There was a curious coda to the Tunisian government’s attempt to sabotage a debate on the parlous state of free expression in Tunisia, which tail-ended a conclave of journalists and publishers in Beirut at the weekend.
Having successfully banned keynote speaker Mohammed Abbou from flying to the Lebanese capital, the Tunis authorities dispatched a gaggle of officials – they were too middle aged and moustachioed to qualify as a gang – to bust up what was left.
With Index on Censorship in the chair, the panel was reduced to two veteran critics of the Tunis state, Neziha Rejiba and Index award winner Sihem Bensedrine, who read the speech that human rights lawyer Abbou had planned to deliver.
The pro-government supporters settled in for the Q&A, initially content to make complex appeals to separate media rights from human rights (not explaining how) and issue sour pronouncements on imperialism and Iraq.
But as it became clear that the chair was going to be taking the scheduled 6.00pm end to the debate seriously, they went for broke, leaping to their feet, waving copies of state-favoured Tunisian newspapers and hurling abuse. To wit, that we are all party to a multi-million dollar CIA backed plot and that the chair would meet the fate of all colonialists when he next stepped foot in Tunisia.
The chair couldn’t speak to the CIA millions except wistfully recall his last credit-crunched pre-Xmas credit card bill and wish it were true. And the fate of all colonialists in Tunisia seems to be the ruthless setting up in a nice hotel adjacent to a lovely beach, with great food and friendly service for two weeks.
As ever though, there’s a serious note. Index has spotted Tunisian government sponsored ‘contributors’ at similar events before.
At the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and UNESCO in Paris, in Washington DC and in Geneva in the run up to the World Summit on the Information Society, where agents provocateurs did their utmost to disrupt opposition and free expression groups’ speaking engagements. Many pro-government press commentaries on Tunisian free speech activists read like hate speech.
For the rest of the Arab journalists and publishers at the event, part of the third Arab Free Press Forum in Beirut organised by the World Association of Newspapers and the Beirut daily an-Nahar, the scene was a bit, well, retro. A flashback to the 1970s.
Apart from Zimbabwe, Tunisia is the only country that employs the tactic so regularly. “We don’t like to see this kind of stuff from regime apparatchiks,” said one observer. “I think we all hoped that this kind of behaviour was history.”