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Government allies seize control of journalists' union

The Tunisian government has "overthrown" the independent board of the journalists' union in Tunisia, report the Observatoire pour la liberté de la presse, d'édition et de création (OLPEC), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and other IFEX members.

On 15 August, in an extraordinary session, members of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) imposed a new president and board on the union, composed entirely of pro-government members. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), newly-elected president Jamal Karmawi is a well-known adviser to the ruling party's general secretary.

The move was the latest in a government campaign to eliminate the only independent organisation of its kind in Tunisia for critical journalists, say the IFEX members.

The campaign started on World Press Freedom Day this year, when SNJT published a report criticising the lack of press freedom in Tunisia. Union president Néji Bghouri was prevented from speaking during the report's launch in Tunis, and faced threats and insults in the media.

Pro-government members of the board resigned and began circulating a withdrawal of confidence petition to the union membership. Bghouri told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that members were threatened with loss of employment and otherwise intimidated if they did not sign the petition. The resignations ultimately triggered elections for the union leadership.

Although the new elections were scheduled for 12 September, Saturday's meeting was called by pro-government journalists - despite a lawsuit filed by the executive board that the extraordinary conference should be nullified, reports OLPEC. On 14 August, a day before the controversial session was to take place, a Tunisian court rejected the lawsuit.

One of the union's first acts was to send a message of support for Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, "as a prelude to their… allegiance to him" in the presidential elections in October, reports ANHRI.

"This is a simple coup orchestrated to maximise positive media coverage for the ruling party ahead of the elections," said IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) chair Rohan Jayasekera, of Index on Censorship. "It's shameful to see journalists so brazenly sell their honour for a politician's favour."

According to CPJ, Bghouri had angered top officials last year when he told local opposition papers that SNJT would not back any presidential candidate in the elections.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), of which SNJT is a member, says it has been working behind the scenes to repair the rift. "IFJ has not endorsed this process," said IFJ general secretary Aidan White. "Our executive committee has insisted on remaining neutral in this dispute and it will look long and hard at events over the weekend before reaching its verdict. There is still some way to go to unify the journalists' movement in Tunisia."

"The shadow of political influence in this affair is unmistakeable," said White.

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