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Victory guaranteed; opposition clobbered and dissent crushed

Tunisian President Ben Ali was re-elected for the fifth time after crippling his opposition and quashing dissent
Tunisian President Ben Ali was re-elected for the fifth time after crippling his opposition and quashing dissent

via PDP

After reducing his opposition, silencing dissent and repressing any independent media coverage, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was re-elected for a fifth time on 25 October, reports the Arab Network for Human Rights (ANHRI) and other IFEX members.

Changes to the constitution and election act have crippled Ben Ali's opposition, report Index on Censorship and Human Rights Watch. A new clause stating that presidential candidates must have served as elected leader of a recognised party for two years wiped out much of the opposition. Ben Ali's party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD), has 3.8 million members in a country with just 5.2 million voters, reports Index on Censorship. The President received almost 90% of the vote.

Some opposition candidates were arbitrarily disqualified and other candidates' posters were ripped down or stopped from distribution, among many other hostile tactics, report IFEX members.

Three other candidates ran in the race that Ben Ali was assured of winning; two of the candidates are considered to be pro-government, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Human Rights Watch. In televised debates during the election period, Ben Ali had the most airtime claiming that extra time was given to him as president and not as a candidate, report Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

RSF went to Tunisia on 12 to 15 October to assess freedom of the press during the election period. Pro-government, state-run television, radio and print were overflowing with praise for Ben Ali, with no mention of opposition candidates, reports RSF. Opposition activists, independent journalists, human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists were under tight surveillance. "Tunisians do not have access to balanced news and information," concluded RSF.

The state also controlled the media access of other parties. "Al Tariq Al Jadid", the paper of the former Tunisian communist party now known as "Ettajdid" (Renewal), had its entire print run confiscated on a farcical technicality. By printing the day before the official start of the election period they supposedly broke media rules, even though the paper had not been distributed, report IFEX members. Opposition papers are denied public funding and advertising revenue from public companies under state influence, reports Amnesty International, which visited Tunisia from 22 September until 4 October.

Alternative media has been systematically brought to its knees over several months. In August the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) was illegally taken over by pro-government journalists, while independent journalists have been assaulted and imprisoned for criticising the Tunisian regime's human rights record, report IFEX members. Al Jazeera's website has been blocked since election day, reports ANHRI.

There are countless stories of journalists being barred from doing their job by state forces. According to Index on Censorship, Hanane Belaifam was blocked from entering her workplace at Radio-Jeunes, presumably for her outspoken support of the ousted SNTJ leadership. Asahafa reporter Zied El Heni was beaten up on 15 October and his blog was shut down.

According to RSF, Zouheir Makhlouf, correspondent for the website "al-Sabil online", was arrested on 15 October as he was reporting on living conditions for residents of Nabeul, south-east of Tunis. He is in prison awaiting trial on 3 November. He began a hunger strike on 22 October.

Police prevented journalists Lotfi Hidouri and Sihem Bensedrine, founder of online magazine "Kalima Tunisie" and Secretary General of the Observatoire pour la liberté de presse, d'édition et de création (OLPEC), from participating in a workshop organised by the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) last week, report CPJ and Index on Censorship. After the workshop, OLPEC, ATFD, SNJT and other NGOs released an interim report on media monitoring during the elections, which details pressures faced by journalists prior to the elections, along with other restrictions on freedom of expression.

Kalima journalists Bensedrine, Hidouri, and Mouldi Zouabi were detained by police for close to four hours last week for taking pictures of campaign scenes in the northern city of Tabarka without state permission, Bensedrine told CPJ.

On 20 October, Florence Beaugé, "Le Monde" correspondent, was not permitted to enter the country and put on a flight back to Paris, report CPJ and other IFEX members. Government sources quoted by Agence France-Presse said she was denied entry because she had "always adopted an obvious malevolence toward Tunisia and systematically took hostile positions."

Taoufik Ben Brik, one of the country's most critical journalists, told CPJ that he was assaulted on 22 October by a plainclothes officer as he was on his way to pick up his daughter from school.

"The victory of President Ben Ali in presidential elections in Tunisia clearly marks the absence of democracy and the continuing blatant violation of human rights was quite expected," said ANHRI.

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