and outside.
Even sunny weather can be censored if it is a bad new for agriculture.
Taboo topics are updated by the government on a daily basis,” she says.
There is also
direct censorship in Tunisia. Usually it happens over the phone in
order not to leave any trace, since freedom of the press and the right
to inform are guaranteed by the Tunisian law.
censorship works in two ways. Sometimes officials will call the
newspapers to say what should be published. On other occasions, editors
or publishers will call the officials to ask for their advice on what
to publish so that they can avoid being punished,” Hizaoui says.
and Hizaoui say that publication licenses should be given to new
independent newspapers to open the door to freer reporting. But the
authorities do not seem eager to make any change. Bensedrine has
already applied four times for a publication license to publish Kalima,
but she has not even been given a receipt when handing in the
application to the authorities, “which is completely illegal,” she says.
That is why she
decided to start publishing her newspaper online. A week following its
launch in year 2000, it was blocked and is currently distributed
unofficially through e-mail, CD-Rom and photocopies. One of the editors
has recently been the victim of a smear campaign from the authorities.
is getting worse. The regime enjoys total impunity. Changes can only be
the result of pressure from democratic countries and institutions, but
there is a lot of connivance with the regime, especially from the
European countries and the United States,” says Bensedrine.
“There is a need for support and international media coverage on what is happening in Tunisia,” she says.
For more information on the situation of press freedom in Tunisia, go to http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/IFEXTMG_Report_May2006.doc
The report is also available in Arabic at http://www.ifex.org/download/arabic/TMG_Report_Arabic_2006.doc (word document) and http://www.ifex.org/download/arabic/TMG_Report_ar_2006.pdf (PDF format)