Pressures rise on the National Syndicate for Tunisian journalists

After Tunisia’s lone journalists union - the National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists (NSTJ) – released a critical report about government press controls, pro-government reporters from within NSTJ have made unprecedented moves to dismiss members of the union’s executive committee. Critics say it’s another step taken by the Tunisian government to stifle free press.
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The lone Tunisian journalists union is under attack. R.R.

TUNIS, June 15, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Five-hundred Tunisian journalists signed a petition this week demanding the resignation of the decision-making body for Tunisia’s lone journalists union – the National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists (NSTJ). It’s a move seen by government critics as a move to further stifle free press freedoms in Tunisia.

The NSTJ had recently bowed to government pressure to expand the executive board with members from pro-government media.

Sources told MENASSAT the 500 journalists who signed the petition asking for the removal of the executive board had done so because of government pressure.

Incurring the wrath of the government

The executive board met on June 6 and called for a general session on June 26 to look into allegations of government censorship after the syndicate published its annual report on press freedoms in Tunisia.

The executive board sent an invitation to the members of the leadership of the International Federation for Journalists (IFJ) to attend the general session as observers.

30 members of the expanded executive board agreed to send a report to the IFJ dated June 4th 2009, but that never happened.

Tunisian authorities were apparently unhappy with an NSTJ executive board made up primarily of independent journalists, and decided to stack a new board with pro-government reporters.

Government sources had said privately that they were afraid of the critical direction the NSTJ was taking after the syndicate’s first conference of the Syndicate in January 2008.

According to sources within the NSTJ, the government began to sabotage the work of the syndicate, depriving it of any support over the last 15 months and banning it from participating in government discussions over annual salary rates for reporters.


In addition, the government failed to implement previous agreements allowing journalists and other media professionals working in the official Tunisian radio and TV outlets to join the NSTJ.

Independent journalists on the NSTJ executive board did muster enough support to challenge the petition for their resignation - sending it to a judicial handwriting expert after sources told MENASSAT that signatures on the petition didn’t match up to signatures on NSTJ membership forms.

The NSTJ members challenging the petition said they would take proper legal actions if anything illegal is deemed to have taken place.

Ziad al-Hani, a member of the executive board said, “Signing the petition assuming there are no irregularities, doesn’t automatically mean the dismissal of the executive board.”

“In fact, the dismissal can’t take place unless there is a vote for the petition presented by the executive board, which also prevents NSTJ members from renewing their membership according to article 41 of the internal code.”

A group of Tunisian journalists working outside of the country have signed a counter-petition in support for their independent colleagues on the executive board. “We urge you to continue your jobs as the legitimate representatives of the Syndicate,” the petition said.

“We denounce the administrative and political pressures our colleagues are suffering from – pressure that is undermining confidence in the Syndicate’s leadership – the original executive board.”

Bassam Bounenni, one of the signatories of the counter-petition told MENASSAT, “This external support for our colleagues is to assure them independent journalists on the executive board) that our leaving Tunisia doesn’t mean we have forgotten about them and the state of their media concerns. We are living Tunisia’s events by the minute despite being away, and this is a sacred mission.”

Overstepping boundaries

In a move that has perhaps caused the most controversy of late, the expanded executive board called late last week for an emergency session on Saturday, June 14.

The goal of this emergency session according to the expanded board was to “impeach the ‘sitting’ executive board and call for an extraordinary session.”

But attending NSTJ members at the impromptu meeting last week blocked the expanded executive board’s attempt to push through the motion for the extraordinary session.

The head of the Syndicate, Naji al-Baghouri told MENASSAT that the attempt was “non-institutional and illegal.”

What observers say is clear is that pro-government elements within the NSTJ are trying whatever they can to maneuver themselves into positions of power in the largely independent reporters union - something that will no be easy, according the local reporter Mahmoud Laroussi.

In fact, Laroussi said that the call for an 'extraordinary session' was a not-so subtle attempt at replacing dissenting executive board members with reporters from the ruling party.

"They want to replace them with elections based on the democracy of orders and instructions," Laroussi told MENASSAT.

He added that the end game was to re-nominate the pro-regime president of the NSTJ, Zein Alabadin bin Ali for another term in October 2009.

"This would deprive the Syndicate of any kind of freedom," Laroussi said.