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Country "pessi-optimistic" about free expression situation post-Ben Ali, IFEX-TMG mission finds

Members of IFEX-TMG meet with Tunisia's interim Prime Minister Béji Caid Essebsi
Members of IFEX-TMG meet with Tunisia's interim Prime Minister Béji Caid Essebsi

Steve Buckley

Despite the release of jailed bloggers, activists and journalists, including Fahem Boukadous, threats to freedom of expression and other human rights in Tunisia did not disappear with the fall of President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, says a team of seven members of the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), which has just completed a mission to the country.

An IFEX-TMG delegation spent more than a week meeting both old and new stakeholders, and found that priority needs to be placed on "guaranteeing and protecting those essential rights in this extraordinary phase of democratic transition, and especially ahead of the 24 July elections." Tunisians will elect a new national assembly, whose job it will be to propose a new constitution.

In stark contrast to previous missions, the delegation was able to meet and talk openly with civil society groups - some that were finally operating after having been denied registration during Ben Ali's rule - as well as human rights activists, journalists, bloggers and political representatives from across the spectrum.

Delegates did not feel they were followed or intimidated as in missions past, although an undercover police presence was noted outside the offices of IFEX member the Observatoire pour la liberté de presse, d'édition et de création (OLPEC) and the journalists' union one day. OLPEC also reports interference with its communications, and some journalists also allege their phones are still tapped.

The delegation found that threats regarding censorship and disinformation are "still very much present" - even though there was a notable difference since 14 January: "Tunisians making full use of their newfound freedoms to publicly denounce such challenges," the seven IFEX-TMG members said.

After decades of repression and blackout, IFEX-TMG sees a fundamental need to reform the media sector and the "pessi-optimistic" mindset of journalists ahead of the elections, especially since much of the old framework - and old guard - is still in place.

The broadcast media and print media are still largely run by the same people, but, for example, the so-called "garbage press" has turned its target towards the Ben Ali family instead of its old targets of human rights activists and independent journalists.

Journalists and rights activists called for continued international support through the transition period and beyond, particularly asking for training and resources.

IFEX-TMG noted that the media is currently "under-prepared to meet the extraordinary demands presented by this transitional period." For instance, the National Independent Authority for Information and Communication (NARIC), which will contribute to developing a new mechanism for how broadcasting licences are allocated, "lacks the resources needed to fulfil its role as an effective consultative body." At the beginning of the mission, the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) organised a workshop with NARIC on media reform.

Boukadous welcomed the IFEX-TMG's efforts on his behalf. "Thanks to you, Ben Ali didn't kill dozens of activists. IFEX-TMG and international support helped protect us. We really appreciate all your support and hope we can keep developing this relationship."

A full report from the 9-16 April mission, including comprehensive recommendations, will be launched in June in Tunis and internationally.

For more on IFEX-TMG, visit: or find IFEX-TMG on Facebook at: and on Twitter: @TunisiaMonitor

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