Tunisia artists, media fear for freedoms after election

2014-11-19 10:03

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Tunis - Tunisian rappers, comedians and journalists, fearful that next week's presidential election could cement a return to power by partisans of the former dictatorship, are bracing themselves to defend the freedoms won since it was ousted in 2011.

Under former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, tough censorship sharply circumscribed freedom of expression in the media and performing arts.

Journalists critical of the regime were harassed and sometimes arrested and jailed, but always on the pretext of an offence other than offending the powers that be.

The government also demanded a pro-regime line from the media. A flattering piece on Ben Ali could always be found on the front page, and another at the top of the lineup on the television news.

Performing artists, particularly comedians and actors, had to tip-toe around issues and personalities, although some braver souls deliberately overstepped the boundaries and were sometimes punished.

Freedom of expression

Rappers, a particular bane of the old regime, are leading the way in warning against what they fear could be the effective return to power of Ben Ali's RCD party in the shape of Nidaa Tounes, which already won parliamentary elections in October.

Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi is the hot favourite to win Sunday's election.

Essebsi, 87, a pillar of the old guard, served as interior minister during the authoritarian regime of Tunisia's "father of independence," Habib Bourguiba, and as parliament speaker in the early 1990s under Ben Ali.

"O RCDists... we thought we'd got rid of you but you've had the nerve to return," rapper El General hammers home in a video clip featuring Nidaa Tounes politicians who were elected.

Weld El 15, another rapper and a fierce critic of the moderate Islamist movement Ennahda that formed the North African country's first post-revolution government, sees no cause to celebrate the rise of its Nidaa Tounes rivals.

It "leaves the door wide open to Ben Ali cronies, experts in the art of censorship and repression," he said.

"Freedom of expression was the main achievement of the revolution, and we will never let anyone, whoever it is, take that away from us. We're not scared of anyone!" he said.

Scare tactics

Comedian Lotfi Abdelli says that changing the target of his jibes from Ennahda to the secular Nidaa Tounes has also raised hackles.

"For three years they used to tell me: 'Go on, you're good, you're witty.' Now that I've been attacking Nidaa Tounes a bit, I've become the guy who has no humour, no respect," he says.

Abdelli can't resist coming up with an example: "Old Essebsi... can go to two meetings at the same time: he goes to one and he sends his dentures to the other."

Essebsi's critics question his advanced age and argue that he does not represent Tunisia's youth, who spearheaded the 2011 revolt.

Formed only two years ago, Nidaa Tounes rapidly emerged as the principal opposition to Ennahda, which it accused of taking the country backwards.

But while Nidaa Tounes does incorporate figures aligned with the old regime, it also includes businesspeople, intellectuals, trade unionists and even leftwing activists.

Democratic principles

Its defenders point out that while it won the most seats in parliament it did not gain enough to rule on its own. It needs to form a coalition and faces an Islamist opposition that made a strong showing.

"Talk of a Nidaa Tounes domination of the political scene... is aimed at scaring the electorate," said Faouzi Elloumi, a co-founder of the party.

"I can understand people's fears but they are unfounded. There are people out there trying to mislead them. Tunisia knows there is no risk of sliding back."

But the journalists' union is on guard, pointing out that Ennahda and other parties with influence have also advocated putting caps on certain democratic principles.

"The fight for freedom of expression is not over. We've learnt from experience that every new government tries to restrict this freedom," said the union's president, Neji Bghouri.

"We are forever wary because we're convinced the political class at large is only democratic in its speech."

Read more on:    zine el abidine ben ali  |  north africa

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