Tunisia | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Tunisia

Tunisia

Freedom of the Press 2005

2005 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

80

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

30

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

24

Despite the Tunisian government's professed commitment to democracy, it tightly controls the media and represses dissent through a highly effective system of legal, financial, and psychological measures. The constitution guarantees freedom of the press except under "conditions laid down by law." The press code stipulates imprisonment and heavy fines for defamation of government officials and for the dissemination of "false information," and all local and foreign publications require a receipt from the government, called a "depot legal," before they can be distributed. Authorities simply decline to issue receipts for publications they deem objectionable.

The print press comprises several large-circulation state-owned and private pro-government papers and a few small-circulation independent and opposition party-affiliated publications. Foreign publications are subject to government censors. The government regularly issues directives on press coverage, and media content is generally bland. Open criticism of government policies, and especially of President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, is exceedingly rare and results in a swift repressive response from the authorities. Nonetheless, some small-circulation papers, such as Al-Mawqif, have begun to cover human rights issues and to publish mild criticism of the government. In advance of the October 2004 presidential and legislative elections, Tunisian media were dominated by positive coverage of the president and of pro-government candidates. Public debate was further muffled by a 2003 amendment to the electoral law that bans Tunisians from discussing the campaign on foreign broadcasts two weeks before the vote. Journalists are subject to detentions, police surveillance, harassment, and physical assault, resulting in self-censorship. In January 2004, journalist and human rights activist Sihem Bensidrine was attacked by unknown assailants; a week later, the authorities again rejected her application to publish a weekly newspaper, Kalima. In February and March, the security forces disrupted peaceful demonstrations in Tunis calling for an independent press.

Security officials vigorously monitor e-mail, conduct surveillance of Internet cafes, and block Web sites that publish information critical of the government. In April 2004, after a trial described as deeply flawed by human rights groups, nine young Tunisians were sentenced to between 19 and 26 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks after they allegedly viewed "terrorist" Web sites at an Internet cafe in Zarzis. (Some of the sentences were later reduced to 13 years on appeal.) In 2004, authorities attempted to prevent former political prisoner and journalist Abdallah Zouari from accessing the Internet. Throughout the year, international human rights groups protested Tunisia's selection as host of the UN's November 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, calling it highly inappropriate given the country's dismal record on freedom of expression and access to information.

The government withholds advertising funds from publications that do not provide sufficiently favorable coverage. All broadcast media are owned by the government, with the exception of one private radio station, Radio Mosaique, approved in 2003, and one private television station, Hannibal TV, launched on a trial basis in February 2004. Both are owned by supporters of President Ben Ali and, like the state-run stations, avoid airing viewpoints contrary to official policy. Many foreign satellite stations can be viewed in Tunisia, although the government blocks France 2 and has blocked Al-Jazeera for their negative coverage of Ben Ali.