Tunis-Carthage Airport. Whether leaving or returning to Tunisia, I am always questioned by the police agent at the border, « Where are you a journalist? Which media outlet do you work for? » The consistency of that question, systematically asked of all the journalists I know, refutes the assumption that the agent is asking out of simple curiosity. My response ranges from annoyance—« Why this question? What difference does it make? »—to sarcasm—« So Customs must be calculating statistics, right? » But the fact remains: ten years after Ben Ali’s departure, old reflexes persist.
The former president’s regime kept a close eye on journalists’ entry into the country—when it was permitted—and the parameter of their activities, not to mention the work of local journalists. In 2010, the country ranked 164 out of 178 in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index. Today, the country has risen to 73.
Government’s iron grip on the media
The main francophone newspaper under Ben Ali, La Presse, was a propaganda mouthpiece for the government. In 2009, Ben Ali’s ex-son-in-lawSakher Materi—who was convicted in absentia and has sought refuge in Seychelles—purchased 70% of the capital of the country’s main private press house, Dar Assabah – Le Temps. At the time, three titles stood out for their critical political stance, and paid the price for it: Kalima, a bilingual, clandestine newspaper, Al-Mawqif, a periodical by the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) that regularly flew off newspaper stands, and Attariq Al-jadid, the weekly Arabic publication by the Ettajdid movement, Tunisia’s former communist party. All three were prohibited from advertising. As for the audiovisual sector, delayed liberalization and the emergence of private stations always took place under the Ben Ali clan’s strict control. This was true for Shems FM, a radio station launched in 2010 by the dictator’s daughter, Nesrine Ben Ali, and Zitouna FM, a religious station owned by her husband at the time, Sakher Materi.
In charge of managing the country’s image abroad, the Tunisian Exterior Communication Agency (ATCE) was created in 1990 and dissolved in 2011. Former minister and counselor to the president, Abdelwahab Abdallah, transformed the ATCE into a veritable instrument of propaganda for the government. Among other things, the agency was responsible for managing the advertising budget of public companies and, by extension, for controlling them. The ATCE also sorted the « bad » from « good » foreign journalists who would have the privilege of practicing their trade in the country. In this context, some might recall France 2 news coverage lauding a Tunisia so feminist that there was hardly a veiled woman to be found in the street (did the journalist have any idea that such women were either in prison or forced to appear at the police station with a promise to no longer wear the veil?). Others might remember a November 9, 2007 advertorial by Figaro Magazine in which the journalist was received at the Carthage palace for an exclusive—and no less obliging—interview with the dictator.
What is bred in the bone…
And it is precisely a former collaborator of the ATCE, Kamel Ben Younès, who prime minister Mechichi parachuted in to serve as director of the Tunis Africa Press Agency (TAP) on April 6. According to the 2011 report by the National Commission for the Investigation of Corruption and Embezzlement—on which Mechichi served—Ben Younès purportedly received upwards of 152,000 dinars (45,414 euros) in 2008 for his collaboration within the agency. A former collaborator with the Arabic periodical Assabah, in April 2017 Ben Younès became general director of Zitouna FM, a religious radio station with ties to Ennahdha. In March 2021, he participated in the Political Symposium of the Youth of Ennahda. Indeed, Rached Ghannouchi’s party has no qualms about recycling henchmen of the former regime, in spite of the fact that it severely repressed the Islamists. The one condition of their acceptance is their pledge of party allegiance, a sine qua non for obtaining the Cheikh’s revolutionary absolution.
Outcry from TAP journalists. While Abdellatif Mekki, former minister of health and a leader of the Islamist party, « doesn’t see the problem » with a partisan appointment, agency employees organized a sit-in to protest on the day of the announcement. The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) and central bureau of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) called for a sit-down strike to denounce the government’s obstinacy in keeping Ben Younès in his new position.
