Press Freedom in Tunisia a Casualty of "War on Terror"

Located on the North coast of Africa with a topography which endows it with an abundance of fertile land while its coastal plains are lush with grazing and orchards, Tunisia, a former French colony, is noted for a subdued presence in its region.

So subdued in fact, that its political leadership regards it as a positive contribution to what many would view as a ‘volatile’ part of the African continent. Some observers go as far as pointing out Tunisia’s neighbours – Algeria & Libya, to underscore its relative calm.

Common to all ‘benevolent’ dictators is the logic of power which enforces submission to all forms of tyranny, thus providing a false sense of calm and serenity. Tunisia is no exception. Beneath its image of a progressive country lies the reality of an obedient client-state of America.

In common with Algeria and the dominant African giant Egypt, Tunisia has displayed a remarkable tenacity to forge ahead without any significant policy of political reform. In ensuring that its security from so-called ‘terrorist threats’ is provided by the West, the regime of Zeyn al-Abideen Bin Ali has thwarted efforts by human-rights activists keen to secure fundamental freedoms.

Harsh repressive measures to keep its population in check is characteristic of the Bin Ali government. So is nepotism and corruption. Yet Tunisia is favoured as a ‘model democracy’ by America and is viewed as ‘friendly’ by Israel. The bluff game with which Bin Ali has been playing has yielded support from western allies for his non existent ‘defence of democracy’.

According to a report by Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times, activists in Tunis believe the suppression of free speech has placed Tunisia in the league of the most "repressive of Arab governments". Citing the Internet as one example, not only are many Web sites blocked, but e-mail is heavily monitored.

He points out that the ability to offer Web services is confined to a small privileged circle. Bin Ali’s daughter Cyrine was awarded the first Internet license and though there are now about 12 providers, her company, Planet Tunisie, still dominates. In addition, Web cafes are shut down if they are deemed too lax about monitoring every site visited by patrons. Harsh jail sentences are meted out to young men convicted of creating or even visiting banned sites.

The irony is that the United Nations has chosen Tunis for the next international conference on information technology in November 2005. The dust has hardly settled since the sensational trial last year of eight youth sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison in what has been called the Zarzis case. They were charged for trying to "learn how to make explosives via the Internet", while defense lawyers say they had a healthy youthful curiosity and were visiting sites about the Palestinian cause and al-Qaeda.

Terrorism charges were laid against them on the basis of visiting certain sites on the Internet. Despite the fact that no documented evidence were in the case files to support the charges, Tunisia’s own version of "War on terror" won by incarcerating curious youth as "terrorists"!

No wonder then that Radhia Nasraoui, one of Tunisia’s most prominent human rights lawyers had this to say about the Zarzis case: "They received such severe sentences as a means of telling the Americans that ‘Bin Ali is the only one who can help defend you against terrorists – he is the one who resists change. If you throw me out, the terrorists will take over Tunis.’"

In a bizarre twist in Bin Ali’s notorious alliance with America’s global campaign to root out "terrorism", Zohair Yahyaoui, unemployed for almost a decade after graduating with a degree in management, decided to start a Web magazine called Tunezine. MacFarquhar reports that its sarcastic political commentaries soon irritated the government.

During the 2002 referendum organised by Bin Ali to amend the Constitution to remove limits on presidential terms, Yahyaoui also organised a referendum, asking visitors to his Web site to choose whether Tunisia is a republic, a monarchy, a prison , a zoo or none of the above.

"The government voted soon afterward by jailing Yahyaoui for nearly 18 months" according to MacFarquhar.

Like all the other Arab regimes tied to America’s imperial interests, Tunisia will never be truly free unless its population is allowed to freely choose a socio-political programme without any bond to the US/Israeli axis. The severe curbs on media freedoms is an expression of tyranny which the Bin Ali regime has in common with his counterparts in Algeria and Egypt.

Does anyone know when al-Manar will be beaming to this mediterranean region?