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)
Despite the government’s continued prosecution of critical reporters and its tight control over media outlets, citizens’ access to information improved slightly in 2007 owing to the increased availability of satellite television and growing internet usage. The constitution guarantees freedom of the press except under “conditions laid down by law,” but the government did not respect this right in practice. The Press Law criminalizes defamation, and those who violate the law can be imprisoned and fined; offensive statements about the president carry prison sentences of up to five years. In a move that ended overt censorship, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali signed a law in January 2006 abolishing a procedure whereby all printed material had to receive government approval prior to publication. Nevertheless, authorities continue to vet and censor newspapers published locally as well as those coming from outside the country. The responsibility for prior review of all foreign publications and books was transferred from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of the Interior in November 2007. Self-censorship among journalists and government interference in distribution following publication remain routine. According to the U.S. State Department, in March 2007, the authorities purchased all copies of the opposition weekly Al-Mawkif to prevent circulation of a photo showing Tunisian and Israeli parliament members participating together in a Euro-Mediterranean parliamentary council meeting in Tunis.
Journalists who cross the government’s red lines face harassment, beatings, and potential imprisonment. Interrogation and detention of members of the media were also common throughout the year, as were police surveillance and restrictions on journalists’ freedom of movement. According to Reporters Sans Frontieres, at least a dozen journalists were physically assaulted by police in 2007. On June 7, Lotfi Hidouri of the online publication Kalima was cornered by plainclothes police who forcefully confiscated his cameras, and in a separate incident, Hidouri and reporter Ayman Rezki of an Italy-based Tunisian satellite channel were reportedly beaten by police. Lotfi Hajji, a correspondent for Al-Jazeera and president of the Tunisian Union of Journalists, was reportedly hindered from reporting on five separate events in the month of April, often suffering physical assault at the hands of the police. Slim Boukhdir, a contributor to the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi and several online news sites, was arrested in November 2007 upon inquiring about his passport application and sentenced the following month to one year in prison on questionable charges of “assaulting a government employee in the exercise of his duty.” The government continued to refuse to issue Boukhdir a press card.
Tunisia’s print media include eight major dailies, with two owned by the government and two owned by the ruling party. Editors of private media are often close associates of President Ben Ali’s government and typically praise state leadership and its policies, while the government withholds subsidies and advertising funds from publications that do not provide sufficiently favorable coverage. Print media do not need to be licensed, but they are required by law to obtain from the Ministry of Information a copyright registration, which is valid for one year. In practice, authorities have consistently blocked the registration of new, independent print outlets. There are seven opposition party newspapers, which enjoy greater freedom to criticize the government, including Attarik al-Jadid of the Attajdid Party, Al-Mawkif of the Progressive Democratic Party, and the weekly Mouwatinoun (which began publication in January) of the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties. Nevertheless, circulation of opposition papers remains small owing to financial constraints, with private advertisers avoiding papers that are shunned by the government, and the authorities continue to target them for harassment. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on October 1, Al-Mawkif was evicted from the offices where it had been housed for 13 years; it also had its papers removed from newsstands three times during 2007. Broadcast media are regulated by the Tunisian Frequencies Agency, which tightly controls the allocation of licenses and frequencies. The private channel Hannibal TV has opened up new space for the debate of social, cultural, and economic issues, although it does not cover political issues. Many foreign satellite stations can be viewed in Tunisia, although the government has been known to block France 2 and Al-Jazeera for their negative coverage of President Ben Ali.
Nearly 16 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2007, almost double the proportion from the previous year. However, the government stringently 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. The OpenNet Initiative declared Tunisia to be one of the worst offenders in terms of blocking web content and politically filtering information. Punishments for online dissidents are severe and remain similar to those for print and broadcast journalists who publish information deemed objectionable by the government. Both legal and extralegal harassment and intimidation of journalists and editors of online sites remained a problem. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Omar Mestiri, managing editor of the online magazine Kalima, was brought before a court on defamation charges in August in relation for a September 2006 article that criticized the reinstatement of a lawyer by the Tunisian Bar Association. While the case was dropped unexpectedly on August 28, the offices of Mestiri’s lawyer were torched three days later. After serving two and a half years in prison for an online article that had criticized the state use of torture, writer and human rights lawyer Mohammed Abbou was released in July. However, Abbou was prohibited from traveling outside the country by state officials on numerous occasions in October and November.