Tunisians go to the polls on Sunday 25 October to elect a president and renew the National Assembly. The result of the election is not in doubt. The sole question is by what percentage Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali will be re-elected.
As the monthly Afrique-Asie headlined its special issue of October 2009 “Tunisia, why it works”, Reporters Without Borders, including its secretary general Jean-François Julliard, went to Tunis on 12-15 October to observe how the media, particularly those linked to the opposition, manage to cover the campaign as well as to check the access of some opposition parties to the public media.
“Pluralism in news is still not a reality in Tunisia. It is unfortunately particularly true in an election campaign. President Ben Ali is splashed on the front pages of newspapers that are tireless in his praise. The columns of the state-run and pro-government newspapers are brimming with messages of congratulations and support for the candidate-president. The same goes for television and radio. Unfavourable opinions of the head of state are largely absent from media and Tunisians do not have access to balanced news and information”, said Jean-François Julliard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders on his return from a fact-finding visit to Tunis.
“We also condemn the attitude of the Tunisian authorities who prevent Tunisian journalists and foreign correspondents from doing their work. The police presence is permanent during this electoral period. Opposition activists, independent journalists, human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists are closely watched. This state of affairs is unacceptable,” the organisation added.
Opposition candidate’s access to public media
The 13-day election campaign opened officially on Sunday 11 October for both the presidential and legislative elections.
The Constitutional Council has validated four candidates for the presidency. The outgoing president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), Mohamed Bouchiha of the Party of People’s Unity (PUP), Ahmed Inoubli of the Unionist Democratic Union (UDU) and Ahmed Brahim for Ettajdid (former communist party), who distinguishes himself from the other candidates by refusing to be just an ‘extra’ to give a sheen of “democracy”.
For the first time in Tunisia, the four candidates to the presidency benefited from one hour of airtime to present their manifestos, live on the public channel Tunis 7 at 8.30pm. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, not surprisingly, went first, Ahmed Brahim for Ettajdid second. The draw that decided the order in which candidates would go ended up costing the communications minister his job. He was sacked on the spot for not pulling the ball for the head of state from his pocket discreetly enough.
Two days after the launch of the campaign by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Ahmed Brahim was due to give his inaugural speech at 8.30pm on 13 October. Then at 5.30pm, the candidate’s campaign committee received a call informing the party that the speech was being broadcast at that moment on the radio and that it would be broadcast on television at 6.20pm, two hours earlier than planned and without any explanation. Even if Ahmed Brahim’s 38-minute speech had been broadcast uncut, the change in timeslot would constitute a serious failure in the principle of fairness between the different candidates, since the others had their broadcast schedules untouched.
Moreover, the immensely detailed constraints imposed on the candidates in reading their speech and the way in which the technicians on Tunis 7 filmed Brahim, the Ettajdid candidate, repeatedly zooming in and out from all directions, would have been enough to discourage even the most ardent supporter.
Problems for opposition media
Late in the evening of 10 October, the eve of the opening of the campaign, the interior minister confiscated issue 149 of Ettajdid’s party newspaper al-Tariq al-Jadid (The new path) which carried the party’s manifesto for the presidential elections, when the copies were still at the printers. The party was accused of “violating electoral law” even though not a single copy of the paper had been distributed.
These two examples perfectly illustrate how the Tunisian authorities use every means at their disposal to gag the opposition which decided to take part in the elections. Hatem Chaabouni, head of information for Ettajdid, told Reporters Without Borders that “the campaign is being carried more in foreign media that in Tunisian media, given that most of them belong to the regime and the others support it.” The daily news bulletin of the sole privately owned radio, Mosaïque, is made up entirely of reports from the official Tunisian news agency ATP. The same goes for the Arabic-language daily Ash-Shourouq. The dailies As-Sabah and Le Temps, owned by the head of state’s son-in-law, Sakher Al-Materi, gives no space to the opposition.
Hichem Skik, joint editor of al-Tariq al-Jadid, also referred to censorship on the part of the Superior Information Council, of the actual content of the candidate’s programmes. So that in Ettajdid’s manifesto, the council called for five points to be changed, since their content was not “correct”, according to interior ministry criteria. The ministry also blocked distribution of the party’s posters, arguing that the name ‘Alliance’ and the logo used by the party were not in conformity with the register of parties legally recognised by the state. Reporters Without Borders noted that, because of this disagreement, the advertising inserts reserved for their party were left blank in the capital and that in other cities, posters had been torn down.
The public press overflows with praise for Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The announcement, on 15 October, by the daily La Presse, of the support of the Tunisian Association of Newspaper Editors (Atdj) for the candidacy of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali constitutes a disturbing break with press neutrality towards the candidates. The Atdj “welcomes the ongoing presidential attention to the news sector,”, “with the objective of improving its content and boosting its contribution to deepening the democratic pluralist experience in Tunisia” (Page 5 of La Presse). La Presse, on page 4 of its 13 October edition stresses “the support of national organisations for the Head of State’s election programme”, underlining the “pertinence of vision and the rightness of the steps contained in the keynote speech” of 12 October. Page 8 of the same edition is devoted to comments singing the praises of the candidate-president Ben Ali, who is campaigning on the theme “Together, we will meet the challenge”. The French-language daily did not give the same amount of space to the speeches of the other candidates, who got, at best, a quarter of a page.
