Last Updated: Wednesday, 09 July 2014, 13:04 GMT

Attacks on the Press in 2002 - Tunisia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2003
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2002 - Tunisia, February 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c56686c.html [accessed 10 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In May, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali won 99.52 percent approval for constitutional changes that allow him to run for a fourth term in 2004. The poll – condemned by human rights groups inside and outside the country as rigged – did not surprise those familiar with Ben Ali's 15-year, strongman rule of Tunisia.

Through a combination of censorship and intimidation, Tunisian authorities have all but stamped out independent voices in the country's media, with the exception of a few courageous dissident journalists who publish their work underground, on the Internet, or in Western newspapers.

Those who write critically about political affairs have faced an array of official reprisals: physical attacks, imprisonment, the banning of their publications, the withholding of state advertising, anonymous telephone threats, cut phone and fax lines, the removal of accreditation, and travel restrictions. The result is a press that – although mostly privately owned – is almost completely subservient to the regime. In April, when 19 people were killed after suspected al-Qaeda operatives drove a gas-filled truck into a synagogue on Tunisia's Djerba Island, the local media described the incident as a traffic accident, even when foreign media correctly speculated that terrorism was the cause.

While officials have long censored critical Internet content (including CPJ's Web site), during 2002, authorities prosecuted and imprisoned an Internet journalist for the first time. In June, Zouhair Yahyaoui, editor of the online newspaper TUNeZINE (www.tunezine.com), was sentenced to 28 months in prison on charges of publishing false information and using stolen communication lines to post his Web site, which had been functioning for nearly a year before his prosecution. He remained in jail at year's end.

Tunisian authorities had regularly blocked the site to users inside Tunisia, but TUNeZINE circumvented these barriers by establishing alternate addresses. Observers believe that authorities targeted Yahyaoui because many young Tunisians were visiting the site and learning how to access other blocked addresses. In addition, Yahyaoui regularly published content that criticized the Tunisian regime, including a satirical poll mocking the May referendum.

Tunisian officials are beginning to realize just how powerful the Internet is for the clandestine press. Many independent journalists who have left the country during the last few years communicate via the Internet with activists and journalists in Tunisia. These exiled members of the media complain that they regularly receive e-mail viruses that may come from the government.

When human rights activist and journalist Sihem Bensedrine applied for a publication license in 2002, officials ignored her request. She then established Kalima, an online journal that carries articles in Arabic and French from such noted independent journalists as Taoufik Ben Brik. Authorities began blocking access to the site, so she and her staff resorted to secretly printing and distributing the paper to individual readers.

In addition to restricting local print, broadcast, and electronic media, Tunisian authorities regularly monitor and ban foreign publications. Foreign journalists deemed unfriendly to the regime are denied accreditation and ordered to leave the country. In May, Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, a reporter with the French newspaper Le Monde, was refused entry into Tunisia while en route to cover the referendum because, authorities said, he had "ill will" toward the country. In 1999, Tuquoi co-authored the book Our Friend Ben Ali, which lambasted Tunisia's human rights record.

While publications affiliated with legally sanctioned opposition parties exist, they do not receive government subsidies as do other papers, and as a result do not publish regularly.

Although Tunisian newspapers and government television stations have lost credibility among much of the public, satellite television has become very popular, especially Arabic-language stations such as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and the private, London-based El Zeitouna, which is affiliated with Tunisia's banned Al-Nahda Party.

June 4
Zouhair Yahyaoui, TUNeZINE IMPRISONED

Yahyaoui, editor of the online publication TUNeZINE, was arrested at the Internet café where he worked in the capital, Tunis, and detained. He was sentenced two weeks later to 28 months in prison.

A Tunis court found Yahyaoui guilty of intentionally publishing false information, a violation of Article 306 of the country's Penal Code. The charge stemmed from a number of articles posted on TUNeZINE, including a piece criticizing the May 26, 2002, constitutional referendum in which 99.52 percent of voters approved constitutional changes allowing President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to run for a fourth term. Yahyaoui was also found guilty of using stolen communication lines to post his Web site, a violation of Section 84 of the Telecommunications Code.

Since Yahyaoui established TUNeZINE in July 2001 using a pseudonym, the site has frequently published articles and commentary – including the views of leading Tunisian dissidents – that harshly criticize the Tunisian government. Authorities have blocked the Web site to users inside Tunisia, but TUNeZINE has often circumvented these barriers by establishing alternate addresses.

August 23
Abdullah Zouari, Al-Fajr IMPRISONED

Zouari, formerly with the banned Islamist weekly Al-Fajr, was sentenced to eight months in prison for defying a July 15 Interior Ministry order banishing him to the small southern Tunisian village of Khariba Hassi Jerbi, about 370 miles (600 kilometers) outside the capital, Tunis. The journalist unsuccessfully contested the decision and was arrested on August 19 for defying the order.

Zouari's arrest came nearly three months after he was released from prison on June 6, when he completed an 11-year sentence for "association with an unrecognized organization." Zouari had been tried by a military court in 1991, along with 279 other individuals, for belonging to the banned Al-Nahda party, of which Al-Fajr was the mouthpiece.

Zouari again appealed the order, but a court in the small southern town of Medenine ruled against him on September 4, 2002. The president pardoned Zouari in November, and he was released soon after.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

Search Refworld

Countries