No Arab ruler pays more lip service to democracy and press freedom, while simultaneously silencing critics and independent journalists, than Tunisian President Zein al-Abedin ben Ali. Addressing the state-run Tunisian Association of Newspapers Editors (TANE) and the Association of Journalists (AJ) recently on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, Ben Ali claimed that under his rule, press freedom and free expression were gaining ground and that journalists were “performing their mission” through outlets “free and committed to democracy.”

The president was hardly speaking to a credible audience. TANE was expelled in 1997 from the World Association of Newspapers for its failure to defend press freedom, while AJ saw its membership suspended in 2004 by the International Federation of Journalists for awarding Ben Ali its “Golden Quill” award.

The president’s statements came as delegates representing several international groups committed to the protection of freedom of expression were heading to Tunisia to release two alarming reports on the regime’s attacks against the rights of free expression, association and assembly. Paradoxically, Tunisia will host the United Nation’s World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in November.

Attacks on freedom of expression and police harassment of independent journalists like Lotfi Hajji, the head of the Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, continued unabated even on World Press Freedom Day. Hajji was summoned twice in less than a week by police for making public a report holding the government responsible for turning the Tunisian media into a lifeless tool of misinformation.

Alexis Krikorian of the Geneva-based International Publishers Association declared afterward: “It is ironic that the Tunisian authorities are choosing to mark World Press Freedom Day in this way. But it is even more ironic that while the authorities are harassing Hajji, they are telling us that there is no harassment of the media in Tunisia.” Krikorian and his colleagues in the 13-member Tunisia Monitoring Group, established in 2004 under the umbrella of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), just launched the Arabic edition of a report titled, “Tunisia: Freedom of Expression under Siege.”

The report documents cases of individuals imprisoned for “expression of their opinions or media activities” and the importation and distribution of books. It mentioned that the authorities had also obstructed Web sites and prevented peaceful public assembly. The report also shed light on police surveillance and harassment of political dissidents and human rights defenders.

Mark Bench of the World Press Freedom Committee, one of the members of IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group, told Tunisian officials that “he had traveled nearly 200 times in recent years in different parts of the world, but has never experienced so much police surveillance.”

The group’s recommendations seem to have fallen on deaf ears, like those made nearly five years ago by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Abid Hussain. The UN official was struck by the “uniformity of tone” of the Tunisian media and the absence of criticism of the government. His recommendations to “remove all obstacles to intellectual and artistic creativity” and to stop harassing “persons seeking to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression” provoked anger and denial from official sources.

The second report on Tunisia launched recently was the work of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, the World Organization against Torture and a Canadian group called Rights and Democracy. It repeated the familiar accusations leveled against Tunisia’s regime and urged the government to make “substantive progress” toward freedom of expression.

Both the latter report and the one by the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group warned that the failure of the Tunisian government to end attacks on human rights and free expression “may compromise the effectiveness and the credibility” of the WSIS. Indeed, many Tunisians are wondering why their government was allowed to host the UN summit in the first place. “This meeting is going to be rather negative because there is no guarantee that the voices of Tunisians striving to be free and peacefully opposing dictatorship will be heard,” said Mohammad Talbi, a former university dean and prominent advocate of freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, the arrests continue. On April 28, Mohammad Abbou, a prominent human rights lawyer, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for, among other things, an Internet article in which he compared the inhumane conditions in Tunisian prisons to those of the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In early May another human rights lawyer, Fawzi ben Mrad, was sentenced to four months in prison after criticizing the government.

How did Ben Ali assert his autocracy? In 1992, he opportunistically used the outbreak of violence in neighboring Algeria following the cancellation of the results of the first round of legislative elections (which the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win) to crack down on dissent in Tunisia. President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” provided him with another precious opportunity to tighten the screws on what was once the most vibrant society in the region. Indeed, Tunisia, 145 years ago, was the first entity in the Middle East and North Africa to have a Constitution, and in 1956 it was the first to grant women their rights.

It is unlikely that the government will do anything but introduce cosmetic changes before the WSIS summit. Indeed, little can be expected from Ben Ali when it comes to freedom of expression. The regime prefers sycophants who write propaganda pieces about the president, the same man who claims he is paving the way for greater democracy in Tunisia.

Kamel Labidi is a freelance journalist in Cairo. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

Source: The Daily Star | Saturday, May 14, 2005