TUNISIE

Four months after Ben Ali's fall, freedom of the press still under threat in Tunisia

 Four months after a popular uprising overthrew Tunisia’s authoritarian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country remains a difficult place for journalists to work. On May 6, a dozen reporters were assaulted by security forces while they were covering pro-democracy protests in the capital of Tunis. An amateur video shows police chasing a journalist into the headquarters of the country’s leading national newspaper, “La Presse”.

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Screenshot of a video showing policemen entering the building of Tunisian newspaper "La Presse" on May 6.

 

Four months after a popular uprising overthrew Tunisia’s authoritarian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country remains a difficult place for journalists to work. On May 6, a dozen reporters were assaulted by security forces while they were covering pro-democracy protests in the capital of Tunis. An amateur video shows police chasing a journalist into the headquarters of the country’s leading national newspaper, “La Presse”.

 

The scene was filmed from a neighbouring building. In the video, five police officers are seen running after Abdelfattah Belaïd, who is both a journalist at “La Presse” and a photographer for the French news agency AFP. They enter a building, at which point the person filming can be heard exclaiming “They are entering (the building of) La Presse!” AFP said that Belaïd and two of his colleagues were taking photos of pro-democracy demonstrators when the police charged at them and followed them into the newspaper’s building. In a separate statement, Belaïd said that he was hit with iron bars and clubs.

 

 

Following these incidents, the minister of the interior issued a public apology. However, during an 8 May interview, Tunisian Prime Minister Béji Caid-Essebsi, gave a different version of events. He stated that the police were standing in front of the newspaper’s headquarters when a brick was thrown at them from the roof of the building. Furious, they went into the building to find the person responsible, where they mistook the journalist for the brick-thrower. Questioned about the 13 other journalists who were assaulted on the same day, the prime minister declared that he was not aware of any assaults. When contacted by FRANCE 24, Hmida Ben Romdhane, publisher of “La Presse”, upheld the version put forward by authorities.

 

Ironically, this event took place on the same week that Tunis hosted the international Albert Londres awards, which awards prizes for outstanding independent reporting.

 

 

"Although it’s unacceptable, this behaviour is natural for a country that has just emerged from a long dictatorship"

Sofiene Chourabi is a freelance journalist and winner of this year's Omar-Ouartilane, an Algerian prize for freedom of the press.

 

 

It is clear that, today, the police are not yet ready to let us work freely. Although it’s unacceptable, this behaviour is natural for a country that has just emerged from a long dictatorship. We can’t expect things to improve overnight. Today, the television channels and radio stations are interviewing representatives from all parties, showing the demonstrations, and talking about unemployment and corruption. Three new newspapers have also appeared. There is definitely a lack of impartiality in the way information is treated because the journalists are the same ones who were writing before the revolution. But I do think that things are slowly improving."

"Some policemen, often in plain clothes, attack bloggers or ordinary citizens who take photos or make films of demonstrations"

Soufiane Ben Farhat is the editor-in-chief of the international desk of "La Presse". He railed against the assaults on journalists in an article published in a column of his newspaper on Sunday.

 

On Monday we organized a march, from the offices of our newspaper to the headquarters of the ministry of the interior, to protest against these practices.

 

Personally, I don’t believe the official version which was put forward by the government. Abdelfattah Belaïd was followed from the street where he was covering protests. When the police officers caught him they called him by his name, which is proof that he was personally targeted. It ought to be pointed out that the photos that he took during the revolution often portrayed the police in a negative way. Moreover, they took all of his equipment and didn’t notify the ministry of the interior, as is stipulated by law.

 

Today, the police want to continue to act with impunity, as they did under Ben Ali’s regime. Some officers, often in plain clothes, attack bloggers or ordinary citizens who take photos or make films of demonstrations. Internet censorship has resurfaced [certain Facebook pages display the notice 'this page has been censored by the military court']. And not a single license has yet been allocated to private radio stations or television channels [the only private channel that has emerged since January 14 broadcasts from Jordan]. The interviews that are given by the prime minister are never broadcast live. The journalists who participate in these interviews are chosen by the government and their questions have to be submitted in advance.

 

We still don’t have complete freedom of speech. It’s definitely better than before but there is still a lot to do."

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Sarra Grira.