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Home > Publications > Quill > The story tourists never see in Tunisia


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008
The story tourists never see in Tunisia

Bruce C. Swaffield

The headlines from media groups around the world tell the grim story of what is going on in Tunisia these days: “Tunisia seizes weekly, summons editor to court,” “Independent news site destroyed,” “Recently freed journalist is abducted, threatened,” “Internet writer freed from prison,” “Tunisia denies passport to formerly imprisoned journalist” and “Threats against journalist’s family, then wife’s car vandalized.”

Since the beginning of 2008, Reporters Without Borders (www.rsf.org) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (www.cpj.org) have cited more than 30 separate incidents involving the media. From censorship to arrests to imprisonment, journalists in this Mediterranean country are facing increased control and censorship by the government.

The fact that a human rights attorney was stopped recently from going to France to participate in a live television program being broadcast by Al-Jazeera is just the latest in a series of crackdowns. For Mohammed Abbou, this episode marked the fourth time he has been forbidden to leave Tunisia since his release from prison last year.

“Journalists are among the first witnesses, and also the first victims, of the instability that plagues the Middle East,” said Hajar Smouni, the head of Middle East and North Africa operations for RSF. Writing in the organization’s 2008 Annual Report on the Middle East, Smouni added that “the region’s chronic instability is used by political leaders as a permanent excuse to silence journalists, whose every criticism is seen as willfully destabilising their regimes. Press freedom is in no way guaranteed. … [J]ournalists there know they must censor themselves on pain of serious consequences.”

Tunisia is ranked by RSF as one of the most difficult countries in which to be a member of the media. In September, the country was ranked 143 (slightly higher than last year) out of 173 nations worldwide on the 2008 Press Freedom Index, a barometer of press freedom and/or oppression.

According to CPJ, “Tunisia, the Arab world’s leading jailer of journalists since 2001, frequently brings charges ostensibly unrelated to journalism as a way to pressure outspoken reporters while deflecting international criticism. Tunisian media are heavily restricted, and authorities actively harass the few independent journalists who attempt to write critically of the government. Over the last seven years, Tunisia has imprisoned at least four journalists for prolonged periods.”

“Known across the world for its stunning beaches and tourist locales, Tunisia quietly operates a police state at home,” added Joel Campagna in a CPJ Special Report published in September. “The print press does not criticize the president and is largely paralyzed by self-censorship. The few critical voices who do write on the Internet, for foreign publications, and for low-circulation opposition weeklies are regularly harassed and marginalized by the Tunisian authorities.”

Conditions for both the citizens and journalists of Tunisia have become so grave that the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (www.ifex.org) has begun a worldwide campaign to raise awareness of what is going on. In a recent letter to the United Nations, the 18 member-organizations of the IFEX Tunisian Monitoring Group said they are “concerned about recent attacks against human rights defenders and representatives of independent media outlets in Tunisia.

“The TMG believes that these attacks are part of a broader pattern of intimidation against journalists and free media advocates perpetrated by the Tunisian authorities to curb freedom of expression in the country.” The group is urging the U.N. to pressure the country’s president and government to “abide by Tunisia’s international human rights obligations, as well as to the commitment to freedom of expression and access to information, as reported in the final documents of the World Summit on the Information Society” in November 2005.

For a first-hand look at media conditions in Tunisia, watch this CPJ video titled “The Smiling Oppressor: The backstory of CPJ’s report on Tunisia” at www.cpj.org/smiling/audio/index.html.

You will be surprised to learn what it is like to work as a journalist in the Republic. There is, indeed, a much darker world not far beyond the beautiful hotels, Roman ruins, historic cities and exotic movie locations for such films as “Star Wars,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Jesus of Nazareth” and “The English Patient.”

To help our fellow reporters and editors, contact the Embassy of Tunisia in the United States at 1515 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005. Write, call (202-862-1850) or fax them (202-862-1858) to express your concerns about freedom of the press.

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