Tunisia’s ‘Black Book’ Strikes at Media Freedom

Tunisia’s ‘Black Book’ Strikes at Media Freedom

The office of Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has compiled a book that lists journalists and intellectuals accused of colluding with the former authoritarian regime and assisting in polishing its image in Tunisia and abroad.

The communications arm of the presidency stated in the report that the list is based on the archive that was found in the Carthage presidential palace after Marzouki took office December 2011.

Entitled The Propaganda Apparatus Under Ben Ali: The Black Book, the report looks into how the previous regime used the media to serve its own political agenda and sought to control the flow of information coming out of Tunisia. The regime conveyed its instructions through the Tunisian Agency of External Communication, known by its French acronym ATCE, which was dissolved after the Jan. 14 revolution that toppled the Ben Ali regime.

The report reveals how the ATCE acted as the regime’s PR agency, using its huge budget to implement the instructions of Ben Ali’s political advisers. The ATCE recruited local journalists to write articles praising the system and camouflaging the human rights violations in return for large sums of money. The rewards ranged between 50 and 3,000 Dinars ($30 to $1,800), depending on the article and the service.

Ben Ali’s propaganda apparatus not only controlled the media coverage in Tunisia, but also sought to direct how the whole world viewed the country. According to the report, the ATCE, operating through Tunisia’s diplomatic representatives abroad, managed to get some correspondents working for foreign press agencies like AFP, Reuters, UIP, and AP to agree to favorably orient their coverage in exchange for money.

The Black Book has stirred controversy in Tunisia. While some people enjoyed airing the dirty laundry and sharing the juicy details on social networks, others criticized the presidency’s handling of the archives. Lawyer Wahid Ferchichi, a transitional justice consultant, questioned the very legality of the publishers’ use of the archives. "The president’s team does not even have the right to look at the archives. Before going as far processing, selecting and publishing the information, one ought to question whether or not they have the right to open those files and look at their content," Ferchichi said.

Ferchichi’s position was echoed by media expert Hichem Snoussi, who said that the report is ambiguous and was not conducted according to vigorous standards of research. "We don’t even know its methodology or the people who drafted it. It is a narrow report and it might bear a partisan dimension," Snoussi said.

Snoussi added that publishing such a book cannot be considered a step forward in reforming and ameliorating the media scene in Tunisia, especially when taking into account the government’s poor record on media freedom. "This government did not achieve the necessary progress in media reform. They obstructed our efforts to reform the media sector. They refused to pass the new press code. They prosecuted journalists and artists," said Snoussi.

The current government came under attack when it froze the new press code drafted after the revolution by the National Committee of Information and Communication Reform, an independent body tasked with liberalizing and reforming the media sector in Tunisia. Instead of enacting the newly drafted code, the government went back to using Ben Ali’s penal code to try journalists and artists. (In the photo above, leaders of the Tunisian Union of Journalists rally to demand the release of jailed journalist Zied el-Heni.)

Journalists widely viewed the book as an attempt to intimidate them. "This is another political maneuver to tame the media. They want to threaten us," stated a journalist who worked for the newspaper of the former ruling party for more than 15 years, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

"Many journalists who surrendered to the pressures of the previous regime are now trying break with the practices of the past and improve the quality of their work," she continued. "But the government is not content with that because it wants media to serve its political agenda."

The journalist also noted that publishing the book would hamper the path of transitional justice in Tunisia. The Tunisian minister of human rights and transitional justice, Samir Dilou (who is part of Marzouki’s ruling coalition government) explained that the timing was badly chosen given that the country’s Constituent Assembly is scheduled to examine the transitional justice law in the next few weeks. The transitional justice law, drafted jointly by the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice and civil society associations, aims to reveal the truth about the abuses perpetrated under Ben Ali’s regime, hold the offenders accountable, and provide reparations for the regime’s victims.

"The presidency did not respect the process of transitional justice," he said.

Commenting on the publication of the Black Book, the International Center for Transitional Justice said that "specific and ad hoc efforts may undermine an overall project for transparency and accountability for human rights abuses…. Transitional justice must not be selective or vindictive."

In anticipation of such criticism, the authors of the Black Book said in its introduction that it was not written "with the aim of retaliation or schadenfreude." Rather, they aimed to help Tunisia break from the old practices and avoid reproducing "the same propaganda apparatus" because it is "dangerous for the nascent democracy."

Marzouki said last year in a televised interview that he would not publish the archives he found in the presidential palace without a law in place, and that it would be unethical to use the archive to serve one’s political interests.

One year later, not only did his government use the archive, but it accompanied its publication with 12 pages recounting the activism history of the current President Moncef Marzouki, who was introduced as "one of the most prominent figures to resist dictatorship in spite of the harassment of the security forces and judicial pressure."

It’s hard to see such language as anything other than a new kind of propaganda.

Asma Ghribi is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. She was formerly managing editor of the Tunisia Live website.