Midday on Saturday March 27th. In the centre of Tunis the Lafayette quarter is under police control. Dozens of members of the regime’s police force are stopping passers by accessing roads leading to the headquarters of Tunisian Radio and Television (RTT). They are under strict instructions: prevent the Comité de liason pour une information libre (Liason Committee for Freedom of Information), made up of representatives of the democratic opposition and not-for-profit organisations, from gathering in the area to protest about official policy regarding information. Despite this demonstration of police strength, a few dozen activists have managed to reach the meeting point, defying the policemen massed in large numbers not far from the RTT. Slogans calling for respect for the right to a free press and denouncing fascism are chanted. The police intervene with their usual brute force to try to disperse the activists. The gathering thus turns into a street demonstration. Citizens going in that direction are brutally driven back to stop them joining the demonstration. The message is clear.
The press is finished
Since Tunisians began to watch satellite television, their vexation with national television, which continues to sell lies and hide the real problems which people are experiencing, has become great. Their purchasing power is continuing to deteriorate and they are being increasingly robbed of their rights. Hence the importance of the protestors’ cry for a media which would reveal their real problems and which would respect their intelligence. The situation of the press in Tunisia is still deteriorating. Somebody said, correctly, that whereas in Algeria journalists are killed, in Tunisia the press has simply been killed off. It gave up the ghost when papers such as le Phare, le Magreb, el Badil and Fajr disappeared and three of their managing directors were imprisoned. Since then, some journalists have agreed to follow the new rules while others have preferred to go and work for foreign media.
Faced with this tragic situation where people are forced into silence, the reasons for gagging the press are understandable. Might a free press not inform on the numerous deaths through torture in the offices of the Minister for the Interior, police stations and prisons? Might it not bring up the weighty punishments for opinionated activists following unjust trials? Might it not stir up the serious problem of corruption and the robbing of the country’s riches by the ruling family and their close servants?
Dispatch rewriters for the regime
Killing off the press is seemingly a necessity and a guarantee of survival for a political regime. Newspapers, radio and television are no longer used to let people know what is happening but to tell people what the regime wants to be happening in order to clear a corrupt State which is the enemy of civil society - a State whose weapons are gagging not-for-profit associations and making organisations such as the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens, the UGTT (The General Union of Tunisian Workers), toe the line.
Tunisian journalists, who have despaired of the cunning power used in this situation, have seen themselves reduced to the role of rewriters of despatches from press agencies. The investigative journalist, critical and creative, has thus disappeared leaving the zealous journalist, sometimes seen as assistant to the Minister for the Interior. Moreover, because, apparently, of such withholding of information, the Tunisian Association of Newspaper Directors was excluded from the World Organisation of Newspapers in May 1997. Similarly, at the beginning of March, the FIJ (Fédération Internationale des Journalistes) decided to exclude the Association of Tunisian Journalists from its ranks having ascertained that the organisation had failed in its duty. Since 1998, the international Committee to Protect Journalists has regularly placed Ben Ali among the top ten heads of state and governments most hostile to freedom of the press. In its annual report, Reporters Without Borders puts Tunisia on the black list of areas where freedom of the press is not respected. Tunisia is thus classed far behind countries such as Benin, Senegal, Ivory Coast...
Don’t get in the way of the multi-nationals
Despite this situation, countries like France, Belgium, Italy and Spain continue to believe that Ben Ali’s human rights record is positive. Such a position by heads of state of apparently democratic regimes can only be explained by admitting that the economic interests of their countries are better served by powerful states capable of guaranteeing for them the best use of local resources. What would become of rich nations’ interests if Unions in dependent states were able to obstruct the multi-nationals? If independent political parties were able to question unjust treaties? If a free press was there to advise people about the dangerous paths they were committed to?
So the demonstration on March 27th had a purpose – which was understood by the authorities. As usual, they responded with force.