- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2005

TUNIS, Tunisia — An information summit conceived by the government as a showcase for the reforms of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali backfired, focusing attention instead on Tunisia’s human rights failings and its docile press.

Tunisia has made unquestionable progress toward economic and political freedom, enjoying what French President Jacques Chirac describes as an “economic miracle.”

But the weight of global press attention at the three-day World Summit on the Information Society last week served mainly to reveal that the Arab world’s most educated population is being fed unadulterated propaganda under the facade of “openness and transparency.”

The summit of representatives of 174 countries was considered by Tunisia as its greatest achievement, despite warnings by human rights organizations that its democratic credentials hardly qualified it for a meeting on the freedom of information.

When the summit ended, the Tunisian press lived up to the government’s expectations. It was, according to the daily La Presse de Tunisie, “a magnificent crowning” of Mr. Ben Ali’s policies, a “success worthy of Ben Ali’s Tunisia” and an “event which will transform humanity” — all thanks to “the vision and leadership” of the Tunisian president.

No headlines, however, reported that a French journalist whose newspaper opposes the Tunisian regime was stabbed in a mysterious mugging or that a Belgian cameraman was arrested and roughed up while taking pictures of policemen.

While an estimated 23,000 participants listened to Mr. Ben Ali’s summit speech describing his country’s “transparency” and “complete freedom,” seven political opponents were on a hunger strike protesting the regime’s policies. When the protesters eventually left their building cheered by supporters gathered outside, black-uniformed police charged the crowd.

“This president runs the country like a police station,” said Sihem Bensedrine, one of the few dissidents willing to be quoted.

When Robert Menard, secretary-general of the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, tried to disembark at Tunis airport, he was arrested and sent back to Paris even though he was accredited to the U.N.-sponsored summit.

A senior Tunisian government official told The Washington Times that Mr. Menard was guilty of wrecking, back in 2001, the premises of the Tunisian Tourist Office in Paris and that his trial was still pending.

Referring to a number of political opponents in Tunisian jails, the official said they were militant Islamic fundamentalists and hence “terrorists and not political prisoners.”

Washington considers Tunisia a valued partner in the fight against international terrorism and particularly against the Islamic fundamentalists who tried to seize control of the country in the 1980s, but were defeated after Mr. Ben Ali took over in 1987.

He has been in power since, usually re-elected with 99 percent approval, a figure challenged by human rights organizations.

The president’s power bases are the army, the police force and the Constitutional Democratic Rally, the dominant and ubiquitous political party. Six other “legal parties” subscribe to the president’s “National Pact” and support all decisions emanating from his Carthage Palace, but have not managed to increase their role.

Although official press censorship does not exist, Tunisian journalists say it functions daily through verbal instructions from the highest levels of power. The pressure, they say, is strictly “unofficial” and relies on a system of self-censorship practiced in Tunisia virtually since its independence from France in 1956.

Newspaper editors have found that the easiest way to success is to print the president’s picture on the front page almost every day, praise all his decisions and follow the tone sent in the dispatches of the official news agency, Tunis Afrique Presse.

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