Al Hiwar Attounsi: Under the guillotine



 
The Tunisian government is cracking down on media outlets that are using satellite systems to broadcast their content. Following the government's closure of Radio Kalima that broadcast on the Hotbird satellite, Tunisian satellite television channel “Al Hiwar Attounsi” appears to be next on the hit-list. MENASSAT’s Sofiene Chourabi reports on what is really a crackdown on independent media.
 
By SOFIENE CHOURABI
 
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Tunisian government heightens repression of satellite networks, including TV station Al Hiwar Attounsi.

TUNIS, February 12, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Tunisian authorities have set their sites on the satellite TV station, Al Hiwar Attounsi, threatening staff and arresting management for what they say was an "illegal" broadcast outlet.

But media rights groups contend the harassment is a cover up for shutting down the television station's decision to go against a pro-government editorial line.

Last week on February 7, Tunisian police arrested without charge three Al Hiwar employees on their way to cover a conference, including deputy editor Aymen Rezgui, and journalists Amina Jabloun and Badr Essalam Trabelsi. 

Sources said authorities threatened the group with imprisonment and later attempted to bribe them by offering government positions if they agreed to stop working with Al Hiwar Attounsi, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) reported.

Broadcasting the ignored

In the makeshift studio of a downtown apartment building, Amina Joublan, the news presenter for Al Hiwar Attounsi, told MENASSAT that her top priority was to expose domestic issues usually ignored by the government.

Al Hiwar's news segment is broadcast one hour each day and includes coverage of opposition party activities and civil society reactions to what Joublan says are the governmental abuses of power.

“We broadcast the daily activities of the groups left behind by the ruling party and we also deal with dissidents often ignored by local media,” she said.

Of course, Joublan said the security services are always trying to hinder the station’s work, often preventing staff from interviewing political dissidents or blocking access to alternative sources of information.

Tunisian police have arrested Joublan on numerous occasions, and have even gone after her family in an attempt to discourage her from working at Al Hiwar Attounsi, Joublan said.

Recent grads make the station

Editor Rezgui spoke to MENASSAT in Al Hiwar Attounsi's offices this week about the government's intimidation campaign. “Harassment and control are inherent parts of our daily life," he said. "We have been experiencing this since the launch of the channel six years ago."

In 2002, Tunisian businessman Tahar Bin Bin Hussein started Al Hiwar Attounsi in Paris, and later moved the station's operations to Tunisia in 2004.

Over the last 6 years, the bulk of Al Hiwar's workforce has been new graduates from Tunisia's Journalism Institute, and despite their lack of experience, Rezgui says they have been mainly responsible for the channel's sustainability.

In the beginning, Rezqui said Al Hiwar's programs were limited to interviews and basic news packages.

When the channel’s headquarters moved to Tunisia it was able to provide more credible investigative reports "highlighting the vast gap between government rhetoric and the reality" on the ground.

“Our coverage of the demonstrations in the Gafsa region (350km south of Tunis), for example, is evidence of our success at breaking through the 'official' government version of events," Rezgui said.

Tunisian miners and nearby inhabitants took to the streets in Gafsa last June to protest unemployment and the deterioration of their living conditions.

Nearly 40 people were jailed because of the demonstrations, and an appeal court in Gafsa upheld a July 2008 lower court decision that sentenced Al Hiwar Attounsi reporter Fahem Boukadous to six-years of jail time for his coverage of events.

Boukados' footage of the demonstrations was used by many leading pan-Arab news media organizations and was posted on video-sharing websites such as YouTube and Dailymotion, which are both banned in Tunisia.

The 38-year-old reporter went into hiding after the July lower court ruling last year.

"The free word is the essence of a free state"

Pro-government critics accuse Al Hiwar Attounsi of overstepping their authority where controversial issues are concerned, a claim Rezgui says is ridiculous.

“We continuously criticize the government - as is our right - and are broadcasting events in a way that refuses to bow to the political establishment." 

It is common knowledge that Al Hiwar Attounsi is broadcasting on the Hotbird satellite for an hour a day with frequencies rented from an Italian TV station, Arcoiris TV that also leases a limited amount of frequencies to leftist political movements in Europe and Latin America.

Could Al Hiwar Attounsi's association with the Arcoiris TV be the cause of their troubles as some suggest? Tunisian journalist Badr Essalem Trabeli said the problems stem from the content and not the station's political associations.

"Al Hiwar Attounsi is only guilty of crossing the government's "red lines" for what is acceptable news coverage."

Trabeli acknowledged the importance of Al Hiwar Attounsi's presence on television. The station's progressive, secular, and democratic editorial line, he said, was not "wrong or contrary to the law."

Meanwhile, the Tunisian authorities targeting of Al Hiwar follows the closure of another dissident broadcast outlet - Radio Kalima - on February 2 for what authorities said was their "exploitation of public communications."

Media rights groups have criticized the government decision, characterizing Radio Kalima's closure as "yet another move to limit freedom of speech."

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► FOR MORE ON TUNISIA'S CRACKDOWN ON INDEPENDENT MEDIA

Tunisian government shuts down Radio Kalima
Posted on 05/02/2009 - 12:05
Tunisia has shut down the independent radio station Kalima days after it began broadcasting via satellite. The government says the station was "exploiting public communications," but rights organizations both in Tunisia and abroad say it is yet another move to limit freedom of speech. ben sedrine kalima