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CAPSULE REPORT: As Ben Ali marks 21st anniversary as president, RSF stresses that Tunisia continues to be one of region's most authoritarian countries

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is a 7 November 2008 RSF press release:

Repression continues as Ben Ali marks 21st anniversary as president

As it celebrates the 21st anniversary today of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's takeover as president, the Tunisian government is above all stressing his economic, social and security successes. Tunisia is portrayed as the most advanced Arab country as regards women's rights and has established itself as a leading ally of the West in the fight against terrorism.

Tunisia nonetheless continues to be one of the region's most authoritarian countries as regards civil liberties. The regime relies on an enormous security apparatus that monitors and punishes any sign of pro-democracy activism in its citizens. The media are also subject to control and journalists are kept under close surveillance.

Tunisia has many newspapers and magazines but almost all of them are completely subservient to the government. Journalists who try to resist the imposed uniformity encounter many complications in their work and daily life such as difficulties in renewing ID papers, bans on leaving the country and blocked access to information. There was no exception to this during President Ben Ali's 21th year in power.

The regime does not hesitate to jail those who work for the foreign media. Slim Boukhdir, a journalist who writes for pan-Arab media, was arrested on 26 November 2007 and, after a sham trial, spent 238 days in prison.

Human rights activist Tarek Soussi was charged with "spreading false news liable to disrupt public order" after being interviewed by the Qatar-based TV station Al-Jazeera. He is currently free on bail pending trial. Al-Jazeera, which gives the Tunisian government's opponents a chance to speak on the air, has never been given permission to open a bureau and its correspondent, Lotfi Hajji, has never managed to get government press accreditation.

Ben Ali's 21st year in power was also marked in April by demonstrations that shook the Gafsa mining region in the south of the country. They received little coverage by the state-owned media and by media owned by government allies, which mostly just used the government news agency's dispatches.

Opposition newspapers that covered the protests, such as the weeklies Al-Maoukif and Mouwatinoun, found issues suddenly being seized and found themselves the target of legal procedures which they suspect were orchestrated by the government.

During clashes between police and protesters in June, for example, Mouwatinoun correspondent Hédi Raddaoui was roughly arrested as he left a hospital where he had gone to take photos of the injured. He was taken to Tunis and questioned there by interior ministry officials, who erased his photos. At least four issues of Al-Maoukif were confiscated in the course of the year without its staff being notified.

Ben Ali is currently paving the way for a new election in which he intends to run for a fifth consecutive presidential term. The Internet, which ought to have been an area of freedom for Tunisians, has also been brought under control. The president warned on 3 November that: "The new modes of political participation created by modern communication technology (. . .) must not be allowed to conceal the threats they can create for the integrity of the democratic processes, stability and security."

The Tunisian government is using Internet filtering technology. Some websites that criticise the regime, such as Tunisia Watch, cannot be accessed because of their content. Others, such as the online magazine Kalima, find themselves the target of mysterious hacker attacks when they post articles about political problems.

The past year has also seen the introduction of very precise forms of electronic surveillance. The email inboxes of government opponents are being filtered and they find they cannot access some of the messages they receive.

Tunisia was ranked 143rd out of 173 countries in the world press freedom index that Reporters Without Borders released on 22 October.

For further information on the Boukhdir case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/97183

For further information on the Soussi case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/97345

For further information on the "Al-Maoukif" case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/93093

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