The six-month jail sentence handed to Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik by a Tunis court on 26 November was an attempt to settle scores against one of the most defiant critics of a regime that has been unrelenting in its determination to eradicate independent journalism.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s war on the independent press began only a few weeks after his November 1987 bloodless coup. The country’s top independent newspaper, Arrai, was forced to close down after publishing an article calling on Tunisians not to blindly back Ben Ali’s ouster of the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. “Don’t forget his military past or his security background. And what if he leads us down a much worse road than Bourguiba? Don’t give him a blank cheque,” Om Ziad, a pen name for the prominent writer Naziha Rejiba, cautioned at the time.

The past two decades have witnessed the closure of other independent and opposition newspapers, such as Le Maghreb, Le Phare, al-Fajr and al-Badeel, and the imprisonment and exile of dozens of journalists. Although fully aware of the potential cost, Ben Brik and a few other courageous journalists kept crossing red lines. In 2000, the authorities reluctantly yielded to international pressure, particularly from France, to renew his passport and drop politically motivated charges after the dissenting journalist went on a 43-day hunger strike.

Ben Brik’s latest arrest occurred a few days after Ben Ali had threatened on 24 October (the eve of his re-election to a fifth five-year term in office) to prosecute a “tiny minority” of Tunisians for cooperating with foreign journalists to cast “accusations or doubts on the integrity of the electoral process without solid evidence.” According to Ben Brik’s lawyers, he was stripped of his clothes and insulted by the police before being brought before a prosecutor who charged him with defamation, assaulting a woman, damaging other people’s property and harming public decency.

Ben Brik is not the first journalist to be charged with sexual assault or attempted rape; or to be moved to a prison far from his home. Despite his frail health, he went on hunger strike again at the end of November to protest his arbitrary transfer from Mornaguia Prison in the Tunis suburbs to a squalid jail in Siliana some 120 kilometres away. “There is a deliberate and vengeful will to punish Ben Brik and his family,” said lawyer Ayachi Hammam. There is no doubt that the interviews Ben Brik conducted in the run-up to the October elections with some of Ben Ali’s leading critics – including a fictitious one for the website of the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, in which he poked fun at the de facto ‘president for life’ – were behind Ben Brik’s current ordeal.

Over the past few months, state-run media outlets have intensified their attacks against Ben Ali’s critics, including Ben Brik, denouncing them as traitors, perverts, and paid agents of Western and Israeli intelligence. The Al Jazeera satellite TV channel, which is widely viewed in Tunisia and gives voice to Tunisian dissidents, and the emir of Qatar who funds it, have also been targets. In 2006, Tunisia closed its Doha Embassy for several months in protest at an Al Jazeera interview with prominent Tunisian dissident Moncef Marzouki. Another victim of the crackdown on independent reporting was Zouhair Makhlouf, a political activist and contributor to the news website Assabilonline. He was arrested on 20 October after posting a video report on the Internet about pollution in the industrial suburbs of Nabeul, nearly 60 kilometres south of Tunis.

Ben Ali’s thin-skinned advisers have also been riled by French comments on recent developments. Even a restrained statement from the Quai D’Orsay deeming the arrest of Ben Brik “unnecessary” provoked angry reactions in the presidential palace and official media. So did similar comments from political figures traditionally on friendly terms with the regime, like Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, who was born in Tunisia before the end of the French Protectorate.

Ben Ali called on the African Union and the Maghreb Arab Union, currently chaired by Col Muammar al-Qadhafi, to take a stand against this “external interference in Tunisian affairs”. The ‘Brother and Guide of the Revolution’ swiftly expressed his solidarity. And in a staged move to embarrass Paris – which had earlier earned a reputation for praising the Tunisian leader’s skills and turning a blind eye to his human rights violations – the head of a minor political group supportive of Ben Ali called on France to apologise for having colonised Tunisia.

“But unfortunately for Ben Ali, the last mock elections showed how he lost his war against the media and could no longer prevent journalists from breaking taboos, despite his desperate attempts to control the flow of information through the Internet and Facebook,” said Naziha Rejiba, who made it to New York in November to receive the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award for 2009.

Kamel Labidi Middle East International Vol. II, Issue 3: 4 December 2009