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Tunisian Media: Al-Nahda tightens its control
Tunisia’s Prime Minister and Secretary-General of the ruling Islamist al-Nahda party, Hamadi Jebali, was invited to close a two-day event held in Tunis in May to celebrate World Press Freedom Day. In his speech, Jebali remarked upon the importance of a free press for a properly functioning democracy, adding that the present government in Tunisia was “fully committed to safeguarding a public and independent media.”
Despite such words of assurance, the freedom and independence of Tunisian media remain under threat. Attacks on journalists are often treated with impunity while heavy punishments are handed out to those deemed to have “disturbed public order or public morals.” To some extent, the faltering process of media reform can be attributed to the failure to adopt the new Press Code as elaborated in November 2011 by the National Committee of Information and Communication Reform (INRIC). One must, however, ask why, despite commitments to the contrary, the government and justice system have so consistently failed to implement this new law or pay heed to the recommendations of the INRIC.
Since the ruling coalition came into power in October of last year, multiple instances of violent attacks on journalists have been recorded. On 4 January 2012, two journalists covering a protest in Manouba were attacked by police. At a protest called by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) on 25 February, seven instances of assaults on journalists at the hands of the police were recorded by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). During the April 9 Martyrs’ Day celebrations, RSF recorded 16 instances of assault against journalists, prompting them to send an open letter of condemnation to the Tunisian head of state arguing that RSF had “not witnessed violence of such magnitude since the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.”
In the same letter, RSF called upon the government to undertake proper proceedings according to Article 14 of the Press Code which prohibits “the humiliation or harm of a journalist, verbally or by gesture, action or threat.” Yet, five months down the line, the new Press Code is yet to be implemented with any sort of consistency.
On 7 October 2011, the television channel Nessma, headed by Nabil Karoui, broadcast the Iranian film Persepolis. The film, in one sequence, shows a depiction of God, something deemed offensive by a small percentage of the Muslim population in Tunisia, which prompted a mob attack on Nessma’s Headquarters. Karoui could have faced up to three years imprisonment under Article 48 of the old Press Code for libeling a religion and up to five years under Article 121(3) of the Penal Code for distributing information that could do harm to “public order or good morals.” Ultimately, Karoui was forced to pay a fine of 1200 TND ($750). Those charged with attacking Nessma’s headquarters and intimidating or assaulting staff members were asked to pay a fine of only 9.6 TND ($6). The same article of the Penal Code was relied upon to sentence Nasreddine Ben Saida for allowing the publication, in his Attounissia newspaper, of a picture of German-Tunisian footballer Sami Khedira in an embrace with a nude model. Ben Saida was detained pretrial and later forced to pay a fine of 1000 TND ($625). Most disturbing, however, are the cases of Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, two men who have been sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for having published on the Internet a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Beji fled the country and, convicted in absentia, is not able to appeal. Mejri remains in prison.
In all of these cases, the judges based their prosecutions on a previously abrogated law. Instead of the new Press Code, the judgments were based on Article 121(3) of the former Penal Code which outlaws “the distribution, sale or public display” of any material “likely to disturb public order and decency.”
The new Press Code includes several decree laws intended to protect journalists from such unjust treatment and provides for the creation of an independent authority to regulate broadcast media – the High Authority for Audovisual Communications (HAICA). While still imperfect, this revised code does at least provide a body of law relating specifically to the media.
Most importantly, considering recent developments, Decree Law 2011-116 of the new Press Code states that all nominations to executive positions in public media institutions must be carried out with the agreement of the HAICA. Nevertheless, on January 7, Nahda’s Jebali unilaterally named the new heads of three major state-run media institutions. The nominees, two of whom formerly held posts close to Ben Ali’s defunct Rally for Culture and Democracy Party (RCD), sparked large protests in the capital Tunis. Indeed, Mohamed Nejib Ouerghi, now head of the Société Nouvelle d'Impression de Presse et d'Edition (SNIPE) formerly held the post of editor-in-chief at Le Renouveau, the press outlet of the RCD. Mohamed Taieb Youssefi, the new head of news agency Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) ran, in 2010, the Prime Minister’s office under Ben Ali.
The nature of these appointments, Jebali explained, was necessitated by the urgent need to replace the former heads of these institutions and that such nominations, conducted without prior consultation, would be the exception and not the rule. However, on April 24, Habib Belaid, interim director of the National Public Radio Network, was removed from his position and replaced in the same manner. Three months later, Sadok Bouabene, director of the national news channel Wataniya 1, was similarly dismissed. More recently, on August 17, Imen Bahroun, was chosen, without the knowledge of the relevant bodies, to head Tunisia’s public television network. Bahroun was previously director of Wataniya 2 and reportedly enjoys close links with Nahda.
The situation finally came to a head on August 21. Four days prior, the editorial team at Dar Assabah, one of the oldest press outlets in Tunisia, held an “editorial strike,” leaving, in place of that day’s editorial, a blank box on the front page of their two major newspapers Assabah and Le Temps. This act of protest was provoked by the mooted replacement of the Director General of the paper, Kamel Samari, by Lotfi Touati. Touati was formerly a police commissioner under the Ben Ali regime, who also took part in a campaign to undermine the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) in 2009. The SNJT, for its part, claim that Touati’s articles since the fall of Ben Ali demonstrate his support for Nahda.
On August 21, a general meeting was held where it was decided, thanks to the deciding vote of Mustapha Beltaief, President of the Board of Directors at Dar Assabah, that Samari would keep his position. Following the meeting, Beltaief resigned from his post, uncomfortable with the means by which Samari’s dismissal was being sought. In a bid to take advantage of Beltaief’s resignation, the shareholders of Dar Assabah covertly convened a meeting just a few hours later naming Touati as the new Director General.
As Sami Ben Abdurrahman, judge at the administrative court, makes clear: “all these appointments to executive positions at public media institutions are illegal.” Nahda, however, continues to cite apparent flaws in the new Press Code as reason for its non-implementation.
It is clear that Nahda has failed, and continues to fail, to implement the revised law. This failure is, of course, deliberate and has severely hindered the process towards a just and accountable legal framework regulating the media industry. In July, INRIC ceased its activities, citing a “lack of willingness” on the part of the government to advance press freedoms. It is this same resolute lack of willingness which has, however, allowed Nahda to self-appoint the heads of the major public information organizations in Tunisia.
The other, more difficult, question to answer is why Nahda has chosen to put a number of former close allies of Ben Ali’s RCD party at the heads of Tunisia’s major media institutions. One answer is that, as long as they can ensure the loyalty of such figures, who already understand the benefits of remaining loyal to the ruling party, Nahda will extend their control over the public information services until the next elections and perhaps beyond.
In his speech to the World Press Freedom Day conference, Jebali went on to speak of his own experience of censorship and stifled press freedoms under the Ben Ali regime during his time as head of the al-Fajr newspaper. It now appears that the exigencies of political office and electoral gamesmanship have trumped any former allegiance he may have had with the media profession. It was in December 2011 that Jebali gave the first hint of his party’s intentions when remarking, on national radio, that “current media does not reflect the wishes of the people” – the people in question being those who had voted for his party. Latest events suggest that Nahda is seeking, by any means possible, to ensure that the media reflects the wishes of the ruling party.
Christopher Barrie is a student and journalist currently working in Tunisia at Nawaat.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
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