In the past few weeks, Tunisian authorities have tightened their grip on independent media. Among the government actions have been lawsuits against opposition newspapers – Al-Mawqaf and Mouwatinoun – and the closure of an independent satellite radio station – Radio Kalima. In an attempt to uncover the reasons behind this media crackdown, MENASSAT met with Lutfi Hajji, the AlJazeera correspondent in Tunisia.
By MOHSEN MIZLINI
TUNIS, February 16, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Once again in Tunisia, the government is cracking down on independent and private media outlets that don’t tow the official state line.
Lutfi Hajji, AlJazeera’s correspondent in Tunis, spoke to MENASSAT about the government’s latest attempt to suppress opposition voices in the media, calling it a “systematic” governmental policy of media harassment that is only occasionally exposed.
Over the past few years Hajji has produced a number of reports on the state of journalism and freedom of expression in Tunisia, participating in international and regional conferences to discuss Tunisia’s performance on the issues.
In 2004, he became the president of the first independent syndicate for Tunisian journalists, and although he no longer holds the title, Hajji has been denied a work permit in Tunisia since.
MENASSAT: How do you describe the current media situation in Tunisia?
LUTFI HAJJI: “There are two different, contradictory, types of journalism being practiced right now in Tunisia.”
“There are the authority-ruled media institutions, which act as a mouthpiece for the government, and the independent media, which many professionals and local press freedom associations ascribe to.”
“Because the powers are not balanced between the government and independent media, journalism remains under the rule of the authorities and the government attempts to control every aspect of it – from the content to distribution.”
“Despite the laws Tunisia occasionally implements to address press freedoms – and only because of external pressures I might add – most media outlets remain under their control.”
“There are a few opposition newspapers that challenge this censorship but they are still forced to rely on the government for advertisements, funding and distribution, which ends up limiting their growth.”
MENASSAT: What is your opinion on the harassment of Tunisian journalists and private media institutions?
LUTFI HAJJI: “It is not a coincidence that all of the journalists working with private and opposition media outlets complain about government interference in the sector.”
“For example, in the past few months, the government has presented over 10 cases against two newspapers, Al-Mawqaf and Mouwatinoun, in an attempt to have them shut down.”
“International labor organizations, known for their professionalism and subjectivity, including the International Federation for Journalists, have called the media situation in Tunisia degrading, and ranks the Tunisian government in one of worst countries in respect to the press freedoms.”
“But this repression is not limited to the media. It is in fact part of Tunisia’s systematic policy of muzzling all of the critical voices in the country, whether it’s journalists, labor organizations or media institutions.”
MENASSAT: What do you think are the factors of what you called “the systematic policy” of the government?
LUTFI HAJJI: “There are actually many different interlacing factors.”
“One of the major issues is the government’s authority over media licenses.”
“According to the Tunisian Media Law, before issuing a publication the manager needs to obtain a stamped receipt from the Interior Ministry. If the Interior Ministry refuses to present the receipt, the owner of the printing house is not able to print.”
“A few years ago, the government decided it would no longer accepts applications for media licenses, which means it has become impossible for anyone to start a media institution.”
“Applicants that tried to obtain a license were refused by administrative officials, including Sihem Bin Sedrine who is involved with (recently closed) Radio Kalima.”
“The latest attempt took place on February 9th when a group of journalists demanded a license for a newspaper entitled ‘Al-Nasseriya.'”
“Interior Ministry officials refused to accept the file.”
MENASSAT: That about independent journalists?
LUTFI HAJJI: “Every once in a while the government steps-up the pressure on independent journalists, especially on those who work on issues considered taboo.”
“There is also the issue that the government uses their monopoly to deprive opposition newspapers from their right to public advertising and funding as well as judicial authorities to raise complaints against the opposition newspapers, weaken them and limit their distribution.”
“This governmental policy is preventing the establishment of a diverse media in Tunisia.”
MENASSAT: For more than four years, you have been banned from working as a correspondent for Al Jazeera, and have been harassed continuously by authorities.
LUTFI HAJJI: “I can’t separate what I have been subjected to – censorship and intimidation- because it is what every independent journalist is going through. When you broadcast news as it is, without erasing any facts or embellishing them, there is a consequence.”
“In summary, I say there is no tolerance in Tunisia for independent media whether coming from individuals or institutions. Anyone that doesn’t abide by this official rule, faces what we have been dealing with for years.”
“But our only comfort is that the world is moving towards freedom, and no matter how those who want to control the media try to do so, they won’t succeed in hiding the truth.”