(U//FOUO) Open Source Center Tunisian Government Severely Restricts Media Freedoms

Open Source Center Report

  • 10 pages
  • For Official Use Only
  • March 4, 2010


The Tunisian State mobilizes various arms of the state apparatus and bureaucracy to restrict critical reportage and hobble emerging independent media, even though the government maintains that the country enjoys freedom of speech and the press. Measures the authorities employ include the seizure of journals, coverage restrictions, financial controls, imprisonment, and censorship. Such direct bureaucratic obstruction is complemented by more subtle/surreptitious methods of physical intimidation used to control the media environment and keep dissenting Tunisian voices in check. Journalists and human rights organizations continue to protest against the restrictions.

Government’s Bureaucratic Measures Tightly Restrict Media

The government uses an opaque bureaucratic process to tightly control registration of print media, the licensing of broadcasters, and the accreditation of the journalists, even though the government claims that Tunisia has an open media environment (see box on next page).

  • The Tunisian Media Law stipulates that before issuing a publication the manager needs to obtain a stamped receipt from the interior ministry, without which the owner of the printing house is not able to print. According to a journalist cited in Menassat — a Dutch Government-funded, English-language website focusing on Arab journalism — the government has decided to no longer accept applications for media licenses, making it “impossible” for anyone to start a new media institution (17 February 2009).
  • Khaled Krichi, a lawyer and human rights activist critical of the government, told Independent Pan-Arab Al-Jazirah Satellite Channel that Tunisian authorities had refused to let him deposit the written notification legally required before printing a periodical, which is considered “an official refusal by the state of the publication though legal means” (11 February 2009).
  • Menassat reported that Al-Badil, the official paper of the opposition communist Labor Party, has been battling media suppression for years; after initially being permitted to publish in the late 80’s, it was banned on numerous occasions before being shut down. Now published electronically, the website is banned in Tunisia (22 April 2009).
  • Accreditation is continuously denied to Al-Jazirah’s Tunis correspondent Lutfi Hajji, he reported in an interview to Menassat. This appears to be in response to Al-Jazirah’s reportage on the Ben Ali government, on the views of the governments’ critics, and on human rights and media issues in Tunisia (23 October 2009).

The bureaucratic process is evidently easier to navigate for outlets that are supportive of government and are owned by someone with ties to the regime.

  • The privately owned religious television channel Hannibal Al-Firdaws [Paradise] TV was launched in September 2008, in what the BBC Monitoring, the monitoring service of the United Kingdom’s public service broadcaster says is an attempt to “neutralize” and “counter” the influence of popular Arab religious broadcasters. It is owned by a member of the first lady’s family (2 September 2008).
  • BBC Monitoring also reported that the country’s first religious radio station, Al-Zayytuna for the Holy Koran, was launched in September 2007 and is owned by the Tunisian president’s son-in-law Mohamed Fahd Sakhr El-Materi (2 September 2008).

Officials Claim Open Media Environment

Article 8 of the Tunisian Constitution states: “The liberties of opinion, expression, the press, publication, assembly, and association are guaranteed and exercised within the conditions defined by the law.” The state maintains the view that Tunisia enjoys freedom of speech and the press. This is reflected in comments made by high level government officials.

  • Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali — in a 22 January statement that was broadcast repeatedly on Tunisian television and made headline news — said that the government is “acting in a democratic and pluralistic country, where information is free and citizens responsible” (31 January).
  • Ben Ali added that the executive power “must respect divergent opinion, accept constructive criticism and take advantage of any sound idea and any useful assessment, and give journalists and citizens the accurate information they need, with frankness and realism.”
  • Ben Ali previously praised Tunisia’s purported 20 years of reform and “comprehensive development,” adding that one aim of his political program was a “democratic society built on the freedom of expression.” He claimed that “there is no longer a taboo” in Tunisian media but qualified this by making an exception for anything that “contravenes the prescriptions of the law and the rules of professional ethics” (Tunisian TV, 7 November 2007).

Authorities Restrict Printing, Seize Publications Critical of Regime

Once media outlets have crossed the barriers necessary for accreditation, those outlets critical of the Ben Ali regime are also subject to confiscation.

  • At the beginning of November 2009, the widely read, critical Algerian daily Al-Watan reported that the Tunisian Government had restricted the distribution of three opposition newspapers, Al-Mawkif, Ettariq al-Jadid, and Mouatinoun. The three papers refused to publish for one week in protest of this move (10 November 2009).
  • State-funded and controlled Akhbar Tunis reported that every copy of Issue 149 of Ettariq Al-Jadid, the paper affiliated with the former Communist Party, Ettajdid, was seized at the printers in October 2009 for “publishing the electoral manifestos without respect to legal procedures” (12 October 2009). Al-Jazirah reported that the January 2009 issue was also taken out of circulation (31 January 2009).
  • In 2008, Mouatinoun was banned for two weeks, with sources at the paper saying that “no reason” was given for the ban. Editor Mostefa Benjaafar attributed the ban to the paper’s “frank, moderate” and independent journalistic standards, which may have “irked” some officials, Al-Jazirah reported (24 October 2008).

Government Takeover of Media Body To Extend Complete Control

In addition to overt media censorship, the government’s bid to completely control media in Tunisia included the takeover of the country’s nongovernmental press body and extended as far as censuring a government minister.

  • The independent National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) underwent a hostile takeover by Ben Ali loyalists in mid-2009, a step described by Brussels-based independent press freedom defense organization International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) as evidence of hostility to defenders of press freedoma (www.ifj.org, 11 May 2009).
  • Ousted SNJT head, Neji Beghouri, said in an interview with Al-Jazirah that months before the takeover, the authorities of the state-run Tunisian Radio and TV Corporation (ERTT) had “exerted pressure” on its workers and other journalists to withdraw from the SNJT and join a smaller professional body it had formed (18 June 2008).
  • After the takeover, the police took measures to enforce the new progovernment board, with a large number of security personnel blockading the offices and not giving access to members of the old board. Beghouri complained that police officers physically and verbally assaulted him (8 September 2009).
  • State-owned, government-controlled Tunisia 7 Television reported that Ben Ali dismissed, Rafaa Dekhil, the minister of communications and relations with parliament, shortly after Dekhil gave television and radio air time to the other presidential election candidates. A presidential spokesman gave no reasons for the dismissal, but local opposition media told Al-Jazirah that the two events were “directly linked” (10 October 2009).

Share this: