Police terror in postcard state

2004-04-30 16:38

In Tunisia, society has been reduced to silence under a crushing police terror, says fervent press freedom fighter Sihem Bensedrine. Paradoxically, this small Northern African country has been chosen to host the Word Summit on the Information Society in 2005. One of the central subjects of the summit is freedom of speech and how information technology could help promote democracy. Bensedrine asks how this might influence the freedom of speech in her country.

Tunisia is a country in northern Africa that is often presented as a model of development and stability. But it is not widely known that there is no free media here and that any form of opposition is repressed.

The picture postcard view sold abroad is based on an official image that suggests human rights are respected, which completely contradicts the totalitarian political practice. In this closed society, the challenge of communications is the key to democratisation. The ability of society to converse, and to reveal itself through the media, is an essential aspect of freedom. The Tunisian authorities understand this very well, because for them, the criminal act is to disclose the crime, not to commit it.

This situation is not inevitable and not the result of political backwardness. On the contrary, little Tunisia is predisposed in every way to become an emerging country, capable of taking on the challenge of democracy: the high level of education of its people, the status of women, which is envied by many Arab women, and a large and dynamic middle class, which has allowed it to grow at a consistent rate of 5% since the 1970s.

In the 1980s, Tunisia crystallised the hopes of the possibility of pluralism in an Arab North Africa built on the foundations of political monolithism. At that time, the country witnessed the flourishing of a free press that blazed the trail for a dynamic civil society, with real checks and balances. General Ben Ali, who assumed power in 1987 through a "medical coup d état," caused it to suffer an historic setback. Within the space of two years, society was reduced to silence under a crushing police terror. Opposition political parties abandoned their role, and resistance was limited to a handful of human rights supporters.

It was necessary to wait until the late 1990s for civil society to rise from the ashes and begin reacting to the authoritarian roots of the regime, by revealing to international opinion the true face of this "soft" dictatorship; the price was a wave of persecution. But the events of September 11 were taken advantage of to justify another setback in terms of basic rights: the Constitutional amendment of 26 May 2002 made Ben Ali president for life, able to act with impunity, and the anti-terrorist law approved in December 2003 put the finishing touches to the arsenal of repressive legislation.

With a view to improving the Arab world's perception of America, which is seen as a major world predator, US President Bush has long insisted on the need to promote freedom of speech and civil liberties in Tunisia, while at the same time receiving President Ben Ali at the White House on February 18, 2004. In response, Ben Ali is trying to restore the facade and has decided to liberalise the media landscape by authorising two sources of private media: one, a radio station, "Mosaique," which was awarded to a notorious information agent; and the other, a TV station, to someone close to the president's family! At the same time, he has sentenced to prison Néziha Rejiba, a journalist who writes in an unauthorised online magazine, "Kalima", whose site has been shut down in Tunisia.

Freedom of speech and the free circulation of information and ideas is the basis of our citizenship. Prohibiting or impeding the exercise of this freedom is tantamount to confiscating every other freedom. In a country where the personality cult has reached such a level that the media's daily lauding of the Chief of State rises to the level of a veritable religious ritual, it is easy to understand how Ben Ali truly wants freedom of the press, as long as it does not criticise him! On three occasions, the Kalima team, of which I am a member, has filed demands to freely publish its journal in Tunisia, and has been faced with obstinate refusal on the part of the authorities.

Not satisfied with shutting down the press and the audio-visual media, Ben Ali has turned his sights on this new communications tool, the Internet. An army of agents (over 400) has been mobilised in the Ministry of Communications to track surfers and monitor their surfing. This information police is on a rampage everywhere. It has the most exhaustive legal and regulatory framework in the region, allowing it complete freedom to repress. Electronic telephony is prohibited; encryption is prohibited. Legally, it is in full compliance, since the Postal Code authorises the interception of electronic mail and the confiscation of any letter that "threatens public order or national security" without recourse to the citizen. As for "undesirable" sites, they are simply shut down and made inaccessible.

Paradoxically, it is Tunisia that has been chosen to host the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). At this meeting, the first phase of which was held in Geneva in December 2003 under the auspices of the UN, the stakes are high technically, and particularly politically. Its aim is to initiate a process to place information technology in the service of human development and the promotion of democracy in both the South and the North, and to reduce the technological divide between rich and poor countries.

During the first meeting in Geneva, deep differences between States and partners of civil society came to light. The former claim the need to trace the tracks of any terrorist, as justification for implementing repressive monitoring systems, while the NGOs accuse them of hijacking this summit, and of placing new obstacles to freedom of speech on the Internet.

But the issue that has most mobilised those NGOs that are dedicated to freedom of the press, and particularly WAN (representing more than 71 national newspaper associations), RSF, FIDH, and many more, is the choice of Tunisia, a country characterised by wide-scale censorship of the Web, to host these meetings.

At the preparatory meetings in Tunis, the organisers have already set the tone: no independent Tunisian NGO is authorised to participate in these meetings; Tunisian officials expect to turn this world meeting into a celebration of development under the Ben Ali regime, a public relations event of an international scale to boost his fortunes. Will they have the support of the international community? Will this summit open up opportunities for Tunisian citizens, whose freedom has been confiscated, or will it serve as a fig leaf to disguise the bitter reality of censorship while hiding behind technical discussions and the struggle against terrorism?

1) Convicted on Appeal on 28 February 2004 in Tunis and given a suspended sentence of 8 months of prison and a fine of 1 200 for keeping 170 euros in his pocket after returning

Tunisian Journalist Sihem Bensedrine wrote this exclusive article for the World Association of Newspapers for World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

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