Newsletter No 30 22 June 2006
 
Press Freedom:
Newspapers Punished and Information Controlled in Tunisia

An 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.

“Today, there 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.

Financial 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 French).

“The ATCE 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 issues.”

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.”

If the 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 closure.”

Al Mawqif 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 the message.”

Khechana 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.

When asked 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.”

“When 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 Hizaoui.

Bensedrine 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.

“Telephone 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.

Both Bensedrine 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.

“The situation 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)