He’s back. Tunisia’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, will be seeking election for a fifth term on 25 October and there’s no doubt that he will win the day. Ben Ali’s party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD), has a reported 3.8 million members in a country with just 5.2 million voters.
But to ensure victory his supporters in government and beyond have put together a package of repression that undercuts his few challengers and silences any independent media coverage of the campaign.
The media were softened up before the vote with a hostile takeover of the country’s journalists’ union (SNJT) by Ben Ali loyalists. Individual reporters opposed to the leadership coup have been singled out for intimidation and assault. The coup followed publication of a press freedom report critical of the government and the elected SNTJ leadership’s refusal to endorse any candidate, including the incumbent Ben Ali.
According to International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a series of recent attacks and incidents of harassment suggest deliberate targeting of independent journalism in Tunisia.
Hanane Belaifam, was barred from entering her workplace at Radio-Jeunes, apparently in for her outspoken support of the ousted SNTJ leadership. Asahafa reporter Zied El Heni was beaten up on 15 October and his blog was forcibly closed.
“The attack on El Heni is an intolerable attack on a prominent journalist and leading advocate for independent journalism,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “The simultaneous closure of his blog is clear evidence of political pressure and suggests that this unknown assailant was not acting alone.”
Sihem Bensedrine, founder of online magazine Kalima Tunisie and 2006 Index Free Expression award winner, on 20 October was prevented by police from participating in a workshop organized by the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. Online journalist Lotfi Hidouri had been similarly barred from the event the day before. The conference had planned to discuss state controls over the media in the run-up to the election.
The foreign press has also been subjected to pre-election repression. Le Monde correspondent Florence Beaugé was barred from entering the country on 20 October when she arrived at Tunis airport to cover the elections. The government claimed that Beaugé “had always shown blatant malevolence to Tunisia and had systematically taken a hostile position.”
“One of the goals of this campaign is to silence all dissenting voices at a time when Tunisian media is brazenly being used to campaign for a fifth five-year term for President Ben Ali, ” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ said the Tunisian government should end its unrelenting war on independent journalism at home and abroad.
Hamma Hammami, the former editor of the banned newspaper Alternatives was also badly beaten by police on arrival at Tunis airport on 29 September after criticizing the government in an interview for Al-Jazeera.
“We no longer have the right to express our views in Tunisia,” said Hammami’s wife, Radhia Nasraoui, who is a lawyer and human rights activist. “When we dare to criticise the regime in the foreign media, we are punished by being physically attacked. This is now standard practice. They no longer need to throw people in prison.”
CPJ adds that pro-state media – including papers owned by the ruling party, Ben Ali’s son-in-law and rising businessman and politician Sakhr Al-Materi, and the pro-government satellite TV station Hannibal – have supported a smear campaign against Al-Jazeera. The Qatar-based network’s critical coverage led Tunis to close its embassy in Doha for months in 2006 and continuously deny accreditation to Al-Jazeera’s Tunis correspondent, Lotfi Hajji.
From Paris the vice-president of the banned Congress for Democracy Abdelraouf El Ayadi told al-Jazeera that the international community is failing Tunisian pro-democrats: “As far as I know, western countries are backing the dictatorship in Tunisia and giving it financial and media support. Tunisia is being presented by the west as a model of a free society.”
The Tunisian authorities work hard to support this image by supporting the development of pro-state NGOs – the so-called GONGOs or Governmental Non-Governmental Organisations, directing state advertising to media that promote the picture and refusing licenses to independent publications and rights organisations.
To make doubly sure of the image of democracy, the government reserves a small number of seats in parliament for carefully selected members of what El Ayadi and others deride as a “palace opposition,’ some of whom formerly belonged to the ruling RCD.
As commentator Bassam Bounenni points out while this keeps up an appearance of democracy, the regime is still unchallenged since it has ample votes in parliament to pass laws unilaterally.
Bounenni adds that amendments to the constitution and the election act have cut the ground from under the feet of his most critical opponents. Presidential candidates are now required to have served as elected leader of a recognised party a couple of years preceding the elections – thereby ruling out, as intended, presidential bids by both Mustapha Ben Jaafar, of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (FTDL), and Ahmed Nejib Chebbi of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).
Al Tariq Al Jadid, the paper of the former Tunisian communist party, now known as Ettajdid (Renewal) had its entire print run for the start of the campaign on 11 October seized on a manipulated technicality – because by printing the day before they supposedly breached election media rules.
Presidential candidate Ahmed Ibrahim of Ettajdid has had his manifesto censored and his supporters prevented from holding meetings or displaying posters. Parliamentary elections, to be held on the same day have been stripped of opposition candidates by the constitutional council, whose members are appointed by Ben Ali and parliament chairman, Foued Mbazaa.