If history remembers one thing about Tunisia’s long-reigning President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, it would likely be how he silenced his critics. Since coming to power 23 years ago, Ben Ali has systematically controlled Tunisia’s media and silenced his opposition. The last month of social riots in Sidi Bouzid have confirmed that domestic censorship is more than a political constant. It is a reason of being for a government that has never been familiar with press freedom.
This state of affairs is the natural culmination of years of clamping down on critical voices. Few countries facing more economic and security problems impose fewer restrictions on their media. In the late 1970s, party and independent papers emerged while pro-government media slipped in importance. But that momentum did not lasted beyond the early 1990s. Human rights watchdogs describe Tunisia as one of the most repressive regimes. Reporters Without Borders has named Ben Ali as a leading "Predator of Press Freedom."
Private media is exclusively owned and/or dominated by Ben Ali’s inner circle. The Tunisian Agency for External Communication (ATCE) unfairly distributes public advertising and state subsidies among media outlets, according to their editorial stance. Opposition newspapers are regularly seized. Independent journalists are harassed and even jailed. A group of pro-government reporters has seized control of Tunisia’s journalist union (SNJT). Foreign media are banned, and the few journalists who sporadically visit the country are tightly controlled. In 2005, on the eve of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, Christophe Boltanski, a reporter with the French daily Libération, was beaten and stabbed. His colleague, Florence Beaugé, from Le Monde, was luckier because she was only stopped at the Tunis airport and expelled from the country hours before the 2009 presidential election.
When protests broke out in December, the regime’s first instinct was to escalate its censorship and intimidation of the media. Oussama Romdhani, the president’s personal translator and communication minister, is blamed for imposing a complete news blackout on the social riots in Sidi Bouzid that quickly spilled over to other regions. He paid a very heavy price when Ben Ali replaced him in a government reshuffle, though it is unlikely that he could unilaterally have taken such measures.
Samir Labidi, his successor, known for his bombastic speeches on college campuses when he was a far-left activist, failed in his first test. Nessma TV, a private TV channel, gave air to journalists in an astonishing talk show debating social riots with no apparent red lines. It was too good to be true, as the rerun was banned. Printed press suffered the same fate. Al Mawqif and Attariq Al Jadid, two opposition newspapers, were seized, their only crime having been that they reported from Sidi Bouzid.
The panic-stricken government launched a smear campaign against international media outlets. Koll Ennass, a weekly newspaper, lashed out at the Al Jazeera satellite channel. The Tunisia’s journalists’ union (SNJT) condemned "the tendency of some television channels, especially Al Jazeera TV, to dramatize and distort aiming at sowing discord and stirring up ill- feelings." This hostility toward Al Jazeera is not new. In 2006, Tunisia closed its embassy in Doha, accusing Al Jazeera TV of launching a "hostile campaign" against the country. This campaign echoes Ben Ali’s speech in which he suggested that the riots had been manipulated by foreign media and had hurt the country’s image.
The government has been caught off guard by the new media. Rioting young eyewitnesses have gone beyond the official sacrosanct principle of not leaking any "harmful" video. Since the early hours of the protests, they have become a dynamic and compelling news source for international media outlets. They have posted dozens of videos showing spiraling discontent and updated death tolls in real time. It goes without saying that new media overwhelmed traditional local media. And while opposition parties have been dithering over the way to deal with the unprecedented large-scale riots, Internet users have given free rein to their views with no fear of retaliation. In response to what it deems as subversive, the government has censored dozens of pages on social networks, stolen passwords, and arrested bloggers.
Although Ben Ali’s regime is putting in huge sums of money in public relations efforts to make up its image, it loses credibility since it doesn’t show any willingness to move in the direction of political openness and honesty. Quite the contrary, Tunisia has one of the worst human rights records in the region, and freedoms don’t seem likely for a while. And, while drawing to an end, the undemocratic Tunisia’s ruling elite merely keeps stifling dissenting voices.
Bassam Bounenni is a Tunisian journalist based in Qatar.