Opposition media outlets in Tunisia take on government suppression



 
Rigid media laws and an oppressive government hasn't stopped newspapers and publications from making it to the newsstands in Tunisia. In a battle between the state and the opposition, who will turn out victorious?
 
By SOFIENE CHOURABI
 
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Newspapers in Tunisia continue to publish despite a government ban

 TUNIS, April 22, 2009 (MENASSAT) - It is no secret in Tunisia that the media laws are known for suppressing the opposition and punishing critics. Yet, as the government uses the law to try and prevent opposition media from publishing, these outlets refuse to succumb.

“The media law prevents the printing of any publication without a receipt of approval from the interior ministry. This means that only the publications, which answer to the ruling party, or some opposition papers with a restricted distribution area, appear on the market," Abdel Kareem Hezawi, a media and news professor in Tunis told MENASSAT.

Although the law initially appears to be lenient when it comes to publishing, the Article 13 media law, in fact, contradicts itself. 

“Publishing newspapers in Tunisia is not based on a permit. According to Article 13 of the publication law, it is enough to inform the interior ministry,” said Naji al Baghouri, head of the national syndicate for Tunisian journalists.

However, this somehow “free” characteristic in the media law is not applied in Tunisia, where al-Baghouri added, “The same Article 13 bans any printing press from printing a publication without a permit that is over one year old.

“And here is the controversy, for the ministry refuses to give permits to those who challenge the status quo.”

It is unclear to critics as to why such authority was given to the Ministry of Interior. Some suspect it was done to place those who work in the media under surveillance, as the ministry archives personal files of all Tunisian citizens. 

Determined to publish


However, despite the law enacted in 1975, the ruling Democratic Constitutional Gathering did not see an end to media outlets that criticize governmental decisions.

After Tunisia gained independence in 1956 many underground newspapers saw the light when jails became crowded with those who wrote for or distributed publications tied with parties or associations not recognized by the government or banned

Decades later, despite the difficulty in distributing them, many publications considered illegal are becoming popular among an audience who thrive for an alternative media line, including newspapers such as Sawt al Shaeb (The Voice of the People), Kalima (Word), Al Erada (The Will), Afaq Ishtirakiya (Socialist Horizons), among others.

Lutfi al-Haydouri, manager of opposition media outlet Kalima, published by the National Council of Freedoms of Tunisia, told MENASSAT that Kalima, in its printed edition, constituted a media phenomenon par excellence when it was launched in 2000.

According to al-Haydouri, the demand was high for a publication like Kalima because the newspaper was filled with bold articles and it covered taboo subjects at a time when the state was suffering from a dry media and political scene.

Kalima, however, was never granted a permit to publish.

Al-Haydouri told MENASSAT that the editorial team followed the legal procedures required. The manager visited the interior ministry to present them with a publication notice and received a receipt. But the ministry refused the file.

Despite the refusal, Kalima published articles for years concerning human rights violations, administrative and financial corruption and other social issues, which the government didn’t accept.

Tunisian authorities confiscated a large number of issues from activists responsible for distributing the paper and mobilized plain-clothed officers to keep an eye on anyone who visited the paper’s office.

Al-Haydouri also said that Kalima did not have sophisticated technical equipment nor did they have much funding, forcing the managers to cut-down on printing the paper before it only became available online.

Students find some space

Student activist Faysal al-Mohaymedi pointed out that his political organization, the Baathist Arab Youth, which started in 2006, released a magazine entitled “Al Ihya al-Arabi” (The Arab Revival), aimed at overcoming the media ban.

“Our newly formed political organization worked hard to save the publication, while faced with minimal financial resources and having to deal with censorship.”

“But the group benefits from the relative freedom inside the Tunisian university, allowing us to distribute the paper among the students.”

Student activist and supervisor of Afaq Ishtirakiya Moutaa Amin Al-Waaer said “The youth organization affiliated with the Leftist Socialist Party and not recognized by the government started in January 2009 by issuing a new publication. But they could not find a publishing house to agree to print the paper.
 
One of the most famous publications in Tunisia, Al-Badil, issued by the Communist Labor Party, which is also not recognized by the government has been battling media suppression for years.

In an interview with MENASSAT, a source affiliated with the paper who preferred not to be named, explained that issuing the newspaper in the late eighties came in a certain political frame specifically known as the dual polarization between the Islamic Current and the government.

At that time leftist parties were highly present on all levels and the government issued a permit to Al-Nahda movement to print Al-Fadjr newspaper and another permit to the Communist Labor Party to issue Al-Badil.

“Working in any newspaper was essentially a struggle and although all the members of the editorial team were not journalists, the newspaper proved its presence in the media,” he said.

“Al-Badil was banned on numerous occasions after the first Gulf War for publishing a number of articles that the government considered inappropriate. Shortly after the paper was shut down.

The legal manager of the newspaper was tried and jailed for six months. Since then Al-Badil only appears online although the website is banned in Tunisia.

Abolishing the media law

The answer to some is the complete abolition of the present media law.

Media specialist Al-Hezawi said, “To assure freedom of printing and publication the 1975 media law should be abolished to return to the law issued in January 1956, which protected publication freedoms without any prior permit and guarantees.”

He stressed that that law was the fruit of many struggles in gaining the independence of Tunisia and its abolition in 1975 disrespects the memory of Tunisia's martyrs.

Journalist Mouaz Al-Jamaai said that the government’s refusal to issue permits comes from the fear that freedom of the press will trigger the powers to collapse.

"It comes as a result of its insistence to guarantee its survival for it is aware that the media and free expression could lead to its ruin, similar to what has happened in many other states.”