The eminent Tunisian human rights activist Munsif al Marzouqi’s warning was not an exaggeration when he said that the ongoing harassment that the fourth estate faces in his country is endangering the journalists. A significant number of Tunisian journalists are either imprisoned or in exile abroad while many of them are compelled to remain silent.
Reporters and independent media figures are subjected to practices such as detention, travel bans, blocked websites and harassment by plainclothes security elements, in addition to all forms of restraints and physical assault. All this constitutes a serious threat in the face of the establishment of a free press in a distinctive state such as Tunisia. It is not without reason that a prestigious organization such as Reporters Without Borders ranked the Tunisian president [Zine el Abidine Ben Ali] on the list of “predators of press freedom worldwide”.
The latest oppressive practices against Tunisian journalists was the case of Slim Boukhdir who was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment after the local court convicted him of three charges, including “violating good conduct”! This charge, like all other obscure and general convictions, is aimed at preventing a significant amount of activities and practices and it comes as a reaction to a series of inquiries that were undertaken by Boukhdir about the general political and social situation in Tunisia.
His investigations cost him his job at ‘Al Chourouk’ newspaper after being dragged by security men whilst on his way to attend a conference at a human rights organization. He is imprisoned under harsh conditions according to his lawyer who revealed that he was jailed in a toilet!
Undoubtedly, this reality that the Tunisian reporter currently faces leads to a multitude of reflections upon situations in the Arab region, with all its political and social aspects all of which leads one to question if many of the Arab countries will ever be eligible for democracy! When a group of states is compared in terms of social and political vitality, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia are the countries that are mentioned.
Tunisia has a considerable amount of modernity and social cohesion that cannot be ignored and which many countries, such as Lebanon and Iraq, are lacking. Tunisia still adheres to its secular traditions and social freedoms since Habib Bourguiba’s era. Moreover, the Tunisian economy has recorded important rates as compared to many other Arab countries. However, the problem is that this economic growth in Tunisia is accompanied with a shameful regression in freedom of expression.
Tunisia may fail in undergoing the transformation into a democratic model unless it relinquishes its position as a repressive security authority to become a political state that is founded upon public and press freedoms.
An undertaking of this kind may make the shift into democracy, if it is destined to succeed, a model that many states, which are still entrapped by security and authority, may aspire to.