Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Tunisia continued to operate one of the world’s most repressive media environments in 2006. The constitution guarantees freedom of the press except under “conditions laid down by law,” but in reality assurances of press freedom are irrelevant to the government and have little bearing on the reality of Tunisian journalism. This untenable situation has been the state of affairs since President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali seized office almost two decades ago. Tunisia’s strong central authority controls most aspects of government and passes laws to ensure that media practitioners stay in line. The Press Law criminalizes defamation, and those who violate it can be imprisoned and fined. The print media are also required by law to obtain registration from the Ministry of the Interior. In January, the president signed a law abolishing the mandatory submission of all printed material for government approval prior to distribution. Nonetheless, authorities continue to vet and censor newspapers published locally as well as those coming from outside the country. While local publications are edited by persons close to the regime who know the restrictions, it is standard practice that foreign publications with reports critical of Tunisia are prevented from entering the country.
Journalists who cross the government’s red lines have been harassed, beaten, imprisoned under harsh conditions, subjected to smear campaigns, prevented from leaving the country, and threatened. Tunisia released Hamadi Jebali in February after the journalist had served over 15 years of a 16-year sentence. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Jebali had served the longest prison term of any journalist in the Arab world. Jebali was tried by a military court in 1992 and accused of being a member of Ennahda, a banned Islamist movement, in a trial that did not satisfy international standards of fairness. Even after being freed from prison, some journalists faced further state interference.
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. With the print and broadcast media firmly in the government’s grip, the few independent voices in Tunisia publish on the internet or outside the country.
Compared with citizens of neighboring North African states, the more affluent Tunisians have wider access to the internet, with just over 9 percent of the population using it in 2006. The government blocks access to a number of sites, particularly those belonging to domestic human rights organizations, opposition groups, and Islamist associations, as well as websites that post material critical of the Tunisian government. In November, a collaborative university study found that the government blocked roughly 10 percent of the 2,000 websites it tested. Punishments for online dissidents are as severe as those for print and broadcast journalists who transgress. For example, in 2005 Mohamed Abbou, a human rights lawyer, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison after publishing an article on a banned website, Tunisnews, where he likened treatment of Tunisian prisoners to that of those in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison under U.S. control.