“In the past, Tunisia made huge efforts to invest in journalism education. Unfortunately, the people who benefited from those efforts have been gradually prevented from serving their country according to the basic rules of journalism and ethics. Scores of skilled and honest journalists have been silenced and forced to leave their job or the country,” says Kamel Labidi, one of the many Tunisian journalist who chose exile to preserve his freedom and to be able to denounce the abuses of the Tunisian regime. In an interview with the Arab Press Network, Labidi talks about the pressure he faced in Tunisia as well as the situation of journalists in the country today.

By Patricia Khoder

APN: You worked as a journalist in Tunisia from 1975 until 1994, when you were fired from your work. You then became director of the Tunisian section of Amnesty International until 1996, when the authorities forbid you from pursuing your work. Last year you waited more than five months to get a new passport from the Tunisian Embassy in Washington. Why are the Tunisian authorities treating you like this?

Labidi: I was fired from the official Tunisian news agency, TAP, in 1994 and then denied my accreditation as correspondent for the French daily La Croix and United Press International (UPI). Despite different forms of harassment, I did not stop writing and kept trying, together with friends committed to press freedom, to resist unrelenting attempts to turn Tunisian journalists into sycophants and the now-defunct Association of Tunisian Journalists, which used to be one of the most independent journalists’ groups in the Arab world, into a tool of propaganda.

I left the country in 1996 after working for less than two years as director of Amnesty International-Tunisia and facing violations of my basic rights, particularly the confiscation of my passport. Plainclothes police came to my apartment in January 1996 in the middle of the night without a warrant and took it. The obvious purpose was to prevent me from traveling to Sana’a, Yemen, to attend a UNESCO conference on promoting pluralism in the Arab media.

In 2007, I waited more than six months to get a new passport. So whether you are living in Tunisia or overseas, there is a price to pay for being an independent Tunisian journalist or a dissident.

I cannot speak for the Tunisian authorities. You can ask them why they continue to attack human rights defenders and independent journalists and why they did not learn a lesson from the decision made by the World Association of Newspapers in 1997 to expel the state-run Tunisian Association of Newspaper Directors for its failure to denounce blatant abuses of press freedom. They would certainly and arrogantly deny these abuses.

APN: Do you live in exile or can you travel home to Tunisia and feel safe about it?

Labidi: The last time I visited Tunisia to see my relatives was in October. I left Tunisia 12 years ago because I felt for the first time since I became a journalist in 1975 that the country I grew up to love and serve was precipitously turning into a “republic of fear.” I could not bear the idea of living any longer under a regime which offered less room for freedom of expression, assembly and association than the French Protectorate.

My decision was part of a wave that led thousands of Tunisians, including scores of journalists, to leave the country because the regime’s tolerance for critical thinking was declining rapidly and fear and self-censorship were gaining ground everywhere in the country. I also reached that decision after coming to the conclusion that I would serve the cause of human rights in Tunisia and the rest of the region better if I moved to Europe or North America.

APN: In all your writings about Tunisia, you denounce the regime. Don’t you get tired?

Labidi: It’s my duty as a Tunisian journalist to try to do my job according to professional and ethical rules. I could not turn a blind eye to the declining human rights record and increase of serious abuses of human rights in Tunisia. Earlier generations denounced and resisted colonial occupation and injustice. No country in the world ever made significant progress toward better living standards, justice and equal opportunities for its people without citizens determined to indefatigably oppose oppression and help pave the way for genuine change.

APN: What kind of pressure is exercised on journalists in Tunisia (threats, confiscation of passports, prison…)? Is this situation driving journalists into exile?

Labidi: Attacks on critical journalists started in the wake of the independence in 1956. Privately owned and opposition newspapers were often banned, independent-minded journalists intimidated or fired under President Bourguiba. I was among several journalists who were arbitrarily fired from state-owned media in 1978 during a major crackdown on the Tunisian General Union of Labor (UGTT). Most of those fired, including myself, were reinstated nearly three years later thanks to local and international solidarity. But attacks on journalists reached an unparalleled level under Ben Ali.

