Tunisia: Open Letter From Reporters Without Borders to the Authorities

Reporters sans Frontières (Paris)

12 January 2012


On the first anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, Reporters Without Borders has written to the new Tunisian authorities expressing its concerns.

President Moncef Marzouki

January 2012, Tunis,

You, the authorities who were elected by popular will in Tunisia’s first democratic election in more than a quarter-century, are the guarantors of what was won in the revolution that led to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s departure on 14 January 2011. We firmly believe that freedom of expression and freedom of information are at the heart of every nation’s democratic future. These principles have become a reality in post-Ben Ali Tunisia and it is everyone’s duty to preserve them.

Thanks to its bureau in Tunis, Reporters Without Borders has for months been following media developments in the capital and provinces and the difficulties involved in renewing the media, especially the broadcast media. It should not be forgotten that Tunisia’s first free elections were covered by TV stations that date back to the time of the former president, a predator of press freedom. Recently adopted legislative provisions should open the way to more pluralism in the broadcasting sector.

Aware of the importance of creating solid legal frameworks for the media, Reporters Without Borders has also been following the drafting of laws and has provided advice on the press code to the media subcommittee headed by Ridha Jenayah, an offshoot of the High Authority for Reform, Democratic Transition and Preservation of the Revolution’s Gains. The comments made by Reporters Without Borders’ legal committee were incorporated in the bill which Béji Caïd Essebsi’s government adopted on the eve of the elections to the Constituent Assembly.

While some progress has been made as regards drafting legislation and creating new media, Reporters Without Borders is concerned to see an increase in pressure on journalists and media in recent months. The slogan that Reporters Without Borders chose in October for the inauguration of his new office – “Free until when?” – seems particularly appropriate now.

The police violence against two journalists on 3 January, and the police violence against journalists in May and July of 2011 were extremely worrying. They are reminiscent of the repressive police and security practices of an era than everyone thought was over. The interior ministry should systematically investigate cases of physical violence by police officers against journalists and the findings of these investigations should be made public. In partnership with media freedom organizations in Tunisia, the police and journalists should also be given training in awareness of each other’s work.

The recent appointments of persons to head the state-owned media, announced by the Prime Minister on 7 January, are contrary to the provisions of article 19 of Decree Law No. 2011-116 of 2 November and constitute a flagrant violation of media independence. We call on the government to immediately backtrack and to rescind the appointments of editors in chief and news director.

While the Prime Minister has the right to handle the administrative appointments, we regret that that he did not give priority to the creation of the High Independent Authority for Broadcasting Communication, as provided for in last November’s decree. The 10 January attempt at the behest of Adnène Khedr, the new CEO of the Tunisian Television Establishment, to prevent the weekly El Oula from publishing an investigative report on the financial benefits he allegedly received in the past only increases our concern.

Similarly, while the notorious Tunisian Agency for External Communication (ATCE) has officially suspended its activities, it has nonetheless continued to exist as entity designed to ban the distribution of certain newspapers within Tunisia, as it did in Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s time. As a result, the distribution of two French weeklies (L’Express and Le Nouvel Observateur) was recently prevented because they contained representations of the Prophet. The authorities should clarify whether or not a mechanism for prior censorship as been put in place. If it has, it would represent a return to sadly notorious practices.

Reporters Without Borders would also like to express its concern about the danger posed to media freedom in Tunisia by the increase in religious extremism. Salafist groups have been using various intimidatory methods, and have not hesitated to harass media, in order to discourage journalists who want to cover stories related to religion. The legal proceedings brought against Nessma TV and its leading shareholder last October after the broadcasting of the film Persepolis and the 11 January attack on Nessma journalist Soufiène Ben Hamida, whose car was previously daubed with the word “non-believer,” shows that Tunisia’s journalists and media need more than ever for the country’s authorities to defend freedom of expression and the right of its journalists to be able to work without being harassed.

It is high time that the new authorities assume their responsibility as regards all these problems. They must send a strong signal to all those who flout freedom of expression and the freedom of journalists to be able to report the news in a completely independent manner. Aside from the controversies, the political issues and individual religious convictions, freedom of expression should be the subject of a consensus and should be protected by everyone as one of the revolution’s first gains. Everyone is concerned by it. It is the starting point for freedom. And it could be the point of return to dictatorship.

Reporters Without Borders remains at your side, ready to help turn today’s challenges into tomorrow’s realities and available to hold detailed talks with you on the points raised in this letter.

With our most sincere democratic greetings,

Jean-François Julliard

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