Tunisia | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Tunisia

Tunisia

Freedom of the Press 2006

2006 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

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

83

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

31

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

24

Tunisia's constitutional guarantees and public pronouncements of freedom of the press are a sham, as the state tightly controls all forms of public expression and severely punishes those who do not toe the government line. The constitution guarantees freedom of the press except under "conditions laid down by the law." The Press Law criminalizes defamation, and those who violate it can be imprisoned and fined. Local and foreign publications must be vetted by authorities before distribution, and publications carrying material critical of the authorities can be summarily barred. The Tunisian judiciary is not independent, causing legal proceedings against journalists to result in biased outcomes.

Ever since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali took power in 1987, the few brave journalists and dissidents who have crossed his government have been imprisoned, beaten, harassed, threatened, or removed from their jobs. Considering this, it is ironic that Tunisia played host to the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society, a gathering aimed at establishing international regulations for the internet. Even though world attention was on Tunisia, authorities did not change their modus operandi. A French journalist working for the daily Liberation, Christophe Boltanski, was beaten, stabbed, and robbed near his Tunis hotel. The reporter had written a piece about the situation in Tunisia leading up to the summit, focusing in particular on abuses against human rights activists by government agents. Other journalists and press freedom advocates faced harassment and restrictions on their activities during the summit. When Ambeyi Ligabo, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression for the UN Commission on Human Rights, criticized Tunisia's record with regard to press freedom in October, his findings were dismissed by Tunisian authorities, who claimed that Tunisians are not imprisoned for expressing their opinions.

When independent voices are critical of authorities on the internet or in foreign publications, the government not only uses overt harassment to punish them, but also sponsors smear campaigns in the pro-government publications. In 2005, both Sihem Bensedrine, a human rights activist and independent journalist who runs the website Kalima, and M'Hamed Krichene, an anchor at the Qatar-based satellite television station Al-Jazeera, were on the receiving end of a campaign of character assassination in the local press because of their public criticisms of the regime.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, three journalists went on hunger strikes over the course of the year. Hamadi Jebali, who until his 1991 imprisonment was editor of the Islamist Al-Nahda party weekly Al-Fajr, went on a hunger strike twice this year to protest his harsh prison conditions during his 16-year imprisonment for "defamation." Abdullah Zouari, another former Al-Fajr journalist, went on hunger strikes in February and September to protest the authorities' control of his movements since his 2002 release from prison. He is currently confined to a city several hundred miles away from his family and is denied access to public internet cafés. Finally, Lotfi Hajji, head of the independent Tunisian Journalists Syndicate (SJT), began a hunger strike in October along with other activists to protest continued denial of political freedoms by authorities. Tunisian police have on more than one occasion this year summoned Hajji for questioning and forbidden the SJT from continuing its activities. Hajji has also been denied accreditation to work as Al-Jazeera's correspondent in Tunisia.

Tunisia's print media comprise several private pro-government and government-owned newspapers. Editors of the private media are close associates of Ben Ali's government and typically heap praise on the leadership and its policies, while the government withholds advertising funds from publications that do not provide sufficiently favorable coverage. A few small independent newspapers, including Al-Mawqif, attempt to cover human rights issues and to publish mild criticisms of the government despite the difficult conditions, but their circulation is small owing to financial constraints. 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. Roughly 800,000 Tunisians are able to access the internet on a regular basis, but the government blocks access to a number of sites, particularly those belonging to domestic human rights organizations, opposition groups, and Islamist associations. In November, a collaborative university study found that the government blocked roughly 10 percent of the 2,000 websites it tested.