At a press conference on May 4, Naji Bghouri, the head of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), was prevented by pro-government journalists from finishing comments in which he mentioned of declining press freedoms in Tunisia. The episode showed that the regime of President Zine al-Abedine ben Ali had lost patience even with a body that it had helped establish in January 2008 to cut the grass out from under the feet of the country’s most critical journalists.

Bghouri and his independent-minded young colleagues’ crime was to distance themselves from ben Ali’s aides by issuing a report on press freedoms, which, though critical, was far less so than the reports issued over the past few years by international press freedom groups. The International Federation of Journalists applauded the efforts of the SNJT to improve the conditions of journalists and denounced “political intolerance and ruthless hostility to defenders of press freedom and human rights.” At the same time, however, the Tunisian Communications Ministry launched a campaign to evict the democratically elected SNJT board and replace it with a more pliable one.

The Tunisian regime used the same scenario when the Association of Tunisian Magistrates firmly opposed government interference in its internal affairs and raised its voice to defend the independence of the judiciary. A pro-government board was nevertheless imposed on the magistrates in 2005, and members of the previous independent board have, since, seen their freedom of movement tightly restricted, even as they have been harassed in the streets and the courts.

The Tunisian League for Human Rights, the first of its kind in the Arab world, has suffered the same fate. It has been under considerable police pressure and has been crippled for resisting infiltration by pro-government members. The Tunisian government frequently evokes the specter of foreign interference as justification to silence a wide variety of potentially independent voices, be they human rights activists, opposition politicians, or independent journalists.

But the real coup de grace for independent voices has been the way the regime has retained absolute control over the media. Even if the authorities have put up a facade of “loosening” restrictions, media legislation is riddled with loopholes favoring regime control. For instance, licenses for private radio stations, television channels and newspapers are only bestowed on sympathetic journalists or people close to the regime. For example, last April, a son-in-law of ben Ali, Sakher Materi, took control of As-Sabah, one of the oldest media groups in Tunisia which, despite its decline over the years, had never participated in smear campaigns against regime enemies. The change in editorial policy was immediate: the daily As-Sabah, the flagship of the company, now more than ever looks like a tool of disinformation in the regime’s hands.

It is difficult to understand why countries with more economic and social and security problems than Tunisia impose fewer restrictions on their media and civil society. Even critics of ben Ali’s charismatic, autocratic predecessor Habib Bourghiba acknowledge that the press and non-governmental organizations were less fettered before his ouster in 1987.

Tunisia has made huge strides in the vital areas of education and culture, thereby creating a large educated class. These gains have permitted the country to avoid the situation in Algeria, and to set up strong institutions allowing it to avert the political anarchy of Libya. Tunisia, which more than 50 years ago looked to be one of the best candidates for becoming a democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, is today a dictatorship.

This marks the second straight decade of deterioration in freedom, which has pushed an increasing number of young Tunisians to clandestinely leave the country and join armed Islamist groups in Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many have lost their lives or ended up in prison, including Guantanamo Bay, because they grew up under a regime ruthlessly opposed to basic human rights and the idea of social and political change through peaceful means. And that’s not the end. Ben Ali will run for re-election next October. Victory would extend his stay in office until 2014, making him, at 72 today, de facto president-for-life.

Some observers or outsiders will refer to the situation in Tunisia as a “smiling oppression.” That erroneous description is reinforced by Western governments supporting ben Ali’s regime. In April 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that the “the sphere of liberties” in Tunisia was widening. The remarkably myopic statement sparked outrage among human rights activists in Tunisia and abroad.

The Tunisian regime is investing enormous sums of money in public relations efforts to improve its image everywhere, particularly in Western capitals. Ben Ali has succeeded in making Tunisia a pop tourist destination. But his regime is still far from being able to hide the reality behind the postcards. Its ruthless oppression can only promote further violence and intolerance in Tunisia’s younger generations.

Source: The Daily Star.
Bassam Bounenni is a Tunisian journalist based in Qatar. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.