Le Temps, in its 13 October edition, announcing the opening of the election campaign, made no mention of opposition parties, while the activities of the candidate-president were the subject of a double page spread (Page 4 and 5). Same thing in its 14 October edition, in which just over a page (Page 4 and 5) was given over to Ben Ali’s campaign.
The 14 October edition of La Presse vaunts the support of the “resisters and militants” for the “presidential election programme (which) lays the foundations of a forward-looking and more radiant future” (P.4). It picks up the idea that the re-election would be a “historic new step on the path to democracy and pluralism”, having no hesitation in referring to Ben Ali as “saviour” (P.5). The newspaper also refers to the support of a delegation of 17 Arab ambassadors for the National Elections Observatory (P.5) on page 7, a quarter of a page is dedicated to opposition parties, but Ettajdid does not get a mention. The same thing is repeated in the 15 October edition.
The web still being targeted
Reporters Without Borders was able to verify that the election campaign did nothing to change censorship of the web in Tunisia by the cyber-police. Several opposition websites cannot be seen in Tunisia. Several opposition figures do not have access to their emails, since passwords of messaging services or computer IP addresses have been changed. Facebook pages are watched round the clock and the slightest criticism of the ruling party leads to them being blocked.
The organisation points out that many journalists and bloggers, such as Slim Boukhdhir and Mokhtar Yahyawi, have been deprived of their right to a passport; that Lotfi Hajji, correspondent for al-Jazeera in Tunisia, has still not obtained his official accreditation despite repeated applications over the past five years; that Sihem Ben Sedrine is still facing legal proceedings for “using a frequency without permission” and for launching radio Kalima. She faces up to five years in prison.
Tunisia is ranked 154th out of 175 countries in the organisation’s 2009 world press freedom rankings.
Chronology of harassment of media and journalists in the past few weeks:
- 15 August 2009: the authorities take control of the journalists’ trade union, putting at its head Jamal Karmawi, adviser to the secretary general of the ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, (see: http://www.rsf.org/Government-supporters-seize.html). The former secretary general, Neji Bghouri, was not allowed to lodge a complaint in a bid to have this bogus election cancelled. He was banned access to the union’s premises, on 9 September.
- 28 September: Three journalists Slim Boukhdhir, Mahmoud al-Zouadi and Mohamed Maali, were prevented from entering Tunis Carthage airport, where they had arrived to meet a colleague Naziha Rajiba, editor of the newspaper Kalima and secretary general of the Tunisian press freedom observatory.
- 29 September: Hamma Hammami, former editor of the banned newspaper Alternatives and spokesman for the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party, was physically assaulted on arrival at the airport after giving interviews to al-Jazeera and France 24, in which he called the elections a “farce” (see: http://www.rsf.org/Opposition-leader-who-gave-TV.html). Hamma Hammami tried to lay a complaint for assault against Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali for grievous bodily harm but the chief prosecutor refused to accept it.
- 1st October: the authorities ban distribution of “The Regent of Carthage” by French journalists Nicolas Beau and Catherine Graciet, after losing a case before a court in Paris calling for the book to be banned. “The day I realised Tunisia is not longer a land of liberty” by M. Bouebdelli is also banned.
- 5 October: Moaz Al-Bey, correspondent for Radio Kalima and the newspaper al-Maouqif in Sfax, 270 km south of Tunis, is physically assaulted by plainclothes police officers. His journalistic equipment is destroyed or confiscated.
- 10 October: Hamma Hammami is refused the right to leave Tunisia to take part in a conference about Tunisia at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
- 10 October (evening): police seize issue no 149 of the newspaper al-Tariq al-Jadid (the New Path) at the printers, for “violating election law”. The newspaper distributed by the Ettajdid party which is putting up a presidential candidate (Ahmed Brahim), was due to be distributed from 11 October, date of the opening of election campaign.
- 11 October: expulsion of Italian journalist Manuela Gumucio, head of the Observatorio de Medios (Media Observatory), in Tunisia to offer training in the framework of a media-monitoring project organised by Sihem Ben Sedrine.
- 14 October: M. Bouabdelli is the target of threats on the news website www.bilmakchouf.org, which is pro-regime.
- 15 October: Zouheir Makhlouf, correspondent for the website al-Sabil online, was arrested while reporting on living conditions for residents of Nabeul, 63 km south-east of Tunis). He is accused of “harassment” for posting news on Facebook. He was then taken to a prison 20 km north of Tunis. His trial is due to held on 3 November. He began a hunger strike on 22 October.
- 20 October: Lawyer Radhia Nasrowi is banned from leaving Tunisia, officially because of proceedings against her. Unofficially, it followed statements she made to al-Hiwar Ettounsi television and remarks by her husband on al-Jazzera and France 24.
- 20 October: Florence Beaugé, journalist on French daily Le Monde, is prevented from entering Tunisia for “always showing evident ill-will towards Tunisia and being systematically hostile”, according to an official source contacted by AFP.
- 22 October: Journalist Taoufik Ben Brik is harassed over articles he wrote for le Nouvel Observateur and the website Médiapart.
- 22 October: Journalists and opposition figures trying to show solidarity with Zouheir Makhlouf prevented from meeting his wife at their home.
- 22 October: police raid the premises of a Tunis radio station, broadcasting on web Radio 6, where journalists have been rallying since 17 October to condemn the state media monopoly and the absence of free expression in the run-up to elections.