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IFEX-TMG calls on Tunisia to guarantee media independence

UPDATE: The Tunisian government has announced that it will adopt decrees 115 and 116 on media freedom following the one-day general strike by journalists protesting government interference in the sector. The authorities are urged to clarify their announcement about implementing those laws.

Tunisian media workers striking outside SNJT
Tunisian media workers striking outside SNJT

Salma Mahfoudh/IMS

(IFEX-TMG) - 17 October 2012 - A general strike for media employees is taking place today as Tunisian authorities continue to resist demands to make constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression and recall controversial media sector appointments. The IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 IFEX members, stands strongly with the media sector in its action, calling on the Tunisian government to reconsider its policies regarding the media and to engage in meaningful dialogue that will secure its independence.

The National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) called the strike after negotiations with the government broke down over a set of demands delivered on 25 September. The SNJT called for media freedoms and freedom of expression to be included in the constitution and for the government to immediately implement both Decrees 2011-115 and 2011-116 pertaining to the freedom of the press, printing and publishing and the independence of audio-visual communication, including an authority to appoint directors of the public media.

According to media reports, the governing troika agreed to implement Decree 2011-116, which lays the groundwork for a newly independent broadcast media through the creation of the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communications (HAICA) - but only until new structures are in place under the forthcoming Constitution. In addition, while news reports claimed that blasphemy would no longer be punished under Tunisia's draft Constitution, in fact a reference to blasphemy has instead been moved from the section on rights and liberties to the preamble of Tunisia's draft constitution. The ruling party Ennahdha proposed the so-called “blasphemy law”, which prohibits “insults, profanity, derision, and representation of God and Mohammed,” reports Tunisia Live.

However, concerns over recent government appointments to top positions within prominent media outlets, as well as regular attacks on journalists and media professionals, have culminated in the SNJT's call for general action.

Workers at Dar Assabah newspaper have been on strike since 1 October in protest against the appointment of new general director Lotfi Touati, a former police commissioner under the Ben Ali regime. Journalists and their representatives were not consulted prior to the appointment and subsequently many of them went on hunger strike to force the government to enter into direct dialogue. The strike was suspended on 7 October for five days to allow for negotiations, but the walkout resumed on 12 October with authorities so far offering no constructive solutions to the journalists' demands.

On 1 October, 60 journalists and staff of Assour newspaper began a hunger strike in protest against a government-imposed advertising policy. According to sources at the publication, the Tunisian government is punishing the newspaper by banning it from obtaining any official advertising. The IFEX-TMG denounces this attempt at censorship and calls on the Tunisian authorities to ensure public advertising is kept independent from political power.

Individual journalists are being targeted for their involvement with the strike. On 25 September, authorities summoned six Dar Assabah journalists for interrogation at Al-Manzeh police station “for hindering the process of work.” On 1 October, Touati sacked cartoonist Hamdi Al-Mazhoudi for his role in the strike. In addition, Touati prevented investigative journalist Menea Arfawi from entering the building after arbitrarily ending her contract. Arfawi is a leading figure in the protest against the appointment of Touati.

Reports also confirm that in late September, government-appointed directors of national radio replaced several well-known radio producers and dissolved the established editorial committee and editorial council.

The IFEX-TMG condemns the punishment of journalists for taking part in peaceful actions and calls for the reinstatement of all those removed from their positions as a result.

The IFEX-TMG calls on the Tunisian authorities to take into account the demands of striking journalists and enter into serious and constructive dialogue to resolve the crisis. A general strike is in the interests of no one, least of all the people of Tunisia who will be deprived of news and information at this crucial time. However, the IFEX-TMG acknowledges that as a direct result of the government's failure to implement much-needed protections for the independence of the media, for many journalists the current spate of industrial actions is the last recourse in pushing for transparency and open consultation when it comes to the appointment of media directors.

“Such positions carry great power and responsibility for shaping the future of independent public media in Tunisia, and those chosen to lead this process must have the respect and support of the profession they represent,” said Andrew Heslop of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
Freedom House
Index on Censorship
International Federation of Journalists
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
International Press Institute
International Publishers Association
Journaliste en danger
Maharat Foundation
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Norwegian PEN
PEN International
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - AMARC
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
World Press Freedom Committee

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