Soviet-style propaganda dismisses alerts and reports by local human rights groups and conclusions reached by international groups, such as the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), following fact-finding missions, as “allegations.” Tunisia is one of the few countries today which still squanders huge resources on gross and shameful propaganda.

Threats against journalists often precede political decisions to deny the National Press Card and accreditation or passports for Tunisians journalists contributing to independent foreign media, or even to assault and jail journalists. Such a climate of intimidation and restrictions prompted fear and self-censorship among many and led scores of journalists to reluctantly leave the country over the past two decades. Many of them earned prominence after joining influential regional and international media outlets.

Ironically threats and assaults and jail sentences also target brave women journalists like Sihem Bensedrine and Neziha Rejiba, at a time when the government continues to use the advanced status of women promulgated under Bourguiba in 1956 to promote itself as a “protector of unequalled women’s rights” in the region.

Even Western journalists have been threatened and told to leave the country or assaulted after filing critical reports. On the eve of the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005, Christophe Boltansky of the French daily Liberation was assaulted and injured by thugs in one of the most surveiled districts of Tunis.

Tunisia, which used to offer more room for critical journalism thirty years ago than most countries in the region has over the past years been the Arab world’s leading jailer of journalists, according to research conducted by CPJ. The release in July of Slim Boukhdhir four months before the end of his one-year term spurred relief among Tunisian journalists and freedom of expression advocates worldwide.

But like the release in 2007 of rights lawyer and blogger Mohamed Abbou, who spent nearly 28 months in prison mainly for denouncing torture and the lack of independence of the judiciary, Boukhdhir’s release remains far from being a step toward press freedom. He is still harassed and denied the right to have a passport. In September, he was kidnapped for several hours and threatened by plainclothes police to meet the same fate as Libyan journalist Daif Al Ghazal, who was killed in 2005 in Libya. Boukhdhir’s latest ordeal occurred after he wrote an online article in which he urged Ben Ali to take into account US Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s call to loosen his grip on Tunisian media prior to 2009 elections.

Other journalists like Hamadi Jebali and Abdallah Zouari of the now-defunct Islamist weekly Al-Fajr have been paying a much higher price than their colleagues. Together, they spent more than 25 years in prison allegedly for belonging to a banned group and plotting to change the political regime. Zouari has been living under house arrest hundreds of kilometers away from his wife and children since his release in 2002. Jebali’s right to freedom of movement and to earn a living since his release in 2006 is still denied.

In the past, Tunisia made huge efforts to invest in journalism education. Unfortunately, the people who benefited from those efforts have been gradually prevented from serving their country according to the basic rules of journalism and ethics. Scores of skilled and honest journalists have been silenced and forced to leave their job or the country.

Like thousands of Tunisians forced into exile in the 1990s, I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could do for my country was to serve the cause of press freedom from outside the country; there was nothing I could contribute with while remaining inside a dangerous police state. I arrived at this conclusion because there was no room left to work as a freelance journalist or for an international organization in Tunisia.

APN: What does the Arab press need to do in order to become a better press?

Labidi: The Arab press needs more freedom and protection for critical journalists and bloggers who have been increasingly under attack in Tunisia and other parts of the region. Many Arab media outlets have been making significant steps toward independent journalism despite drastic local laws allowing the imprisonment of journalists for doing their job. But it would be difficult to have a “better press,” as you put it, under autocratic rulers apparently determined to stay in power for life and to groom their children or cronies to take over from them. Neither can this happen as long as the murderers of journalists, such as Samir Kassir, Gibran Tueni and Daif Al Ghazal assassinated respectively in Lebanon and Libya in 2005, are not brought to justice according to international standards for a fair and public trial. But the struggle for Arab independent journalism will sooner or later bear fruit because the number of independent journalists and bloggers is increasing rapidly even in the most tightly controlled Arab countries.  So is the number of friends who care about press freedom all over the world, including the MENA region.

Source : The Arab Press Network