Tunisian government's message to the opposition: Take part in the elections but remain silent

On March 30 opposition paper Attariq Al-Jadid was not found on newsstands, despite having been printed and handed to distributors. The move brought into question the government's response to opposition media, a few months before the upcoming legislative and presidential elections. MENASSAT's Sofiene Chourabu reports.
Attariq al-Jadid, newspaper of opposition Attajdid leftist movement censored.

TUNIS, April 9, 2009 (MENASSAT) - It seems that the game of cat and mouse between the Tunisian government and opposition parties has not come to an end. On March 28, an issue of “Attariq al-Jadid” newspaper, the mouthpiece for the Attajdid (Renewal) opposition movement, didn’t make it to the newsstands - only a few months before the legislative and presidential elections.

On the Saturday morning, staff members of Al Jadid noticed that the newspaper was not available for sale. After contacting the distribution company and a number of vendors, they realized the issue was not delivered to any of the usual newspaper stands in the country.

In an interview, one of the staff members of the paper told MENASSAT that the 121st issue, which had been printed on March 27 and handed over to the Tunisian Press distribution company, appeared, but was not distributed for sale. 

He said it is likely that the paper never made it to the stands because of its content.

The first page featured the Secretary-General of the Attajdid leftist movement, Ahmed Ibrahim, in an overcrowded meeting room, with the headline: “I will compete against the governmental candidate on equal terms.”

On March 22 Ibrahim announced that he would run for the upcoming election in October, bringing the number of candidates to five, including current President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

63-year-old retired professor of comparative linguistics, Ibrahim spoke out against what he called "unequal" competition in his campaign and has also been advocating for legal reform to ensure a more transparent electoral process.

Reasons for repression unknown

In response to the disappearance of the paper, Al Jadid’s editorial board denounced the action in a conference on March 30, and decided that members of the Attajdid would distribute the newspaper in the streets of downtown Tunis. But on the same afternoon, before people could act, the government decided that newspapers would be delivered to stands.

Journalist Khaled Hadded wrote in the pro-government newspaper Al Chourouq, “The editorial board of Attariq Aljadid and the leaders of Attajid movement were faced with a sort of dilemma. The government decided to allow for the distribution of the last issue, whereas a conference has been planned to discuss its illegal censorship.”

In an interview with MENASSAT, Tunisian journalist based in Doha, Bassam Bounanni, said he was Bounanni surprised by the censorship taking place only a few months before the elections to be held in the next fall. 

“Every week we are betting which of the two newspapers will be censored: "Attariq Al Jadid” or “El Mawkef.” They can be censored because of any article or reportage. This behaviour is strange on behalf of the authorities, who have been trying to improve its image during the last election campaign by turning a blind eye to the dissident press.”

“The repression is in its highest right now for unknown reasons, despite the fact that the ruling party candidate is sure of winning the elections with a majority 90 per cent.”

Officials deny censorship

Tunisian authorities have officially denied Attajdid’s accusations. 

In a statement published by the American United Press International Agency, an official source said, “The latest issue of Attariq Al Jadid has not been subject to any censorship … Contrary to the allegations made, the newspaper is available in kiosks and is being distributed without any limitations - similar to all of the opposition newspapers here.”

However, another source from Attariq Al-Jadid said that dozens of people called the newspaper wondering about the absence of the paper on the Saturday morning. He added that the Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, sent a special envoy to the newspaper premises to order to obtain a copy of the censored issue. “The move is a sign of ignorance by one of the most important government officials,” he said.

Secretary General of Attajdid, and director of Al-Jadid, Ibrahim, said “We do not know exactly who is taking responsibility for the seizure, as the employees of the distribution company suddenly disappeared when we tried to reach them to inquire about the reason for not delivering the issue.

Ibrahim said the editorial team did not receive an official response from authorities.

He also said that it is important to condemn the officials who “acted contrary to Tunisian law” and denounce them for targeting the Attajid movement and the National Initiative for Democracy and Progress, a group of independent leftists who created an initiative to provide support for Ibrahim.

Partisan papers should maintain professionalism

Journalist Bassam Bounanni puts the responsibility in the hands of the government.

“The Tunisian government should take responsibility for the suppression of opposition media otherwise a time will come when dialogue between different members of society will be impossible due to the absence of media platforms,” he said. 

However, journalist and researcher Khaled Haddad told MENASSAT, “there is an evolution taking place in the authorities’ conception of dissident press. This is clear by looking at the multiplicity of dissident newspapers. In this regard I want to say that the country has never seen such a period where there are this many opposition newspapers. Today all the parties have newspapers as their mouthpieces.” 

“I think that the authorities, and more specifically their official discourse, is supporting the presence of these newspapers to play their role in public life. But it must be stressed that these newspapers cannot in any way where they ignore the professionalism and the ethics of journalism, in order to avoid clashes with authorities and other components of society.

"I believe that partisan newspapers that have taken this approach have found their role to be positive in the national political scene. It opens doors and promising prospects for the future, which looks forward to all parties to be more democratic, more pluralistic.”

But most Tunisian journalists believe that freedom of the press is still too limited, especially preceding the elections, a time that media should welcome all candidates and that pressure on opposition newspapers should be avoided.