But Mechichi wouldn’t budge. Acting on his duties as interim interior minister, the prime minister sent police to accompany the new director as he took office. In an unprecedented scenario even under Ben Ali, journalists were assaulted in their place of work. Ben Younès ultimately left the premises amidst cries of « Get out! » [« Dégage! », in French]. Journalists used the same slogan that Tunisians chanted on January 14, 2011, highlighting the political nature of practices denounced that day in April. For Mahdi Jelassi, secretary general of the SNJT, « We remain in the same system that seeks to protect its interests, only now Ennahda has taken over ».
A ten-year power struggle
At the same moment, a similar mobilization took place at Shems FM, a radio station confiscated by the State after the departure of Ben Ali and his family. Journalists are still waiting for the station’s cession, a procedure which the government says is imminent and which is all the more pressing as Shems FM faces financial and technical difficulties. Instead, on May 12, the government decided once again to parachute in its choice of a new director, Hanen Ftouhi. The sense of bewilderment experienced by the radio’s personnel could not have been greater, especially because Ftouhi, a journalist, has no expertise in financial or administrative management. During a press conference on April 5, 2021, the SNJT denounced political will for the cession to fail and for control of the radio station’s editorial line.
After the executive branch mobilized in early April, the judicial branch took its turn on April 26 in a move against the president of the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), a constitutional regulatory authority. The latter had ordered the requisition of equipment at the Radio du Saint Coran, on grounds of unlawful broadcasting, the station having played a role in the electoral campaign of Al-Rahma party deputy Saïd Jaziri. The deputy, who has no legal status within the station’s organizational structure, hurried to file a lawsuit against the HAICA’s president, who does have regulatory powers. The latter was immediately summoned by judicial police.
A sit-in, protests and chants of « Get out! »; On April 19, both Kamel Ben Younès and Hanen Ftouhi renounced their director positions. And although the first case was clearly unprecedented with regard to the physical and symbolic violence of police intervention, there is nothing new about the drive to control public media. Already in 2012, during the Troika government that was dominated by Ennahdha, prime minister Hamadi Jebali had appointed new directors to public radio and television stations. Under pretext of reforming the public audiovisual sector, these decisions flouted the new decree-laws governing freedom of the press which replaced the former regime’s repressive Press Code.
In August that same year, it was another collaborator of the Ben Ali regime, former police officer Lotfi Touati, who the government appointed as director of Dar Assabah. That company had also been confiscated by the government in 2011. After a two-month conflict in which some journalists even led a hunger strike, Lotfi Touati resigned. A noxious atmosphere in a media sector riddled with political interference—this was the reality that journalists faced under Lotfi Zitoun, an Ennahda adherent who served as counselor to Hamadi Jebali for the media sector.
A worrying turn of events
These last two appointments by the prime minister in April were set against a backdrop of high security tension, with a return of police violence that some might have believed to be a thing of the past. Instead, this violence has resurfaced in the confiscation of arrested protesters’ telephones and violation of their personal data. Police unions have also taken to targeting journalists through their publications on social media. So even if the concerned minister, Hichem Mechichi, is not personally partisan, his policies are nevertheless dictated by the interests of the Islamist party which constitutes his primary basis of support in parliament.
For Mahdi Jelassi, recent manoeuvres are more worrying than what the sector endured in 2012:
There is definitely continuity. Today, however, the government is breaking up and has become incapable of protecting anyone, including journalists. In 2012, beyond civil society, there was a real political opposition that supported us and enabled us to balance out the situation. Today, there are different nuances of the right in power, and Abir Moussi [president of the Free Destourian Party and former official of the Ben Ali party, a heritage she reclaims] as the primary opponent. Political figures who pretend to belong to the revolutionary current have already called on the police to repress demonstrators. We are threatened on all sides.
For the first time since 2013, Tunisia has fallen in the World Press Freedom Index that the RSF publishes each year. And although the country may have fallen by just one point, this is only because of a global trend in which freedom of the press is threatened, according to Amira Mohamed, vice-secretary general of the SNJT. As such, this irrefutable, unanimously celebrated gain of the revolutionary process sparked in December 2010 can be counted amongst the victims of Tunisia’s current political crisis.
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