The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says that 20 years of rule by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has failed to deliver free expression in Tunisia where sophisticated governmental pressure creates a difficult climate for independent journalism.
The IFJ says that journalists in Tunisia are facing up to the realities of modernisation, but government remains stuck in a political groove of media manipulation in which dissenting voices are marginalised.
“The anniversary this week of two decades in power should not pass without recognition that the country is long overdue for change, particularly in the role and responsibility of media,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “Our colleagues in Tunisia are opening up to an important debate about the best way to represent and organise journalists, but on the side of the authorities minds are closed to the need for urgent reforms to encourage media freedom.”
The IFJ has also welcomed the move to form the European Union-Tunisia Sub-Committee on Human Rights and is hoping that issues of press freedom and free expression will figure high on the agenda for discussion. The IFJ says that for too long some democratic governments in the West have turned a blind eye to human rights violations in Tunisia because of the government’s commitment to opposing the growth of militant Islamist groups.
White’s comments come after the Tunisian Association of Journalists recently changed its name to the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) to recognise its role in defending the social and union rights of media professionals as well as professional rights of journalists.
“Democratic countries play a dangerous game if they do not confront press freedom abuses,” said White. “They can give the impression of complacency about censorship and disregard for basic human rights. In Tunisia these are often practices in sophisticated and subtle ways, but they are abuses nonetheless.”
Ben Ali’s government has a sophisticated method of censoring the Internet, blocking access to certain sites on an intermittent basis and slowing down connection speeds to make surfing virtually impossible. The government also controls all printed media by only allowing only certain newspapers and magazines to register and thereby cutting all independent media off from access to printing presses.
Ben Ali has stood by while authorities have repeatedly attacked foreign and Tunisian journalists. He has allowed journalists to be tried for media offences in criminal court. In one case, Slim Boukhdir, a freelance reporter and member of the Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SJT), has been routinely harassed by the government. He has launched a hunger strike protesting the government’s refusal to give him a passport.
The IFJ is also calling on the government to respect all groups representing journalists in the country and deal with them all on a fair and equal basis.
For more information contact the IFJ at 32 2 235 2207
The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 121 countries worldwide.